Monday, October 23, 2006

What is the point of this assignment?

Last week my students completed an assignment that asked them to critique a peer review program we have used this semester. There are a lot of ideas about the purposes and benefits of the peer reviews, and there are benefits that I see that they don't necessarily pick up on. I think that this happens frequently--students complete assignments without really understanding, much less believing in, the purpose of the assignment. They don't know what they are supposed to be learning; they just go through the motions and do what they're told.

This has me thinking--I know that students can learn a lot without being told what they are "supposed to" learn and even without consciously realizing what they have gained along the way. But I wonder if there is a pedagogical benefit to spelling it out for them. What would happen if I gave them not just instructions for completing an assignment but also listed for them the learning objectives of the assignment. What I would like them, ideally, to get out of the whole thing. Why I think that this particular assignment is useful for our purposes.

As I plan my class for next semester I have been thinking critically about the assignments I want and why I think each one is useful. Why should I assign a research paper? Just because that's what we have always done? Or is there something specific that makes that the best assignment for accomplishing particular educational goals. As I'm thinking about these questions, I have begun to wonder if I should keep the reasons for my decisions to myself or if my students might benefit if I share some of my thought processes with them.

This means some work and writing on my part to prepare, and I realize that many students will not read what I hand them. But the good ones will. The ones who really want to become better writers will. And those are the ones I want to teach.


anon-at-large said...

This is a realy admirable line of thought. However, I'm tempted to say that you would only be making more work for yourself by articulating the learning objectives in a formal way. I tend to tell my students what I have in mind with each assignment. If it becomes a chore for them to read or listen to, you lose them. But letting them in on the secret is good practice. You will see some of them nod--not necessarily just to appease you. But also consider that some students think you--especially if you happen to be a grad student--need to prove yourself to them, to justify your "usefulness" in the context of whatever their conception of education happens to be. And many, many students have very utilitarian and immediate (instant gratification) goals for education. You might just be opening a can of worms--encouraging more resistance, and perhaps weakening your authority, but the latter only in the worst case scenario. And you know your particular group of students, and will of course be able to assess all of these things!

Oxymoron said...

I've tried explaining pedagogical choices and learning objectives to students. They could care less. Most are going to make up their own minds about assignments and requirements, regardless what you say. For example, I decided to talk to my class one semester about my pedagogy. I told them that writing is not effectively taught and learned through lectures, but through the practice of writing. I spent half a day discussing with them the reasons for my decision to run the class as a workshop. I even cited current research in composition studies. In the end, students treated these statements--the rationale behind my pedagogy--as "excuses" for why I never "taught" them anything all semester long.

To be fair, not all students felt this way, only those who didn't want to do the work. They expected easy A's and rebelled big time when they didn't get them. To look at their writing, you know they learned nothing. While these students make me feel like a failure, there were students who learned a great deal. They worked hard, made good use of their class time, and frequently consulted me during office hour and in class. These students put a lot into class and got a lot in return.

All and all, I don't think it matters whether or not you make known your pedagogical choices or learning objectives. Student will have a positive or negative attitude about the class from the very beginning, no matter what you say. In technical writing, the latter is the standard. I hope this doesn't sound too pessimistic; I don't mean it this way. But ultimately, you'll get two types of students: those who want to learn, and those who just want to go through the motions and get their employment credentials. The former will learn what you want them to learn, with or without you stating the objectives. Such is their nature. The others will put hardly any effort into their work, usually wait till the last minute to complete it, and constantly make excuses for their low grades. But it's never their fault.

Dr. Delaney Kirk said...

I've always wondered what would happen if I had my students develop a list of their own class assignments--if nothing else so they could see how difficult it is to do. I have a colleague who has her students make up exam questions and then she picks the ones she likes and puts these on the test.