Monday, November 28, 2011

Saving the problematic assignment...

Around this time of year, we start to see the end of another long semester. We can pat ourselves on the backs and note with appreciation that our planning and organization led to another successful semester...or we may find that we hold our heads in our hands as we lament the assignment that did NOT work.

Every semester I try something new. I have to, I teach multiple sections of the same course year after year with a small smattering of new courses. I have to jazz up the course for myself and for my students. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. This semester I had an assignment that was slightly modified from last semester when it was VERY successfully received and accomplished by my summer classes. This semester, the assignment bombed in half of my sections. It tanked, it stunk, it was the bane of my students' existences.

I am certain this has happened to every reflective professor at some point in his or her career. You try a new assignment or branch an old assignment into new territory (technology) only to find something did not work out. You suffer through a mountain of emails, student confusion, complaints, grumblings, and find you are working way too hard for their assignment. It is time to reflect...that assignment did NOT work.

1. Own it.  Generally, an assignment bombs because of US. Yes, we need to own our role in the flopped feature of the course. It isn't always student procrastination or student disinterest, sometimes it is a flawed assessment. We somehow did not plan effectively or appropriately. In many cases, we were vague about our expectations (leading to student questions/stress) or about the grading. An easy fix is to revisit the assignment description and see what might be clarified for the future. Don't discard that assignment yet! It is, most likely, able to be saved.

2. Ask your students to comment on the assignment. Ask them what worked, what didn't, what they would change. You don't have to take all of their advise, but you can retain the integrity of the assignment and modify to allow the assignment to be clearer or more understandable/approachable from the students' perspective. [In the case of my bombed assignment, changing it to a GROUP project was a huge reason it was problematic]

3. Revisit the INTENT of the assignment. Did you veer off course by putting it online? By adding an oral presentation element? By somehow enhancing the older, more functional version of the assignment? This activity also helps you clarify the goals/objectives of the assignment (which should be quite clear). Perhaps you have the RIGHT idea, but the WRONG forum. [Again, for this semester, I shifted the WAY the assignment would work by making it a group project without revising the intent/goals to reflect the group perspective. This led to confusion for the students and a lot of headaches for all of us. If I had modified my goals/objectives clearly, this issue could have been managed much better.]

4. Ask for feedback from other professors. Seek a read-through from others in your discipline. This way you can easily gain another perspective on what you were TRYING to say/do in the assignment description and explore the students results.

5. Be fair. If the assignment has gotten derailed in some way, then work with the students (modify a timeline, change from small groups to a class-based project, offer alternatives) to find a fair way to address the confusion or concern during the current semester. Again, you can maintain the rigor without penalizing the students for an unclear assignment or for reaching beyond the scope of the semester.

6. Consider outside influences. Yes, sometimes we constructed the assignment goals appropriately, the students worked diligently, and some other factor took the entire assignment off course. [Again, in my example, I forgot to address the fact that during the Summer we met every single day and group work was easily worked into each course session, students were easier to track down, and fewer students "drifted" away from the course. When I energetically took the assignment to this Fall term (and groups), I did not account for any of the issues of student attrition and group meeting time when I have the students 2 or 3 days a week (instead of 5 like the summer).]

7. Compile all of this new information and revisit the assignment. Start with the goals, work through the forum (online, in person, paper, project, video, etc.) and the contributors (individual, small groups, or class), and don't forget to re-examine everything for clarity.

Maybe, just maybe, you can re-make that problematic assignment into one that you and the students are excited about.

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