Developing Written Assignments That Prompt Maximum Performance
A written assignment is another method of classroom evaluation and similar to tests and examinations it is a work product for students that can be designed with a specific purpose in mind. As an instructional strategy a written assignment can be a method of engaging students in the process of learning, whether they are asked to write something in class or complete an assignment as homework. Through submission of a written assignment students can demonstrate their progress, knowledge acquisition, cognitive abilities, and academic skill sets. This provides an instructor with an opportunity to assess their developmental needs, provide resources, and adapt teaching methods as needed to address their needs. The most effective assignments are those that have been developed through a process of careful planning, anchored with a definitive purpose. The following steps present a process to help you create written assignments the prompt maximum performance.
Step One: Learning Objectives
The initial starting point for development of your written assignments is building a base that originates from the learning objectives. Here are questions you can ask to begin the process:
What objectives have been established within the course syllabus?
What are the specific learning objectives for this particular week?
By starting with the course objectives and weekly learning objectives you are creating an assignment that has meaning rather than creating something just to keep your students busy. In addition, the objectives establish parameters through which you can assess your students’ progress. When you determine specific desired outcomes you have established an effective comparison point and the assignment becomes a measurement tool.
Step Two: Identifying a Purpose
After establishing the overall guiding objectives, the next step in a well-developed plan involves establishment of an identifiable purpose.
Begin by asking:
What is the purpose of this assignment?
You can clarify this question with these follow-up questions:
What do you want students to demonstrate?
Is there knowledge that you expect them to have acquired at this point in the class?
Are there skill sets you expect them to demonstrate?
A clearly defined purpose will help you determine the content and the length of the assignment. Another important consideration is the level of cognition you want students to utilize. For example, do you want them to utilize knowledge recall or higher forms of cognitive processing such as synthesis and analysis? Bloom’s Taxonomy defines six levels of cognition, including knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. The basic level of cognition that students begin with is knowledge, which includes remembering and reciting information. This is also called lower-level thinking.
Once you have determined the cognitive skills that need to be emphasized you can begin to develop a working structure, which includes a description of the primary learning activity involved. In addition to individual one-time written assignments, they can also be developed in a series, building upon one another, as a means of promoting cognitive development. The goal for a series of written assignments is to move students through the cognitive levels, into higher order thinking, which includes synthesis and evaluation. For example, students can be asked to research a topic and through additional assignments they could apply the information to a real-world problem and develop solutions.
Step Three: Determine Possible Outcomes
Once you have established the activity it is a good idea to work through the steps involved to understand the students’ perspective and the possible outcomes that they may submit. This will allow you to anticipate any potential issues and provide clarification as needed. In addition, it will allow you to recognize a substantive student’s response. As you consider the possible responses that you may receive from students, ask yourself the following question: does the expected outcome effectively demonstrate that the learning objective was met? In addition, do the possible outcomes align with the overall guiding purpose?
Step Four: Developing Instructions
Once the learning activity has been developed and the possible responses or outcomes have been aligned with the objective and purpose, the next step is to develop the assignment instructions. Consider the use of prompts within the instructions such as how, what, give me an example, explain, define, analyze, etc. The instructions need to clearly state the steps to follow and the prompts need to match the level of cognitive process you expect students to utilize. As you create the assignment instructions you can also develop a list of resources that students will need and provide those during your next class session. In addition, by planning the assignment ahead of time you can provide additional clarification as needed during your class lecture.
Step Five: Allocating Points
The last part of the process is the allocation of points for this assignment. Most institutions encourage instructors to develop a rubric for the assignment and this provides you with a structure to allocate points and explain how points can be earned. The general rule of thumb is to allocate 60 to 75% of the total possible points for the actual content of the response. The remaining points would be allocated towards the mechanics of the response, which would include formatting, sentence structuring, grammar usage, and spelling.
The Anticipated Results
From the students’ perspective a written assignment addresses their need to be a self-directed learner or one who wants to be involved in and take responsibility for their involvement in the process of learning. When students recognize that there is a purpose to the assignment, one that is directly related to the course, the learning outcomes, and more importantly their academic and/or professional needs, they will likely respond in a positive manner and utilize their best effort to complete it. Start with a purpose-driven plan, anchor it with objectives and carefully worded instructions that prompt cognitive development, and increase the likelihood of students submitting a work product that meets and exceeds the required expectations.