For our final blog post on Purposeful Assignments, we spoke with Sandra Johnstone from VIU’s Earth Science Department. Sandra Johnstone’s fourth year Earth Science class was about climate change, and the first thing she did was to have the whole class brainstorm an inquiry question to focus learning for the duration of the semester. After framing the question, a series of guest speakers came to class, each one with their own perspective on climate change.  The students’ assignments included journal responses to the guest speaker sessions, two 10-minute presentations and a bigger project for which they chose their own topic that was created and submitted in phases throughout the semester. 

The following is our interview with Sandra.

Why did you start with a student-created question?

This course was geared towards science students, but I wanted to avoid an overly techno-scientific focus, since climate change is a social issue. My goal was to target the affective domain–help people care. I wanted to figure out what they cared about so they could understand climate change differently, not just look at molecules of carbon dioxide. I wanted the students to be engaged, and it was easier if their work was focussed on a topic where they had the autonomy to follow their own interests.

Additionally a significant part of our role as post-secondary educators is in sharing our disciplines with our students. Not just disciplinary content, but also communities, cultures, and styles of discourse. In allowing students more autonomy in how they engage with our disciplines we can foster engagements at the intersections of how disciplinary knowledge may be important to them. In doing so, we give our students opportunities to see themselves within disciplinary cultures, and it is not just us telling them how we see them fitting in. This could have important implications when it comes to disciplinary retention, as well as diversity and inclusion across the university. These issues have both had lots of discussion in scientific communities in the last few years, but may also be applicable more broadly to other disciplines.

How did this actually work?

I started with a question because I don’t think you can learn how to ask good questions until you have asked a bunch of really bad questions and realized they don’t get anywhere.

The early stages were messy—figuring out how to articulate a question that was rich enough to look at it for 3 months was a process. First we brainstormed what people were wondering about, but that quickly spiralled out of control.  I had to take it away, think about it and pare it down to something that was useful and rich enough to provide topics for a whole semester to engage students. And I had guest speakers already lined up, coming in to talk about their expertise.  So the question had to be broad enough to encompass all these topics.

The projects submitted were a wide range of things.  I encouraged them to pursue what they were really interested in. Examples included:

  • Short film about salmon stocks
  • A survey in classes about how VIU engages with climate change
  • Media content research
  • City policies around fire suppression

I noticed that some students were uncomfortable with the level of autonomy, but I think pushing through the discomfort led to deeper learning and higher levels of satisfaction with the end products.  One student went on present their work at the CREATE Conference.  My sense is they were more invested because of the autonomy they were given.

But autonomy is not enough: they have to have support and encouragement along the way.  Just by giving them autonomy you won’t get the same level of engagement.  I had to show them that I cared about what they were doing.

In my classes I’ve been slowly giving up more and more control. I see it as an exercise in trust.  I have found that when I trust my students they generally exceed my expectations. Of course, there’s definitely a need to be bridging: if students have never had autonomy they feel very uncomfortable.  But if you give them little bits so they can stretch their legs along the way to a project that is half their grade, it’s ok.

It’s important to ask students to take risks in asking questions they don’t know answers to, and then to get creative in finding the answers. And I have to model that, too: if things don’t go as planned we may have to make changes on the fly, and I do that by consensus with the students as much as possible. When we show we are afraid of mistakes as instructors, we instill that fear in our students.  I have messed up a lot of times!

The autonomy gives students a chance to make mistakes.  I don’t let them go completely off track, since they only have three months, but if you don’t let them go down a dead end and mess up, then it’s not real autonomy. In higher levels of science, which you’re showing in the 4th year, the questions are messy, the answers are messy:  from one perspective you see one thing, from another perspective you see something very different. It’s not always comfortable, but some real magic comes from the unexpected. The more you limit what is possible, the less authentic it is, and you constrain your possibilities. 

What were the steps you took to “bridge” into autonomy?

They developed their major assignment in several parts: a proposal three weeks into class on which I gave feedback.  Then a presentation of their project in two chunks: the first one an interim update where they presented data without analysis.  For example the student who developed the survey presented questions with rationale for the survey. The second was a final presentation that included data analysis or final product.

Most of the assignment grade was on the final project but the interim steps were substantial so they were invested in working along the way.

The presentations were powerful and reduced my feedback because there was peer feedback as a result of presentation to the class. Before peers gave feedback, I made it clear that the objective is to help the person improve—be kind, be honest, think about feedback you’d want to get. The peer feedback had a form: they had to write about something they learned, something they’re wondering about, and make two suggestions. And they tend to be so spot on—as a group they gave the same feedback I would have given them.  I could give a few additional notes, so that was a good way to reduce written feedback.

You said the presentations were ‘powerful’.  What did you mean?

Since this course was focused on climate change – a really challenging social issue – I was hoping these projects would instill some motivation to action. I observed a huge potential for transformative power in the projects the students chose.   Witnessing all their work was certainly transformative for me. It would be interesting to know if they think back on it now, what impact it had.  If there is a change over 3 months, how does that change ripple out over time? What are the lasting impacts?  More than one student continued with their project after the end of the course, so I took that as a sign that engagement was maintained.

How did you grade these varied projects?

I had a rubric that itemized the key things I was looking for.  I wanted them to have some kind of data or information that they could synthesize and they had to have a question of inquiry that was related to the broader course topic. I was looking for the way they broke the question down and how information supported it.  The coherence of their project within the broader topic of our course.

Here are the Learning Outcomes for the Presentations

  • Develop a rich question for inquiry
  • Synthesize data, academic information
  • Identify a target audience
  • Select a mode of communication
  • Re-synthesize academic information for a wider audience

The topics were quite different, but the core of what I was looking for was the same.  I evaluated it based on quality of question, academic summary and synthesis for a general audience These were common criteria across all submissions.

It made for a very interesting and engaging experience as an audience member of presentations. One was a presentation to (an imaginary) city council.  Another to a group of elementary school students.  Sometimes if you have 8 standard five minute PowerPoints, it can be so boring.  How am I helping them if I can’t keep my eyes open through a presentation? This wasn’t like that at all.  It was fun and engaging.

What might be challenges for others to do this in their classes?

The small class size for this group—12 students – made this style much easier.  I met individually with all the students to make sure they were on track [in their projects] and make me aware of what they were doing. And had an opportunity to tailor it to my particular students within the relationship I had with them. I could provide more structure for those who needed it.  I know my students well by fourth year, so I had a good sense of who might need more support. There’s a certain level of ease when you have an established relationship with people.

This strategy would need to be modified for a larger class. I would have had to narrow it down to handle the time because of the individual meetings. I would design it so there was more peer feedback and interaction, maybe following a team-based approach, rather than strictly relying on my own feedback.

What now?

This is the last post in our Purposeful Assignment series, but we hope this series served as inspiration as you work on developing and refining your own assessment. If you would like to work with one of our Curriculum Teaching and Learning Specialists to develop a purposeful assignment for your course or to talk about any other element of your course design, please email