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PLACES TO START: LARGE ASSIGNMENTS

Planning Ahead:

  • Clearly communicate with students about what your goals are for any assignment. Don't assume that students know what the pedagogical purpose of the assignment is. Have a discussion about your goals and desired outcomes, and help students understand how specific aspects of the assignment fit these goals. Be open to making some changes if students have ideas to offer.
  • Communicate about assignments as early as possible in a semester, and help students schedule and plan for them.
  • Show examples not just of ideal assignment submissions from the past, but also of submissions that were unique, so that students see what you are looking for, but also so that they realize a range of possibilities. You can model "tolerance for error" in many ways.
  • Make large-print copies of all materials available; post everything online. Give clear assignment instructions and make prompts available in multiple formats.
  • Scaffold activities toward large assignments so that students understand the trajectory of their work and so that they build materials and knowledge—so that they have these materials and this knowledge with them when they tackle a larger assignment, and are enabled to continue the creative process rather than saddled with the responsibility to begin it. This also combats procrastination and plagiarism.

Flexibility:

  • If the assignment is to be completed in class, consider the impact that increased pressure might have on students—not all students think or create at the same pace. If taking the assignment home and completing it more slowly might increase student learning and performance, then why not extend that accommodation to all?
  • Recognize that students can express their understanding of essential course content in multiple ways. Diversify assignments or allow for exceptions to allow all students to demonstrate their specific talents (e.g. oral presentations, poster presentations, written assignments).
  • Consider flexible deadlines.
  • Consider creating flexible intermediate deadlines—guidelines for when particular stages or parts of the assignment should be completed, so that students can see what the ideal timeline would be.
  • If possible, allow students to share draft work with you and with their peers, and then to revise.
  • Offer students performative options; allow for some flexibility in terms of the delivery of assignments. Could an essay turn into a podcast? Could students leave a draft of a research question on your voicemail or e-mail?

Communication:

  • Make time to meet with students individually as much as possible to assist with every step in the process, from clarifying the assignment, to brainstorming, to polishing.
  • Show students how you expect them to perform highly specialized tasks like researching, quoting, citation, formatting. Most students never have a teacher show them explicitly how to do these things. Remember that the rules for these specialized tasks change from teacher to teacher, discipline to discipline, and culture to culture.
  • Be willing to offer instruction, and accept student work, at a distance.

Feedback:

  • Don’t be hypercorrective—focus on content when you are evaluating work, and circle mistakes rather than fixing them. If you really want students to learn from their mistakes, help them identify one problem at a time.
  • Consider using rubrics so long as students can fully understand them, they are provided well in advance of assignment due dates, and they are discussed in class. Consider developing these rubrics with students as a way to increase their understanding of your learning goals and of the assignment.
  • Discuss the difference between summative, constructive, and critical feedback. Always try to offer feedback that helps students improve their work, even if that improvement is for another class or another time.
  • Consider using an MP3 recorder or video chat for comments on student assignments—try different modes and allow students to choose modes of response that are most accessible for them.

Products and Processes:

  • Create accessible and perhaps “searchable” venues for students to archive all of their work—all of the drafts of each paper, all of their informal writing, and so on—something like a content management site or blog.
  • Try to create opportunities to revisit work and trace patterns in their “development” so that students can become reflective and ultimately have a “meta” understanding of the products/processes of academic work.
  • Discuss your own working process: the ideal scene for your work, the personal supports you have or try to create, your own blocks and difficulties. Students can benefit from seeing how their instructors work. At the same time, recognize that there are many different learning styles, and that most students won't work the same way that their teachers do, and that this is a good thing.
  • Use online resources and content management systems when possible, and use them redundantly—use discussion boards, post content for classes, use space for drafting and peer response. Create online spaces for students to help one another with assignments.
  • Make a serious effort to understand and welcome cultural differences that might affect student learning processes and the "products" they create.
  • Ask students to help you revise assignment prompts for the next time you teach the class, or to write down some advice they would give to future students for succeeding at an assignment, or both.