No, the objective isn't to make assignments optional. But the article referenced below raises the possibility of giving students some choice over the kinds of assignments they complete. In previous issues of the newsletter, we have shared systems that give students some discretion in the weighting of various assignments. Letting them decide whether they will take exams, write papers, prepare online materials, make presentations, or use other assignment options goes a step further. This article explores the various issues and objections associated with the approach.
Two benefits accrue when students are given some choice about assignments. The first is motivational—when students select the method they will use to master the material, they can pick an option they think they'd like to complete. And if an assignment option looks appealing, that increases the chance that students will spend more time working on it and more learning can then result. Second, the practice confronts students with themselves as learners. With teacher guidance, they can be challenged to consider why they find some assignments preferable. They can be encouraged to consider what skills the assignment involves and whether those are skills they have or need to work on developing. A strategy such as this moves students in the direction of autonomy and maturity as learners.
However, it is an approach that raises questions for many faculty, starting with whether students will make good choices. If a student doesn't like to write or doesn't think he or she writes well enough to get decent grades, would that student choose writing assignments? It would be irresponsible to let students with poor writing skills complete a course or a degree program without trying to redress this skill deficiency. However, this problem can be solved by how the options are designed. Students can be given choices within parameters. There are four categories of assignments. Students must complete an assignment in each category, and, of course, one (maybe two) of the categories contains writing assignments. Making decisions within parameters helps students develop skills in which they are deficient. But this kind of teacher control may not make clear the necessity that learners have to self-assess and remediate deficiencies, although this is a skill that even sophisticated learners (like faculty) often find difficult.
Then there is the question of fairness, which is made more serious by the propensity of students to look for the easy options. When I gave students some choice about assignments and then asked for the reasons one assignment was selected over another, the most common answer was that the chosen assignment looked “easier” than the other options. The amount of work required to master content and develop learning skills should be equitably distributed across assignments. Students may think some assignments look easier, but the amount of work required to complete them should be approximately the same.
The solution here involves clearly identifying the desired learning outcomes first. That means coming up with concrete descriptions of what students should know and be able to do at the conclusion of the course. That's where course design needs to start. With those identified, then assessment options can be developed. An example included in the article makes this clear. Say one of the desired learning outcomes for the course involves being able to construct a coherent, well-structured, critical argument. Students could demonstrate their ability to do that in a traditional essay assignment. But they could also do it by creating a Web page, by regularly writing reflective blogs or journal entries, or by making a video production. As the authors point out, “If the assessment criteria are clear about the desired learning outcomes, then students could use a variety of formats to meet those outcomes.” (p. 774)
There's another fairness concern raised by the approach: When everyone takes the same exam, student performance can be compared; but when students are completing different assignments, that is not possible. Giving students assignment options is not an approach that works well in competitive classroom environments. But when students are being evaluated on how well they meet previously established criteria, how their performance compares to that of other students is largely inconsequential. The teacher is interested in how well each individual student is demonstrating the desired knowledge and skills.
There is no question that using an assignment option scheme does involve careful design work up front. But there is also no question that approach can make learning experiences more meaningful.
Reference: Irwin, B., and Hepplestone, S. (2012). Examining increased flexibility in assessment formats. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 37 (7), 773-785.