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Why We Assign What We Assign

Put an end to busy work by analyzing the purpose of your assignments.

I dislike busy work. Immensely. I can almost feel my blood pressure rise as I chip away at tasks that seem to have no purpose beyond checking something off a list. 

As a teacher, I know my students feel the same way. I pride myself on thinking through my assignments before I give them and determining what, exactly, I want my students to learn from each one. I’m so sure of the goal behind each of my assignments that I invite my students to question any whose reason for existence seems dubious.

But last spring, when my classes went online, I found myself assessing every assignment I gave from an entirely different angle. What worked in a face-to-face setting suddenly seemed like busy work and the exams I was so sure assessed understanding of content seemed more burdensome than instructive.

It was time to rethink my approach. I began to consider whether or not what I’d always done was still a good fit for this group of students under these circumstances, assessing not just the stated goal of each assignment, but the deeper purpose as well. 

Here are three examples of the method I have used to evaluate the purpose of my assignments: 

Example #1: Homework 

Goal: Gather background on a topic we’ll be discussing or reinforce a topic we’ve already discussed. 

Example: Talking Points—students watch or read something outside of class and jot down their reactions, thoughts, and/or questions.

Purpose: Improve critical thinking by helping students go beyond taking notes on outside sources to interacting with the material.

Does it meet my students’ needs? Yes. When I open the discussion in class, their talking points, questions, and ideas are already in front of them.

Do they like it? It’s homework. Once they know not to overthink it, most find it valuable.

Is this the best tool for this? In face-to-face instruction, it works well but, on the online platform, it isn’t as good a fit because we no longer have in-class discussions.

Keep or replace? Keep for face-to-face work. Online, replace with a tool where students can share their thoughts and respond to one another. At the suggestion of one of my students, I use Flipgrid. Now that I’ve seen how well it works, I’m also likely to integrate it into these assignments in my face-to-face classes, using both talking points and Flipgrid.

Example #2: Short Papers

Goal: Review, cement, and/or apply a course concept.

Example: Unit Response Questions (URQs)—students answer questions in essay format to demonstrate an understanding of unit material.

Purpose: Improve critical thinking by asking students to make personal connections to the material and/or apply it to real-world scenarios, help students connect content from this course to their field of study, and build a bridge to more complex papers that are assigned later in the semester.

Does it meet my students’ needs? Yes. URQs are short, they offer choices, and they double as a study tool.

Do they like it? They like it as much as they like any paper.

Is this the best tool for this? Yes, this helps students prepare for exams. 

Keep or replace? Keep for in-person classes. When using an online platform, I cut back on the number of URQs I require students to complete because I replace exams with essay questions requiring the students to connect the material in similar ways. 

Example #3: Informal Presentations

Goal: Share research and new information with classmates and wrap up the semester in a meaningful, yet low-key way.

Example: Student End-of-Semester Presentations—students present answers to specific questions and are limited to a single slide. 

Purpose: Encourage students to make connections between course content and outside material, expanding their overall knowledge base. 

Does it meet my students’ needs? It is helpful for some of my students. 

Do they like it? Feedback on this has been mixed, but most students have good things to say about it after the fact.

Is this the best tool for this? At the moment, yes. 

Keep or replace? Keep for face-to-face classes. When teaching online, I eliminate this assignment and replace it with something else. I have some ideas for ways to make these presentations work and keep them even for online classes, but this is still a work in progress.

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My reason for analyzing these assignments was a change in the format of my class, but any assignment can be analyzed in this way at any time. I’ve revised my informal presentations, for example, numerous times, based on student feedback and my own feeling that the format just wasn’t working. And, as you can see, it’s an assignment I’m still not completely satisfied with when I’m teaching online. 

I might also revise an assignment when I find that it takes a long time to grade, asking myself if I can simplify it without losing its integrity. Similarly, if I have too many assignments that look the same and/or assess the same skill set, I look at whether or not more of the same serves a useful purpose. If not, I consider dropping one.

Every semester and every group of students is different, and our assignments should reflect that. While we aren’t asked to change the format of our classes on a regular basis, we should always be prepared to explain why we assign what we assign. It’s part of our responsibility as educators to monitor our students and adjust our delivery to meet their needs.

So, the next time your students complain about an assignment, or you find yourself less than excited about something you’re asking them to do, consider using the evaluation method above to determine if there might be a better way. Changing things up not only keeps our classes fresh, but it makes our assignments–and our students’ learning–more purposeful as well.


A retired school counselor, Lisa Lawmaster Hess teaches psychology at York College of Pennsylvania. Lisa is the author of Acting Assertively, Diverse Divorce, and three novels. Her latest book is Know Thyself: The Imperfectionist’s Guide to Sorting Your Stuff. 


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