Using Assignments
© 20 Aug 2014 Luther Tychonievich
Licensed under Creative Commons: CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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Reflections on assignments as an educational tool.


There are many things to consider in designing a good course, ranging from instructor enthusiasm to what out-of-class resources to provide or require students purchase. Included in this list for any school-based course is assignments.

It is commonly believed that assignments are part of school courses in order to provide comparative feedback on different students or to provide some kind of rational expectation that a student is competent to work in a field. As one instructor said to me before class during my undergraduate experience, “‍assignments and grades are a service universities provide to our real clients: your first employers.‍”

But how can assignments be used to make a course run better? In considering this, I bring to mind a grossly-oversimplified description of learning which I nonetheless find useful:

Learning is the result of repeated application of attention to instructional material.

Despite all the many things that sentence leaves out, what it includes has proved a useful rubric for me. Learning relies on instructional material, meaning an elucidation of what should be learned in terms that require only understanding the student already has. And there is no material so clear that it can result in full learning after only a single exposure: repetition is necessary. Finally, if attention is not applied I know there are people that claim you can learn via repetition without attention, the “‍listen while I sleep‍” model of learning. This smells like a silver bullet fantasy to me, but I know nothing substantive about it one way or the other. then no amount of repeated instruction can result in learning.

Assignments are almost always repetition. You are taught it, then you do it. Or, for exams, the hope of some instructors is you are taught it, then you study it to prep for the exam. I have never been a fan of studying for exams, preferring to study steadily throughout the course, but the idea still more-or-less holds. On the other hand, if I have to assign it to get you to do it then does the material even matter to you? I worry that assignments as repetition result in poor attention.

Every once in a while I find an assignment that is instructive. My experience in CS 324 at BYU Last taught for CS in 2006 and for ECEn in 2013. It is sad to see one of the best courses I ever took die. with Dr. James Archibald stands out in that regard; the lectures were informative, but the assignments walked me through new material I had not previously considered. But I personally find that designing an instructive assignment is a very difficult thing to do. Attaching new instruction to an assignment is fairly straightforward Taken to the extreme, assignment with attached instruction is basically what many on-line courses are. I have not found it to be a promising educational model. but making the assignment itself instructive is challenging. And when an assignment is instructive I have found it is rarely also repetition.

So what about increased application of attention? It is commonly said by professors that I know, “‍if it isn’t on the test they don’t care about it.‍” I know from personal experience this is not true; I have added a day or two of lecture in most of my classes where I say before the class starts “‍nothing in today’s class will be tested in any way; you may all leave now if you wish‍” and less than 10% of the students leave. I’ve even told students “‍we can either cancel class or have someone share something that will never be tested‍” and had more than 95% of students vote for (and attend) the “‍extra‍” class. And even where assignments do increase attention, but they seem to do it in the most superficial way possible. Many students seem to treat assignments as an upper limit on attention: if I know enough to pass the test then I can stop listening. Plus, assignments can increase stress and one definition of being stressed is “‍wasting time thinking about how stressed you are.‍”

So what then? Is there a real educational gain to be had from assignments, or is it, as I was once told, a service provided to employers, not to students?

As I have been laying out the remaining pieces of a course I am about to teach for the first time next semester, I have found another benefit in assignments. Once I know what assignments I want the students to complete I have a clear set of teaching objectives. It’s one thing to say “‍I’ll teach them about cache hierarchies‍”, but it’s a lot clearer to say “‍I’ll teach them enough to measure the memory mountain of the hardware they are running on and to get 50× speed increases in matrix multiplication code.‍” There’s no wiggle-room in assignments.

I hope as I move forward in my chosen profession I’ll find other benefits to assignments.

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