Worth Sharing: Making Sure Yours is not a ‘Pointless Exercise’

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Not a ‘Pointless Exercise’

Briefly, Martini noticed that her students didn’t seem to get the connections she had hoped they would on the assignments she gave, and wondered if it would make a difference if she made those connections explicit.

I can answer that, as I’ve been experimenting with this for several decades now.

It does.

We often make the mistake of assuming our students will see the same connections we do. They mostly don’t. We owe it to them to make those connections explicit. That’s kind of the big idea behind Ausubel’s “Advance Organizers”

You can read more here:

From Teaching, a free weekly newsletter from The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Tanya Martini worked hard to make assignments in her psychology courses relevant to students’ lives. Even so, her students sometimes wrote in their course evaluations that they found those assignments pointless.

It was a frustrating situation, but not an uncommon one. Plenty of professors get similar feedback, especially when they, like Martini, a professor of psychology at Brock University, in Ontario, teach courses that attract non majors looking to fulfill a graduation requirement.

Martini decided to do something about it. When students indicated that an assignment was pointless, she figured, they were thinking only about the content it covered, not the skills it would help them build.

So Martini began including a breakdown of those skills in her assignments’ instructions. Surely that would help.

She ran an experiment to find out, asking students to rate the relevance of assignments with and without a description of the associated skills. To Martini’s surprise and dismay, her addition didn’t make much of a difference. Telling students that an assignment would help them build a particular skill was apparently insufficient.

Why? Many students, Martini realized, thought of skills in a narrow, context-specific way. It wasn’t clear to them that the same skill that a psychology essay would build written communication would also help them tackle a history paper, or a business proposal. Higher education often assumes that students can figure out how the skills they learn in one context transfer to a different one. “I think now,” Martini said, “that it’s asking a lot of them.”

So Martini added more-specific language to her assignment instructions to help students think about how the skills they develop can transfer to other areas. “It’s partly about making it very explicit,” she said. “But it’s also partly about giving them concrete examples.”

She began by acknowledging that these connections might not be obvious to students and that they might therefore question an assignment’s relationship to their goals.

Take, for example, an assignment for students in a second-year course in human learning, in which they create study materials for students in the introductory course. “You may think that this is a pointless exercise if you have no interest in being a teacher (and, more specifically, teaching PSYC 1F90),” she wrote in the instructions. But the assignment, she went on to explain, was about using design thinking, which “happens in any field where people have to ask themselves, on a regular basis, questions like, ‘How can we do this? How can we make this experience/process work? Could we be making this experience/process better for people? And if we could, what would ‘better’ look like?’”

The instructions for another assignment in the course describe how a skill it builds, knowledge translation, can be used in a variety of settings. “Whether you become a marketing manager or a cop or a counsellor or a physiotherapist,” she wrote, “you will often find yourself in a position of having to explain things to others (e.g., clients, parents and other family members) who haven’t had your level of training.”

Are these additions enough to move the needle on the way students view assignments? Martini hopes to know soon. One of her students plans to compare the relevance ratings students give to three versions of the assignment one with no mention of skills, one describing skills, and one further communicating their application as a senior thesis project. She hopes to have results next month. 

Martini’s approach shares elements with a broad effort, called transparency in learning and teaching, that encourages professors to make the purpose of their assignments explicit to students.

Another way of helping students understand the skills a particular course helps develop is explaining it in the syllabus. You can read more about that in this newsletter by our colleague Goldie Blumenstyk. (The newsletter has since been renamed The Edge, and you can sign up to receive it here.)

Have your students ever questioned the utility of your assignments? What do you do to help them apply what they learn in your classroom to their lives beyond it? Tell me at beckie.supiano@chronicle.com and your example may appear in a future newsletter.

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