Friday, December 5, 2014

What We Assign

While working on a new syllabus for one of my spring classes, I took a break to read a Faculty Focus blog posting entitled “Could We Be Doing Better with our Assignments?  (Yes, if I were talking to a student I would identify this as procrastination…) One paragraph there made me stop and think.
Weimer writes:
 Most faculty, regardless of discipline, use a similar mix of assignments. We have our students write papers. In recent years, we have seen some movement away from the traditional, research-based, term paper. Today’s papers are shorter and more frequent, but they are still papers. We give multiple-choice or short-answer exams, which students take individually, usually within a designated time period and without access to resources or expertise. We use quizzes, assign homework problems, and maybe some sort of group project in an upper division or capstone course, but that’s about it. And we recycle assignments, using pretty much the same ones every time we teach the course and in every course we teach.
I realized that while I spend time rethinking topics for assignments, or dates for assignments, or weights for assignments, or directions for assignments, or rubrics for assignments, I really don't spend much quality time rethinking the mix and type of assignments per se. 

Help?  What kind of assignment–other than the traditional papers, homework questions, quizzes, individual timed exams, and group projects—do you assign in your courses?  What made you think of it?  How does it work?  I would love to learn some new tricks to spice up my old assignment categories.  Please share your ideas in this last Teaching Matters blog before the holiday break.


  1. Hopefully, when Weimer writes that "we recycle assignments, using pretty much the same ones every time we teach the course and in every course we teach," she does not mean the exact same assignments. If not, it does not matter whether we recycle assignments; provided we achieve the goal (whatever it is).

    These days, in the wake of internet plagiarism, people tend to give specific or customized assignments which will minimize plagiarism and, yet, achieve the learning outcome. In theory, one can assign anything, e.g. surveys, neighborhood or campus reports and internet projects, provided they achieve the intended result (which will differ with discipline and instructor).

    In any case, they say you cannot teach an old dog a new trick!

    Safro Kwame

    1. I think Weimer was talking not about the content of assignments but the genre, and asking what other things except for the standard tests, papers and projects we might assign,. So yes, something like neighborhood or campus surveys might be a great way to test research method skills rather than just having students answer questions about how to conduct research or write papers that only use secondary library-based research.

      I will leave it up to you critical thinkers to test the validity of the "can't teach old dog new tricks" statement. (Some would say that, once motivated, we old dogs learn better than the pups, even if not always as quickly. It's that "once motivated" part that is sometimes hard.)

  2. Regarding old and stale assignment types, some of the computer project assignments I developed for my students over the years should have been digitally and physically trashed a long time ago, but shamelessly recycled with some modifications--just did not have the courage to trash those completely.

    “(What kind of assignment–other than the traditional papers, homework “questions…)?

    I was hesitant to answer to this question since I am not sure if what works with one teacher would necessarily work with other teachers. In Dr. Weimer’s article she asked “Are assignments discipline-specific? “ I am not even sure in my own discipline the same assignment would work for all teachers and students well, when mixed with other variables (sorry for my math infusion again), but it could work for some or many if conditions are the same or with some modifications of the assignments as Dr. Weimer suggested.

    In recent years I encouraged the students to use their own creativity with coding much more than I used to, by assigning a few new computer projects that have some visual design and art components, in addition to the usual problem-solving parts. In earlier days there was much more emphasis on code efficiency in my assignments. I found creativity can tear down some of the leaning obstacles and boost some students’ confidence levels in learning program codes in my own classes. Unfortunately, this has not worked well for all my students, but worked for most. Sometimes I get a student who only enjoys coding for pure problem-solving and may dislike the art combination with it. For that reason I assign different types of projects in the same class throughout the semester. The one drawback is that assessment becomes more difficult as soon as creativity is in the picture when mixed with math and problem-solving. Subjective versus objective grading becomes an issue, partly since I may have less expertise in evaluating the art component part of it. But, I think in this case it is worth dealing with it, perhaps with better rubrics.

    Ali B.

    1. Sorry I meant "Learning obstacles" instead of "leaning obstacles". Being up since 4AM grading final assignments has affected by eyes :-( perhaps it was not the right time for my procrastination break!

      Ali B.

    2. Ali, your point about "creativity tearing down some of the learning obstacles" really made me stop and think. It gets at the whole idea of the role motivation plays in both learning and in retaining what was learned. But then, as you also point out, what motivates one might not motivate another. (This teaching thing ain't easy!) And' it's true that changing types of assignment means changing rubrics that had been working for us but now don't work as well. Maybe that's something that you could reach out across the disciplines to, and have someone with more expertise in the new area help explain and construct the new rubrics? I would think, though, that even if initially such changes lead to more subjective grading they would be justified in the increased enthusiasm and learning.

      I also admire your idea of personalizing the instruction by assigning different kinds of projects--more work for you, but more student engagement for sure!