As we all navigate new ways of teaching and learning, we at the CIEL are hearing a lot of stress from both students and faculty around major assignments. This isn’t all because of hybrid and online learning. Assignments that carry a large percentage of a grade have always been a source of stress for both faculty and students.

There are many complicated reasons that assignments are challenging for both instructors and their students, but today we want to focus on one of these factors for which there are some straightforward (if not easy) solutions: a fundamental conflict between a need to ensure students grasp the key message of a course, and the need to gather regular, detailed “proof” of learning – often in the form of minutely detailed criteria.

Students have been conditioned to seek grades and so will often focus on the minute details rather than the big picture. They have learned that a high grade means success, and to fear low grades as failure, but “succeed” or “fail”, the grade is the end point rather than a checkpoint on a longer learning journey.

Instructors assign grades and give feedback to encourage a continuation or change in behaviour as students develop into autonomous learners with skills they can carry forward into the world beyond VIU. Faculty stress rises when they put immense effort into marking and giving feedback, and then experience disappointment when students don’t seem to carry that feedback forward. 

So how do we change the relationship students have with grades and being graded? How do we create an authentic, continuous learning experience across a course?

This is where the idea of purposeful assignments comes in. We want to create assignments whose purpose within the course and relationship with student learning is clear, not just to you, but to your students as well. Three questions can help you create assignments that are purposeful:

  1. What is the fundamental purpose of this assignment?
  2. What intrinsic value does this assignment have for students?
  3. What is the intrinsic value of this assignment for you? (or alternately: what about this assignment makes you excited to grade it?)

What is the fundamental purpose of this assignment?

One way to test your assignments for their fundamental purpose is to ask yourself the question: what do I want students to be able to DO with the ‘stuff’ of this course?  This requires you to imagine your students inhabiting their future, with your course under their belt:

  • What can students do as a result of your course that they couldn’t do before taking the course?
  • How will they think differently, and what actions will show that change in how they think?

These questions will help you focus on what you know are the real skills, attitudes and knowledge that students will need to be successful, either in ensuing courses or as a professional in the field they are studying.  This focus on what they can do to show you what they have learned makes it much easier to design an assignment that gets them to do that thing, at whatever level is appropriate for the course. 

This focus on what students will be able to do with the core concepts of the course will also help students see why the assignment is relevant to them beyond just receiving a grade. When they can clearly see how you want them to use and apply the course content, the assignment suddenly makes more sense as a place where they can show off their new skills and knowledge, rather than being a way to please their professor by laboriously fulfilling the assignment details. 

What intrinsic value does this assignment have for students?

When it is only the teacher who imposes the rules for assignments, students will often fall into the trap of focusing on the minor details of the assignment in order to achieve a high grade instead of the bigger picture. There are two elements that can encourage students to find intrinsic value in an assignment: (1) understanding the relevance for them, and (2) feeling that they have autonomy to make a meaningful choice in how they demonstrate their skills and knowledge. Relevance and autonomy are built through:

  • Student choice in assignments
  • Public, durable, or renewable products (not just for the teacher’s eyes)
  • Clear and direct links to the course content and objectives

Student choice

Giving students meaningful choices is key for developing student autonomy.  Having choice sets an expectation that the students are—or are becoming—mature thinkers who can make learning decisions for themselves within the safe structure of a course. Having autonomy helps students find personal relevance in the assignment as this is something they chose instead of something imposed on them. This opens up a new way of thinking in the students about their own role in learning. No longer is the learning to please the teacher, but it is about the learning itself, and why it matters to the student. 

How do we introduce choice in assignments without ridiculously complicating everyone’s life?

One way might be to create a list of possible assignments, from which students must choose a certain number or distribution for their final grade. Each of the assignments on the list will be aimed at major concepts of the course, but students can pick which ones are of most interest to them: they then do the assignments and submit a brief reflection on why they chose those options and what they learned from them. Personal relevance built in via choice!

Another way to do this might be to introduce choice in how students will complete any particular assignment.  For example, if the assignment is normally a research paper, students might have the option to present their research as a presentation, a blog, a scrapbook, a creative product such as a painting with explanation, or as a research paper.  Students now have a choice to be as creative as they want to be, but the essential function of the assignment (research something, report your results) is still the focus.

An obvious question that immediately occurs is: haven’t we just complicated marking to the nth degree now? Do I need a rubric for 10 assignments? Do I need a rubric for each student?  Our answer to that would be: indeed not! In both cases, if you are aiming at what you have already decided that students will be able to do with the major concepts of the course, marking has not changed.  Your criteria are: have students shown me that they can do what I wanted them to do with these concepts?  To what extent have they done so? 

Public durable or renewable products

Relevance also grows when the assignment results in a product that is not ‘just for the teacher’.  Such assignments might include products or performances that ‘experts’ in the field will see, evaluate or use. Or they might include products that community partners might profit from or use, or that future students will use for their own learning.  Open Educational Resources that are built over time by succeeding generations of students in a particular course is one excellent example of something that goes beyond the eyes of the teacher and benefits others beyond the course.  When student products become public and benefit others beyond the end of the course, the students see how their actions are having an effect beyond their own self-development and learning. This builds motivation and relevance into an assignment they might otherwise just ‘do for the teacher’.

Clear and direct links to the course content and objectives

For students to recognize the relevance of assignments, they need clear guidance and communication from you about what the end product is designed to achieve in terms of student learning. They also need to see how the course (supporting materials, you and their peers) will support them in learning the skills required for a successful product. A course is necessarily a place for experimentation and practice, small failures to learn from before the final assignment is submitted. This is done in a class community through individual study and discussion and feedback from peers and the teacher. When the goals are clear, the assignment is designed to measure what students can do, and the process of learning required skills is laid out, students can easily see the relevance—and thus intrinsic interest—of each assignment.

Are you excited to mark this assignment?

Ask yourself: are you looking forward to marking final assignments in your course?  If so, you may not need any of the information we’ve been discussing.  But if you ever find yourself sighing and remarking to someone what a chore it is to do all this marking at the end of the semester, the big question is: how do you get back to the joy of teaching when marking is a big part of what you have to do? 

What we’ve been describing may help. The answers are the same as above.

If you know exactly what you’re aiming at—what you want students to be able to do with course concepts after they have left your course—and design your assignments to aim squarely at those things (and only those things!), life becomes much better during the marking season. The clear expectations you’ve communicated to students (through learning outcomes, rubrics, assignment descriptions, etc.) will be reflected in their performance. It will be very clear who has performed well and who has not if you keep your laser focus on those major concepts, and not minor considerations.  

If you have given students choice in assignments, the products you’re looking at will be much more varied and interesting to review, and they’ll allow insights into individual students’ eureka! moments and learning challenges. Your clear expectations make it easier to mark varied assignments because the learning you expect them to show you remains the same—it’s just the format that changes.

In upcoming blog posts on this subject, we’re going to get down into the details of how this is done by talking with a number of VIU faculty who have been working hard at developing purposeful assignments and we’ll take a look at how you can configure your VIULearn course to support choice.