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Faculty Development Center

Assignments that Help Students Learn More Effectively

Having taught a course several times, faculty members often feel confident in waiting until just before a semester begins to review notes, update a syllabus, and check on books and materials. Yet curricular changes, budgetary demands, student interests, or restructured departmental offerings can alter the nature of the course one had planned on teaching. I once had a colleague ask advice on how to adjust her teaching strategies (and especially her requirement that students submit two ten-page papers) when her course enrollment jumped from 20 to well over 150 because the course had been identified as fulfilling a new general education requirement. It's not difficult to read 400 pages of students' work in a semester while offering useful and timely feedback. A three thousand-page stack of essays presents a challenge that few of us would willingly face.

One change this professor knew she had to make was to plan on lecturing more and leading discussion less (though she didn't cut out classroom discussion or classroom learning activities entirely). In addition, she knew she had to begin experimenting with new kinds of assignments that still allowed her to assess students' level of success in attaining her goals for the course.

According to Maryellen Weimer, effective evaluations of student performance are ones that "[1] are used in ways that enhance their already inherent potential to promote learning . . . [and 2] are opened to students in ways that give them opportunities to develop self- and peer assessment skills" (p. 125).* These are two parts of the same issue-to make students more conscious not only of what they learn but of how they learn (and how they can become better and more effective learners). To improve skills, then, students need to understand the goals of a course, practice the skills need to reach those goals in in-class and out-of-class exercises, and then be evaluated both on the content goals of the course and on how, and how well, they develop skills to attain content goals.

It's fairly common to hear colleagues lament the generally poor study skills students have acquired in high school. But even at the university, far too few courses explicitly address ways to develop learning skills (listening, note taking, reading, writing and thinking critically) while concentrating on disciplinary content. Even as juniors and seniors, student often still need more help in developing the discipline-specific skills that a major requires. Knowing how to read a journal article in biology requires specific learned skills, as does reading a 19th century account of travel through the United States, and ways of developing these skills need to be part of the classroom activities and assessment process.

Many kinds of learning evaluations can be done quickly in class and are usually called Classroom Assessment Techniques or CATs. These evaluation tools-sometimes graded, sometimes not-help us determine students' skills in such areas as synthesis of information, creative thinking, problem-solving, application of information, as well as their study strategies and behaviors. For example, asking student to document the thinking process they are going through in solving a problem (in words) can be prove to be more insightful to you and the student than just a representation of the problem on the page-as can be an analysis (again in words) of why students can't solve a problem, or solve it incorrectly. Or a process analysis of an assignment-essentially a diary of the steps students take to carry out an assignment, and their analysis of the methods they used-can help determine if students are improving on either basic or discipline-specific study techniques.

As for the colleague of mine, one of her paper assignments turned into a group project that was presented in supplemental class sessions and also briefly summarized in writing. She started giving a series of ungraded quizzes and also brief assignments requiring students to perform small parts of more complicated sorts of tasks; and these brief assignments (while staying brief) became more and more complex over time. She gave many short assignments rather than waiting until the end of the semester for a paper, and she used peer review of some assignments to ease some of the burden of grading (but also to help students develop better analytic skills). Not everything she tried worked, but she eventually found evaluation strategies that accurately assessed students' knowledge while also helping them improve their learning strategies.

For course design and student learning issues:

Fink, L. Dee. (2003). Creating Significant Learning Experiences: An Integrated Approach to Designing College Courses. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Weimer, Maryellen. (2002). Learner-Centered Teaching: Five Key Changes to Practice. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

And remember to explore the National Teaching and Learning Forum.