I’m thinking particularly about writing assignments here, but I suppose we could ask the same questions of other sorts of assignments. Further, we might ask, what sort of work are we expecting assignments to do? You kind of have to answer the second question before you attempt answering the first.
In general, when I design an assignment, I want it to accomplish a range of types of work. I want it to:
- Allow students to demonstrate their mastery of material (texts), concepts (ideas), and skills that we covered prior to the assignment.
- Challenge students, push them out of their comfort zones at least a little. My thinking is that an assignment should also teach them something, or push them further in the thinking that they’ve already done. It shouldn’t just be about repeating what they’ve already done.
- Anticipate what comes next in the course, while still providing a sense of closure to the unit that we’ve just completed.
- Allow me to evaluate whether I’ve actually succeeded in achieving the learning outcomes that drive the course.
You’ll notice, that none of these things actually involve thinking a whole lot about grades. And, ultimately, I don’t believe that grades should be the point of any assignment, for my students or for me. Grades are, ultimately, a bureaucratic notation that is demanded in the industry that is formal education. They aren’t feedback and they don’t teach anybody anything. And yet, I am not some hippie who thinks grades should be abolished: I think that grades do serve a purpose, just not necessarily the one that relates to teaching. Instead, I think that grades relate to motivating: they are the stick that is the complement of the carrot.
And, yes, I believe that sticks can be motivating. I know that’s not the shiny happy sentiment that many pedagogical theories reflect, but in practice, the stick is useful. And this brings me to the question that is the title of this post.
In two of my courses in recent weeks, I gave what is, ultimately, the exact same writing assignment, though the contexts are different.
A rhetorical analysis essay, 3-5 pages, in which students take a text and, surprise-surprise, analyze its rhetorical moves.
Context #1: the Intro to the Major course, in which the goal is to introduce students to the various subfields that live together under the broad umbrella of English Studies. Prior to this assignment, we had covered both linguistics and rhetoric and composition, and I provided them with a heuristic for rhetorical analysis that gave them very clear questions to ask to analyze the rhetorical moves a text is making. They were given free reign in choosing the text that they would analyze, because, you know, they are English majors. (Sophomores through Seniors – sigh, Seniors should not be taking this course – so they’ve already had at least one of the required writing courses for Gen Ed.)
Context #2: My (honors) freshmen writing course, in which the goal is to put them through the paces of the typical sorts of academic writing they will have to complete throughout their undergraduate studies. Prior to this assignment, they had completed one other formal writing assignment – a personal essay on a memory – and in this unit we covered the techniques of rhetorical analysis. I provided them with a heuristic for rhetorical analysis that gave them very clear questions to ask to analyze the rhetorical moves a text is making, the same one I provided to the English majors. They didn’t have total choice of what they would analyze (they are first-semester freshmen, so I wanted to narrow their options): the theme of the course is “food,” so they had to choose a piece from a food magazine, with both text and an image.
In both contexts, the students had the assignments for the same amount of time.
The majors, in general, fell apart on this assignment. I gave half of the class required revisions, because they just didn’t do what the assignment asked. There was not really a rhyme or reason to who fell apart – lots of seniors did, because I think they were overconfident and blew it off, but some of the newbies had a problem, too. Of the A’s (for there were also A’s), one was it was a similar mix. A fair few students also got grades in the B-range, again, with students all over the map in terms of their time to degree. Either students got it (or did what the assignment asked them to do) or they didn’t.
While I haven’t graded my little freshpeeps’ papers yet, I have looked at all their drafts. In that context, I wouldn’t have given a single one of them a required revision for just not doing the assignment in front of them. This is not to say the papers are perfect – I gave them LOTS of negative comments on their drafts. And there is definitely a range of success. If I’d graded the papers, not just given them feedback, it probably would have been a few A’s, a lot of B’s and C’s, a few D’s, and a couple of F’s.
Basically, what I’m talking about, for the exact same assignment, is an inverted bell curve (A’s and B’s, nothing in the C and D range, and lots of F’s) vs. a pretty perfect bell curve (a few A’s, more B’s, a lot of C’s, some D’s, and a few F’s). Do the grades indicate that the assignment worked in one class and not in the other?
I actually think that the assignment worked well in both courses, though in different ways. In the course with the majors, it worked because it demonstrated to them that they have to adhere to disciplinary conventions, that being a “good writer” isn’t enough, and that even if you’re an ass and you wait until your last semester to take the introductory course to the program, you still have stuff to learn. In this case, the grade is a stick, which is all about motivating them to stop with their slacking. The grade isn’t the point of the assignment, which is part of why I gave them the option to revise, rather than just slapping on half a class of F’s. Before this assignment, they thought they had nothing to learn about English. They are majors, after all. And they’ve had “English” their entire educational lives. This was a wake-up call assignment. And that has value. And this assignment did accomplish all of the types of work that I envision for an effective assignment.
But this assignment has still been effective for the froshies. Sure, they did “better” than my majors, but they still have a long way to go, which the feedback I gave to them shows. What distinguished them, mainly, was that they followed directions and that they don’t rely on the fact that they are “English majors” (which most aren’t) to provide an alibi for their mistakes. And this assignment did accomplish all of the types of work that I envision for an effective assignment.
The short answer:
What makes an assignment work is that, potentially, it teaches, it gives students an opportunity to learn, and it gives students an opportunity to shine. What they do with those opportunities is up to them, and it should be up to them. It’s not about me, and it shouldn’t be about me.
This assignment does what it was designed to do, even though the aggregate results might be different depending on the context. It’s not about grades: it’s about learning. It’s not that a “high grade” is good or a “low grade” is bad. It’s about how an assignment takes a student forward. Duh.