I often wonder what students think about the assignments we create. In my experience, they frequently see assignments as having a limited and somewhat task-oriented relationship with their course work. Their concern about what counts for a grade is frequently one-dimensional and often usurps the lasting values and capacities I hope to develop. This frustrates me, and I imagine it frustrates other teachers as well.
How can we convince our students that assignments don’t just “happen”—that curricular decisions are not based on expediency but involve careful planning, intentionality, and time? How can we connect our students to the professional decisions we’ve made before we even hand out the assignment?
Looking at the literature, I knew there were extensive studies that established the value of active, engaged, and collaborative ways of learning for students in higher education. I also understood that a common thread throughout this established research base was an emphasis on critical inquiry and shared experiences. (I know this is nothing new to those with a strong commitment to the academic community. In many respects the intellectual roots of critical inquiry and collaborative learning are traceable to Socrates.) But my more recent notions of intentionality were heightened when I revisited the works of Dewey, who alluded to the power of the latent curriculum and Vygotsky, who stated that learning is a social and collaborative act.
Might there be a way to use this evidence base to invite students to look more closely at our own pedagogical practices? Might there be a way to develop assessments that encourage students to not only “complete the assignment” but also reflect and think responsibly about the choices they’ve made—and ask, “Why would a teacher have me do an assignment like this?” How might we convince our students that our purpose goes beyond graduation requirements, program retention, and evidence collection?
I had an idea.
To get my students to think more critically about the professional decisions I made in creating a purposeful assessment, I introduced “cover sheets” as a course requirement for many of our class assignments. I explained that there were a multitude of ways I could ask them to demonstrate their understanding. What were my hopes and strategies in devising this particular assignment?
I asked them to reflect and write a response to the following:
Good curricular decisions are not based on expediency. Classroom instruction involves careful planning and teachers must make prudent decisions about what they will teach and how they will teach it. Why do you think I developed this particular assignment to provide evidence of an EDUC 340 learning target?
Since many of our assignments are completed collaboratively, these cover pages advanced the ideas embraced by Dewey and Vygotsky. For example, in our first assignment for EDUC 340 (Methods of Inclusion), students were asked to skim the 79 pages of 105 ILCS 5/Article 14 of the Illinois School Code and to write a cogent summary statement (52 words or fewer) that explained how this legislation relates to students with disabilities. When students asked, “Why 52 words?,” I informed them that although the Preamble to the US Constitution is only 52 words, it is considered by many to be the most important political instrument of modern times.
I challenged them to emulate this brevity.
My own rationale for this assignment was twofold. First, I wanted to introduce our teacher candidates to Article 14 of the Illinois School Code, a series of statutes that address the education of students with disabilities and other special needs. Second, it was important for me to reinforce the value our department places on distilling main ideas with precision and clarity.
Students appeared to complete the assignment without much difficulty and shared their 52-word summary statements in groups of four. They turned in their cover pages separately. Responses to “Why do you think I created this particular assignment?” (which did not require a word count) were quite varied.
Student A displayed a rudimentary understanding of the rationale suggested: “I think you wanted us to learn about certain disabilities, how to teach students with special needs, and how to write goals for our students.”
Student B demonstrated a more accurate understanding of my rationale proposed that the purpose of the assignment was to
broaden our sense of what students with disabilities are able to achieve with the appropriate supports and services. You wanted us to engage in the writing process and to concisely identify main ideas because that is what will be necessary when we write IEP goals that are specific to the needs of a certain disability and are based on what a student can do. I think you wanted us to begin to think as a teacher might have to in relation to the legalities of the IEP and referral process. Since you wanted us to share our ideas within our groups, you also wanted us to begin to build strong, supportive relationships in class.
Student C offered reasons somewhat disarrayed. Here’s an excerpt:
I think that you wanted us to write concisely so that we can be more effective and efficient in in the classroom—and to encourage our arguments to have more impact and be stronger and less vague. I also think you wanted us to learn the proper format for the cover page. It’s important to know the format of assignments. You wanted us to understand that we must follow the laws that have been written. I also learned that even though the Preamble to the Constitution has just 52 words, it provides an introduction to the laws we still follow today—almost 250 years later. So, we should be able to convey important thoughts in 52 words too!
It’s interesting to note how differently my students perceived and dissected the content assigned to them. Student A assumed a simplicity that doesn’t exist, Student B was fairly spot on, and Student C offered a shallow, rambling answer that had little bearing on the assignment’s intent. But regardless of their reflections, I liked the fact that my students were able to think more broadly about their assignment.
As I plan for next semester, I will continue to use these cover pages (at least every now and then). In some respects, they offer me a chance to converse with students on a more individual basis. Students are invited inside the assignment and challenged to think through the personal and professional beliefs that determine what is worth knowing. This is a space between content and pedagogy that can not only strengthen the student-teacher relationship but also empower students to regard assessment as a process rather than a single event. In this way, completing assignments is viewed not as an ending point but as a seamless learning experience.
The use of cover sheets also tempers the sender–receiver hierarchy students often encounter in the college classroom. They encourage students to be more active participants in the process of learning and provide us, as professors, with an opportunity to reflect on whether a given assessment is the best way to optimize student learning. When we consider students’ understandings more intimately, we can use these evaluative or emotive impressions to design or improve assignments in any content area.
Regardless of discipline, assignments don’t just happen. The assessments we create are deliberate, planned, and secured in a curriculum with students’ best interests in mind. I believe our students can reach a level of understanding that is above and beyond the subject matter if we ask the simple question why.
Deborah Bracke, PhD, is an associate professor of education at Augustana College. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.