Designing for Learning: Assignments that Work

This morning’s session, led by Matt Pavesich and David Lipscomb from the Writing Program and the Writing Center respectively, shared structured techniques for improving assignments. Matt and David initially offered the audience the opportunity to meditate on an assignment assigned in a previous semester that, for whatever reason, needed to be re-explained to students at the last minute before the due date. They highlighted this as an example of an assignment that “wasn’t exactly right”. Fortunately, for those attendees who have also experienced the frustration and confusion associated with a well-planned and useful assignment that has somehow gone awry, Matt and David introduced three guiding questions that come in handy when thinking about students’ opportunities to engage with assignments large and small:  

  • What do students know? Here, the instructor should think about the background knowledge, socialization, and contextualization they are assuming of students by presuming they will be able to successfully complete an assignment. This is especially the case when success is measured in terms of relevancy to an ongoing conversation around an issue, as in the model example introduced by David.
 
  • What do they need to be able to do? The instructor at this point must think not only in terms of the finished outcome they expect from the assignment, but also the skills that will come into play as a student completes the assignment.
 
  • When/how can they practice? This final interrogation of an assignment leads from the skillset expected in the previous question. The finished product of student work should not be the first time the student is allowed to experiment with and refine their relevant skills. Rather, there should be benchmarks throughout the assignment process, or indeed, throughout the semester, that allow students an opportunity to practice a subset of their skills in small batches for low stakes.
After presenting multiple examples of ways to improve a specific model assignment given (taken from one that had actually posed a problem in a previous instantiation of David’s class), faculty were provided with the opportunity to work in pairs to apply the three design questions introduced in today’s session to improve assignments they plan to include in next semester’s curriculum. The brainstorming gave way to written reflections on the concrete ways assignments could be transformed, including answers to such questions as: How can students practice the key action? When can you work that into the unit? From whom might they receive feedback? CNDLS thanks Matt Pavesich and David Lipscomb for their contribution to this year's TLISI!  

This morning’s session, led by Matt Pavesich and David Lipscomb from the Writing Program and the Writing Center respectively, shared structured techniques for improving assignments. Matt and David initially offered the audience the opportunity to meditate on an assignment assigned in a previous semester that, for whatever reason, needed to be re-explained to students at the last minute before the due date. They highlighted this as an example of an assignment that “wasn’t exactly right”. Fortunately, for those attendees who have also experienced the frustration and confusion associated with a well-planned and useful assignment that has somehow gone awry, Matt and David introduced three guiding questions that come in handy when thinking about students’ opportunities to engage with assignments large and small:

 

  • What do students know? Here, the instructor should think about the background knowledge, socialization, and contextualization they are assuming of students by presuming they will be able to successfully complete an assignment. This is especially the case when success is measured in terms of relevancy to an ongoing conversation around an issue, as in the model example introduced by David.

 

  • What do they need to be able to do? The instructor at this point must think not only in terms of the finished outcome they expect from the assignment, but also the skills that will come into play as a student completes the assignment.

 

  • When/how can they practice? This final interrogation of an assignment leads from the skillset expected in the previous question. The finished product of student work should not be the first time the student is allowed to experiment with and refine their relevant skills. Rather, there should be benchmarks throughout the assignment process, or indeed, throughout the semester, that allow students an opportunity to practice a subset of their skills in small batches for low stakes.

After presenting multiple examples of ways to improve a specific model assignment given (taken from one that had actually posed a problem in a previous instantiation of David’s class), faculty were provided with the opportunity to work in pairs to apply the three design questions introduced in today’s session to improve assignments they plan to include in next semester’s curriculum. The brainstorming gave way to written reflections on the concrete ways assignments could be transformed, including answers to such questions as: How can students practice the key action? When can you work that into the unit? From whom might they receive feedback?

CNDLS thanks Matt Pavesich and David Lipscomb for their contribution to this year’s TLISI!