I saw one of my former students who lead this complaint-brigade the other day on campus. She stopped me and said, "I'm so glad we had to do that assignment. It was so helpful for my major!" I asked her why she spent every day complaining about it during her semester in class and she said, "I thought it sounded stupid. I didn't get it at first."
It was a big lesson for me. While I can still sense the (slight) desire to roll my eyes and tell the student to trust me as the professor when they express concerns like this, there is a grain of truth to the students' comments. Why not put the ego aside and embrace the student feedback? Let's use such comments to clarify and redirect future projects, and (the new lesson for me) rename, repackage, or re-present an assignment that led students to whine/complain the previous term.
In short, we need to market our assignments to help EXCITE students about a project while explaining what is expected and how it will be assessed.
One way to determine if your assignment falls into the "students will whine about it" category is to put it into a word cloud. In the past, I have mentioned the usefulness of Wordle, a word-cloud tool and I used it again after the summer term to help re-package a few of my assignments. Word clouds show which words most prominently feature in a speech or other written text. The most repeated words are larger in size. Wordle is great for speech analysis. I have also used it to analyze my syllabus. Seeing which words come up most frequently helped me to see the assignment from a new perspective. My wiki class assignment (the one the students were moaning about last semester) is one I am currently repackaging to have better student appeal (and therefore cause less need for class time to explain, justify, and address student issues). Here is the Wordle of the wiki project last semester:
The most prominent words before I restructured did not apporpriately identify or explain the actual assignment--which might explain why some students did not realize the importance or impact of the assignment. Of course the assignment seemed clear to me (from my insider-pedagogical vantage), but something was obviously leading to student distress. I reflected on the mission and intent of the wiki assignment. I re-wrote the assignment description and information after seeking student input. Then I put it into a word cloud. Here is the result:
Why not give it a try? Explore how your assignments reflect your goals...and try a word cloud to help you "see" what the students may see.
[Eager for more? Try to put your student evaluations into a similar format for review...see what characteristics, assignments, etc. the students write about most frequently. Use the student feedback to guide your work and the purposeful, pedagogical changes you make in your instruction/course.]