If you’ve been following our blog series, you’re now pretty familiar with the general idea of a purposeful assignment and may even have some ideas for how to set up your own purposeful assignment for a future course. In today’s post, we’re going to look at two instructors who have used VIUBlogs to facilitate purposeful assignments that both give students meaningful choices and have lasting, public relevance beyond the length of the course. 

Case 1: Eric Demers’ Ornithology Blog

In 2015, Eric Demers wanted to create an assignment for Biology 325 Ornithology that would be interesting for his students and for himself. The assignment he ended up with has evolved slightly over time but fundamentally is still the same. Each student picks one local bird species and writes an in-depth blog post about the species which is shared publicly on the VIU Ornithology blog. There are no duplicate bird picks allowed, but since there are 186 species of birds on Vancouver Island that students have to learn during the course, students still have lots of opportunity to choose a bird they know little or nothing about. 

“As you know, a lot of people are interested in birds. They don’t have to be scientists. Anybody who has a backyard and sees birds back there gets interested. There’s an aspect with birds where people are always interested in talking about them. So that’s why I thought it would be an interesting opportunity for students to learn how to communicate beyond their usual science audience.”

Each post is made up of two sections. The first is a description of the species. This can include how to identify the species, where it is found, what it eats, and other information that is fairly readily available. The second component of the post must be a presentation of some of the recent research on the species. The research has to be from the field of biology and about the species, but students can choose to focus on the topics that match their interests (genetics, ecology etc). 

Writing for a broader audience required students to develop different writing skills than they may have needed for other courses. “Scientific writing is very rigid. It has to be concise, it has to be to the point. It’s not always the most interesting or creative.”  The students are also, over time, building a rich repository of information about Vancouver Island’s birds. 

Eric doesn’t take full credit for the idea of this assignment. His laboratory technician at the time, Wendy Simms, “planted the seed” of doing a blog assignment in his mind when they were brainstorming how the course would be structured for its first offering in 2015. Another colleague (from SFU) he met while he was doing research shared a natural history blog project she had done for a course at Queens University. That colleague gave him some suggestions about how he could set up his own.   

Managing the Blog

“The management of it is extremely simple.” Eric tells us. He checks in once a year with someone at CIEL for a quick refresher on setting up a category for the new cohort and to make sure that those students have access. “Once that’s done, I hardly have to do anything.”

To keep from having all students posting their blogs the same week or day, Eric randomly assigns students to post through the semester. Students read and comment on each other’s posts, so scheduling their release is important in order not to overwhelm students. Eric schedules 3-4 blog posts (depending on the class size) per week for the 7-8 class weeks where students don’t have an exam or other assessment due. To keep it fair, due dates are randomly assigned and he even shares a video with students showing the random assignment. 

 Each week, Eric shares out to a class group and other places the new posts to encourage students and others in the community to visit the site. Students are also encouraged to share the blog with friends and family. 

Assessment

We asked Eric to speak to both how he assesses the blogs both in terms of what he’s looking for and how he goes about completing the actual assessment. He let us know that evaluation, like the project itself, has been refined over the years. 

“Every year my goal is usually to grade them as they come and I usually fail at that. I end up grading them all at the end.  I read them as they come and I try to get on to comment a little bit. But this year I found I didn’t really need to do so because comments were coming in pretty quickly and students engaged themselves very rapidly. I read them as they come but I mark them all at the end, then it is easier to compare them to one another. 

“I haven’t found that the grading has been that difficult. I’m getting better at working with rubrics. When CIEL first started to really encourage using rubrics, I found it challenging at first. I found myself really nitpicking the rubric. I was assigning part marks for this, and part marks for that. This year I said ‘that’s it, I’m not doing that anymore.’ “

Eric explains that “Being science minded” he struggled at first not to try and assign “the extra marks in between” the overall levels of the rubric. He’s stopped doing this, realising “The reality is, I couldn’t grade this down to the detail of a 1% anyway, so why am I trying to nitpick the rubric?” Eric adopted rubrics for his courses to help make his grading more transparent and objective. Describing his grading before adopting rubrics, Eric tells us : 

 “I felt my grading may appear extensive when I would read something that a student had written. I would put a lot of ink on the page. But I didn’t necessarily objectivize the grading. I would look at it at the end and think ‘That looks like an 75.’  I always felt on shaky ground with that. A student could easily say what would I have needed to get a 76 instead of a 75 and I couldn’t really answer that question.”

He adopted rubrics to address this problem, but found that at first he “wasn’t really following [the rubric]. I would give the assignment a grade and then go back to the rubric and put in a bunch of numbers. Over time I’ve gotten better at using the rubric and the score is what it is. Now, with VIULearn, I basically just went in there and picked the levels and it calculates the grade. The grading has gotten easier.”

Case 2: Anna Atkinson’s Digital Edition

This fall, Anna Atkinson embraced the challenge of teaching online and used it as an opportunity to do a new kind of project with her students. For their midterm project, students were each assigned a segment of Mary Rowlandson’s 1682 Captivity Narrative: The Sovereignty and Goodness of God, Together with the Faithfulness of His Promises Displayed, which they were responsible for digitizing, enriching, and providing context for. The resulting digital resource can be found on the Mary Rowlandson – The Sovereignty and Goodness of God site on VIUBlogs. 

Anna chose this assignment because Rowlandson’s captivity narrative is popular as a teaching narrative that did not have a simple, annotated edition. While there is a scholarly edition of Rowlandson’s narrative, that edition is very detailed and scholarly and contains far more than most students will ever need. With this project, students created the kind of edition that would be most useful for others who are looking to read and understand the narrative on its own. 

“The idea of using editorial skills instead of argumentative skills was appealing to the students. I think it provided a rest from the pressure to always produce an argument. One of the tough things was extracting from students the idea that the edition itself needed to make an argument. You can’t make an argument with an edition. All you can do is provide as much information as possible.” Anna tells us, “We under-value the research that has the purpose of research, rather than the research that has the purpose of producing an argument.  We de-emphasize the actual process of research.  For students who are more visually inclined, or students who are more creative in different ways, this makes a course more accessible to a broader range of learners, to people with different skills and talents.  What if you’ve got a really good researcher, who is not an essayist?  Why should essay writing bar them from a good mark? “

This project was their midterm assignment, but for the final assignment of the course, Anna gave students the choice of doing a similar project with an act of a play rather than a traditional essay and had many students choose that option. 

“One of the things this assignment did for them was give them something permanent that they could attach to a resume or CV. If they are applying to professional or graduate school they will have lots of examples of their writing, this is something different that can set them apart. There are a lot of ways to leverage the online environment for students. Making assignments permanent means they can polish their entry over time even after the course is over.”   

Managing the Assignment

This particular assignment required a lot of set up from Anna. First, she sourced two different versions of the text (one from Project Gutenberg and one from Michigan Early American Texts) and then had to find logical points to divide the text so that each student was given roughly the same amount they were responsible for. 

In addition to the research and editing skills required to put together their section, students had to learn about WordPress and how to create a digital text with links and footnotes.  

“It astonished me how illiterate some of them were about technology that isn’t an app on a phone.  We were creating something from a pre-created software, but  doing it in WordPress was a learning curve for them. In my discipline, the primary tool of scholarly conversation is published papers but there are a whole set of other missing scholarly skills and technical abilities that this assignment revealed.  It was interesting to walk them through [the technical skills].  But those are a set of soft skills that are marketable anywhere. 

“We talked about the useful skills a lot.  That is how I framed this. I wanted to frame it as, ‘even though this is a set of new skills, they were only editing about 750 words.  Part of the assignment is to use this tool, that’s why the text they are given is so small and the rubric so clear.  Once you have these skills it won’t be difficult.  Here’s how those skills will be important.’  They really bought into the idea that this is useful in a number of ways, including in English studies. “

Assessment 

When asked about how it was assessing the project Anna explained, “I used a rubric.  I wanted to see acknowledgement of where the text came from and an explanation of the history and cultural context hyperlinked in.  Some of it needed to be in footnotes.  One of the problems in English is that books are not visually appealing once you get past the cover so in this project they needed to make it visually appealing.  Because I was so clear about what I wanted, I drew from assignment instructions the elements of the rubric.  And I made all that openly available at all times.  Rubrics make everything easy to mark if you take the time to design a rubric.  Takes about an hour, but in the end, the rubric saves you time! You can add little comments in VIULearn and it was easy.” 

Student Response

Something important to Anna was a way to create community in the class. In the process of talking with students about this project she learned that students had created their own community around this project separate from anything that Anna herself had set up for them. Students would share resources with one another and discuss their work with one another behind the scenes. 

“This assignment also taught me that even work they are marked for individually is best if it is also created collaboratively. They were collaborating with each other on their own projects and everyone’s project got better. I think honest collaboration is something we can get in the way of if we are worried about ‘is this your own work?’ and I think that the collaboration really raised everybody’s project.” 

As students worked on their section of the text, they were able to choose whether to make drafts visible in the blog or to do all of their work privately and publish only the final project. Many students commented on one another’s work that was shared before it was completed and students worried about classmates whose work wasn’t shared as the deadline approached. “That worry came from the community project.  [The worry can be that] if someone else doesn’t do their share, the whole project suffers.  Although they were concerned about this they were helping each other and collaborating as a result of the assignment.  Because they were marked only on the part they edited, it relieved that stress, so it made for a collaboration that lifted everyone.  If someone decided not to be helped, the risk was not elevated: it was a high gain thing if they did want to be collaborative and communal. “ 

What’s Next? 

We have one more blog post upcoming with another example from a VIU faculty member. We are also planning to host a “studio” session on purposeful assignments. A “studio” is a small group discussion, hosted by CIEL, in which faculty bring their own ideas and course materials to share and co-analyze. Stay tuned! 

In the meantime, if you would like to work with one of your Curriculum Teaching and Learning Specialists to design your own Purposeful Assignment, please email learnsupport@viu.ca to book a consultation.