25 February 2013

What Professors Do: Write Assignments

Writing assignments for papers and projects we want our students to complete is another one of the things that professors do each semester. This isn't simply a mechanical task, but rather an intellectual challenge that ties the goals for the course and for the program with what students can be expected to produce at a given point in their academic careers.

I have to come up with an idea of what it is I want to the students to do, whether it's a short exercise in reading texts carefully with a dictionary to find the nuances of word meanings, or a longer research project in which students will come up with original ideas based on previously published scholarship.

I have to make sure that the materials covered in the course up to that point support the project I want the students to complete, in terms of information about the field, knowledge of research tools, and analytical skills. I also think about how writing the paper or doing the research assignment will help the students learn what I want them to get from the course.  (I'm generally interested in getting students thinking carefully and critically and asking good questions, rather than transmitting a bunch of facts.)

As I write the syllabus for the course, I'm already thinking about what kinds of research and writing assignments I'll be giving.  Sometimes I write out the assignment details when I write the syllabus, while I'm thinking through the issues of what I want students to learn and how I will help them learn it.

Conveying the instructions for a project in a one- or two-page description of the assignment is a challenge.  I want to be reasonably concise, so as to avoid overloading students with information, yet detailed enough to give a clear idea of what process they need to go through to get to the end result.

Each time I teach a course, I change the assignments, sometimes a little bit, sometimes a lot.  I need to make sure students can't recycle their classmates' papers from previous semesters, and I also tinker with descriptions and instructions each semester to try to make sure everything is as clear as possible.