I once had a colleague who complained that all his student papers were the same. He had carefully crafted an assignment, telling them exactly what to do in each sentence of the first paragraph and then in each paragraph of the paper. When he stopped providing such a rigid template, the papers got more interesting to read because the students had room to think and be creative. On another occasion I worked with a professor who had crafted a complex assignment that asked students to investigate one of the many historic buildings in the city. He gave them guidance, but also lots of room to make choices. The problem was his graduate students, unbeknownst to him, had created a checklist for grading and shared that list with the students, who turned in papers that followed the checklist so faithfully that it sucked all creative thought right off the page. As Brandon Sams, Assistant Professor in Curriculum and Instruction, notes: sometimes it’s not them, it’s us.
How do we fix assignments or rubrics that go wrong BEFORE they go wrong? A few suggestions:
Pre-think the assignment: List out what you think students should learn from doing this assignment. Is the focus on learning the material you’re teaching? On applying concepts or knowledge to a particular situation? On developing writing skills or learning a new genre of writing? If all you want from the assignment is to see that students know the material or can fill in a formula, consider whether a writing assignment is the best way to have students demonstrate their knowledge. As we highlighted in a post last year, sometimes a writing assignment is just not the best choice.
Guide, but leave room for individuality: Assignments that give instructions about every single thing the student needs to do, or which can only be done in one very narrow way, leave no room for creativity or original thought and can stifle student engagement. Papers that emerge from such assignments are boring to read because they are so predictable; students have done little more than fill in a template we gave them. They just aren’t engaged. Instead, create assignments that are invitations rather than formulas. Provide structure where students are likely to need it—offer them possibilities or suggestions—but expect that the task can be successfully done in a variety of ways. Our video “Engaging Writing Assignments: How?” may be helpful.
Involve students: Use class time to talk through the assignment with students, to have them share preliminary ideas with each other and get feedback, to show multiple models of acceptable ways to complete the writing task, and to craft the criteria for evaluation together based on the assignment requirements. This needn’t take much class time, but it signals to students that you think the work is worth doing and can alert you to problems before you have to read the papers that have gone wrong. If you need help with such in-class work, the Office of University Writing is available to consult with you or help you deliver a focused lesson.
Have students use the rubric to begin thinking like professionals in the discipline: Borrow from Dr. Sams and include ways for students to use the rubric on their own or their classmates’ writing. Though we don’t all teach students who are preparing to be teachers, we can help all students develop the habits of mind of professionals in the disciplines. You may remember that Dr. Sharon Roberts, Biological Sciences, shared her approach to helping students think like professionals in a previous post. In another earlier post, Dr. Michael Watkins, Philosophy, explained how he uses a rubric as a teaching tool.
Use a rubric rather than a check list or grade sheet: Rubrics list the criteria that’s expected and the range of possible performances. Check lists or grade sheets can provide the criteria, but more often they list the form the final product will take without considering the thinking that the assignment actually expects. Sometimes rubrics go bad because they combine elements of performance with format expectations. Sometime rubrics go bad because they try to list or count every possible mistake without teaching students the expectations of the discipline. Good rubrics leave room for the evaluator to exercise professional judgment while remaining consistent, clearly attach abstractions like “professional language” to actual words on the page, and have been discussed by all evaluators and the students so that the elements and how they will appear in the writing are understood by everyone in similar ways.
Don’t try to separate writing from the thinking you want students to do: Good writing and good thinking are intertwined. In fact, we use writing to gauge whether a student is thinking about the content precisely because thinking and writing are so closely connected. Rubrics that make writing into a criteria of its own create problems for students and faculty evaluators. How can professional language, appropriate organization, effective use of evidence, or critical analysis be seen if they aren’t in the writing on the page? Granted, you might want a category for following expected conventions or attention to stylistic requirements, but “reasonably fluent prose” really ought to be an assumed starting point for college-level work. Papers that haven’t been proofread deserve to be returned without the professor doing the work the student should have done and the minimum standard needs to be clear from the beginning. There are strategies for helping students learn to proofread, and for getting them to revise sentences so that they are more correct, but those are topics for a later post or maybe a WriteBites Lunch.
Try doing the assignment yourself: Think like a student. Can the assignment be done given what students have learned in your class or what they are likely to know? Can it be completed in the time frame allotted? Is it engaging? Remember, engaging isn’t the same thing as “fun;” engaging means that the assignment seems worth doing because it’s going to teach you something as you do it or it connects to things you care about, like your future career or a deeper understanding of the material you’re learning. If you can’t do the assignment, or can’t imagine wanting to do the assignment, why would you expect students do it with any level of attention or care?
Treat your teaching materials the way you treat your scholarship: As academics we use peer review for scholarship all the time because we know that the feedback we get makes the finished product better, but we rarely share our teaching materials with others to get feedback. WriteBites: The Lunch is one place where you can get feedback from peers about assignments and rubrics, or just talk through the challenges of incorporating writing into disciplinary courses. Likewise, we know that our research will go through multiple drafts before it is “published,” but we don’t always treat our teaching materials to such careful revision. Treating assignments, teaching resources, rubrics the way we do scholarship would help us and our students, in part because we can model the ways professionals write, subject their work to review, and acknowledge the input of others. If you must, give them a draft that provides a general idea of the assignment and tell them that it’s a draft that is subject to revision as you all work on it together. To hear an example of how this worked out for Professor Steve Schmidt, Animal Sciences, register now for the Conversations in Celebration of Teaching on January 30, 2015.
Share your ideasfor preventing assignments or rubrics from going bad: Let us hear from you. Join us at WriteBites: The Lunch or at Conversations in Celebration of Teaching or contact us so we can feature your good ideas and successful strategies in a future posting.
Need help creating a rubric for your writing assignment or figuring out what went wrong in an assignment that didn’t produce the student work you were hoping for? Contact us for a workshop or an individual consultation.