[dropcap]T[/dropcap]his installment of our continuing series on assignments
is devoted to assignment clarity. We believe that many good assignments fall short of achieving what faculty expect because students struggle to understand what they are to do and why they are doing it. The assignment description is read differently by students who have come to believe that success on an assignment depends on figuring out what the professor wants. Deliver what the professor wants and get the good grade; assignment goals and potential learning opportunities are not often student priorities. The situation is further complicated when professors think they have been perfectly clear. They know what they want and have spent time crafting the description. Why are students confused? We’d like to try an answer that question by contrasting a couple of assignment descriptions.
Here’s an assignment from a 200-level Persuasive Communication course:
Persuasion in Action Paper – About five pages, worth 100 points, due October 23, submitted electronically, professionally formatted. Before writing the paper, try to persuade someone. Pick a controversial topic, develop a set of persuasive arguments, and use them in a conversation with someone. Observe what happens and write about it in the paper. Analyze it in light of the research and theories presented in class—cognitive dissonance, changes in attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors, etc. Assess the effectiveness of your persuasive arguments using in-depth analysis. Excellent papers will demonstrate high levels of critical thinking.
The assignment has some interesting features and parts of it are clearly described, but the teacher wants students to do a variety of different things and that’s where this assignment gets confusing. Or, at least that’s what we thought, but we aren’t students, so we decided to ask some. We gave them a copy of the assignment and asked students to write what they think the teacher might want in the assignment. We got comments from 50 students.
About 20 percent of them got the gist of the assignment, meaning they understood it as we did: develop some arguments on a controversial topic, use them to try to persuade someone. Then with course content analyze and assess those arguments. However, almost half of these students made no mention of needing to use course content in their analysis and assessment. “She wants to hear how it went, why and what you thought about it.” “The teacher wants to have the student attempt to persuade someone, and then write 5 pages explaining how they thought it went. Also, they [sic] want high level, in-depth writing.”
There were a number of things students thought the teacher wanted that we felt were not goals of the assignment: “to develop your persuasive writing skills;” “wants a review of persuasive techniques in a conversation;” “is asking for a paper on a controversial topic;” “wants to know if students can write persuasive arguments;” “wants the student to write 5 pages, MLA or APA formatted persuasive paper;” and “a nice and professional paper on a controversial topic.”
There were a few students who in our judgment pretty much missed the whole intent of the assignment. “Persuade someone by writing about a topic that is popular.” “The teacher wants to assess your rhetorical writing skills in an actual rhetorical situation.” “I think the teacher wants to test the students’ skills in communication/expression of ideas as a means to persuade someone on a topic.”
And there was one last general impression we got from the student comments. They didn’t read the description carefully. Their analysis of what they were supposed to do was superficial, they glossed over details and wrote after what appeared to be a quick read of the assignment. Now, maybe they didn’t seriously consider the assignment because they didn’t actually have to do it, but they were given 15 minutes to write their responses and most of them wrote for most of that time. For that reason, we didn’t expect such superficial responses. We later wondered if this isn’t pretty typical of how student respond to assignments. Do they carefully read and consider what an assignment is asking them to do? Our guess is that, in most courses, a lot of students just jump in and try to get through the assignment as quickly as they can.
We did ask students to mark on a Likert-type scale how confident they were that they understood the assignment. The overall result was right square in the middle of the scale with very few outliers on either side. Students appeared to be pretty ambivalent as to whether they understood what the teacher wanted in the assignment.
For the sake of comparison, we offer an assignment that also asks students to do a lot of different things, but it does so in a much more concrete fashion. The assignment is a from lower-level materials science engineering course. It begins with a short case study. Students are to imagine that they are working to improve living conditions in an impoverished South African rural community. Waste management is a low priority there. The organization the students are working for hopes to design school bags for local children using HD polyethylene from recycled milk bottles. It’s a strategy that mitigates waste and provides a needed resource for children who travel a long way to school. The supervisors on the ground in the area do not have a science background.
Here’s the assignment:
In order to help your supervisor convince potential donors that recycling HDPE for use in the school bag is a viable idea, you need to read and summarize an article about the properties of recycled HDPE (Pattanakul, 1991). Your written summary should teach your supervisor about HDPE and the extent to which its mechanical properties will change after it is recycled so that they can decide whether it will be a serviceable material to use as the rigid frame of the bag. Estimate the stresses experienced by a typical backpack and use this estimate to decide whether the change in mechanical properties caused by recycling will significantly impact the performance of the backpacks. Include in your discussion a drawing of a proposed stress−strain curve that depicts HDPE before and after it is recycled. Be sure to describe what is happening both macroscopically and microscopically when external forces are applied.
Part of what makes this assignment effective is its authenticity. It gives students a task like what they might do as professional engineers. The directions specify what’s to be included in the essay: “estimate stresses experienced by a typical backpack,” “include a drawing,” “describe what’s happening both macroscopically and microscopically. . .” But there’s that big challenge of “teaching” the supervisor without identifying the best way to do that. It’s an assignment that simultaneously challenges and intrigues.
the assignment was used in an interesting study that assessed the effects of this writing-to-learn assignment on students’ conceptual understanding this content. You can read about it here: Finkenstaedt-Quin, S., et. al. (2017). Investigation of the influence of a writing-to-learn assignment on student understanding of polymer properties. Journal of Chemical Education, 94,
[perfectpullquote align="full" size="20"] Other articles in our series on assignments:
Assignments: A Theme for the Coming Semester
“I Don’t Understand What You Want in This Assignment."