Teaching Tips: Secrets to Making Major Assignments

As I said last week, I’m doing a series of posts that I hope will help new teachers and that will show students some tricks of the trade so that they can figure out how to work well with teachers and do well in “the system.” Here is my last post in case you missed it: “Teaching Tips: A Back to School Guide for New Teaching Assistants and Teachers.”

This week’s post discusses how to craft major assignments (as if you couldn’t tell by the title). Admittedly, I come from a humanities standpoint (Can I get a “woot woot” for first-year composition instructors? Woot woot!), but I think that these principles pretty much remain the same for other academic sectors. Even if your class is more test-oriented, these tips will still apply.

Steps to a Good Foundation
Are these the steps to knowledge? Perhaps, my friends.  Perhaps.  Photo By: Elizabeth Preston

1.  Start by working backwards. Begin by crafting your big, all-encompassing major assignment that you’ll assign at the END of the semester. What do you want your students to have learned by the end of your class/teaching unit? What skills do you want them to possess? Now, craft an assignment (or test depending upon how you structure your class) that will embody a demonstration of all of those skills.

2.  Use your school’s and department’s learning objectives to guide you.  Your school and department will straight up tell you what they want students to be able to do at the end of your class.  So, use those learning objectives to decide what skills students need to learn and demonstrate for that big final assignment and for the rest of your major assignments.

3.  Use your other major assignments as opportunities for your students to practice some of the skills needed for the final assignment. Think of your other major assignments as prongs that build the foundation for that big final assignment. Pick a few (not all) skills to practice in each of the major assignments.  Remember, try not to overwhelm your students.

4.  Create homework assignments that provide a foundation for each of those major assignments. As you can see, creating major assignments (or tests, however you design your class) is like a tree. At the top is that final assignment, below it are the smaller major assignments, and below those are the homework. This system not only helps you to create the assignments’ prompts and rubrics, but it will also help you to figure out what lessons plans you need, what activities you can do, and how to develop your class’s schedule and syllabus. Also, by explaining this to students, you help them to understand that you’re not just assigning work simply to assign work.

Tree of Creating Assignments
The lesson plans and homework make up the foundation for the major assignments, and the major assignments make up the foundation for the final assignment. I guess that this could be a metaphorical house instead of a tree, but who doesn’t like trees? Everyone likes trees. Graphic By: Elizabeth Preston

5.  Try to make some of the homework transferrable to the major assignments. This is particularly true for the humanities, I think. For example, I have homework assignments where my students answer questions about each of their upcoming major essays. This homework is completed about two weeks before the paper is due, and it encourages students to brainstorm and get going on those papers. Of course, many of them still will procrastinate on writing their essays. It’s what students do best (and I may or may not do it in some of my own work . . .). However, at least that homework will get them to start thinking about their essays, AND if they give the assignment a good effort, then they’ll have already done some of their research, completed a little bit of the essay’s rough draft, and have gotten some my feedback. I’ve had several students use it to their advantage, and it greatly helps them in their writing processes. Sometimes, I think that you’ve got to give students at least the option of making their lives easier—whether they take it or not is their choice.

There may or may not be a tree theme to this post . . . . Photo By: Elizabeth Preston

6.  Make it obvious to the students the why of each assignment. This will help you to achieve #3 on my other post, “Teaching Tips: A Back to School Guide for New Teaching Assistants and Teachers.” Also, students are more likely to put effort into their assignments if they understand why they’re doing them.

7.  Use the skills that you want your students to demonstrate in each assignment as guides for your grading rubric’s categories. I’ll do a more in-depth discussion on rubrics for the next post in this series. For now, though, let those desired skills help you know what to look for when grading your students.


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