Higher Education

TEACHER VOICE: My community college students traded their “rusty can-opener” homework for projects that do the job better, faster

The self-directed assignments that work

Consider the can opener. I have several in my kitchen drawer: an ancient yellow one that cranks with a lot of elbow grease, a stainless steel one with very thin handles that hurt my palms, and one with OXO-style grips that turns smoothly. No prizes for guessing which one gets the most use around our house — everyone prefers tools that take less effort to get the job done.

From an educator’s perspective, assignments are tools, tools designed to encourage students to engage with the material profoundly. In practice, though, writing assignments can strike panic in otherwise stalwart hearts. Particularly in developmental courses (called “remedial” courses at some institutions), students come into the classroom with high levels of anxiety and imposter syndrome. For some, the experience is like using a rusty can opener: homework should smoothly lead to better understanding and good grades, but in fact it does not.

A good assignment for a typical writing course should meet students at different levels of academic skills and engagement: too difficult and they might abandon it, too easy and they tend to become disengaged (and abandon it also).  In my corner of academia, it often isn’t possible to tailor curricula for individual students. Instead, I create assignments that can be shaped, to an extent, by the student herself.

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Universal Design for Learning is a philosophy and set of pedagogical practices to this end. Historically, universal design (sometimes also called inclusive design) focused on tweaking or adjusting everyday tools to make them easier to use for differently-abled and older people. Plush-gripped can openers or bigger electric switches placed at waist level are good examples.

There are very good reasons to embrace this philosophy in teaching undergraduates. My default mode is that of a skeptic (“Will this even work?”), which is why I love the UDL strategy I stumbled upon: to add a “Do More” section to relevant assignments. Say, for instance, I’ve asked students in developmental writing to review the documentary Blackfish. The assignment worksheet looks like this.

The appended “Do More” section (with details on our course website) encourages enthusiastic writers to modify the assignment. Here, one option was to watch a second, related documentary like Grizzly Man or Tyke, Elephant Outlaw and write a comparative review of both films.

Increasing motivation — which leads to better writing, better grades, and all-round academic happiness — is crucial here. Sometimes students ask if they’ll get an A for doing more, and my answer is roundabout.

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Clear writing that is free of errors and shows evidence of analysis will earn a good grade. But, I say, put in more work because you want to figure out something. To reassure students, I emphasize that a clear and in-depth review of the movie is just as likely to earn a good grade as any other variation of the assignment. I want to signal that options exist if the student wants them, not overwhelm her with choices.

I’ve found this strategy a mixed bag in practice. I like its simplicity — it’s a line or two extra on an assignment sheet. It’s adaptable, letting me tweak it from class to class without additional pre-planning. However, when I use it in developmental writing courses I find very few students, high skills or not, take me up on it.

This might have to do with the arc of the student’s career at community college. Mine is typically a first-semester course, and most students coming in from high school spend a lot of energy adapting to college. At Guttman, first-year students follow an intense block schedule that has them in classes many hours a week. Such students usually decide to complete the assignment in its simplest form.

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I use a similar strategy in my 200-level Modern Drama course with more success. A recent assignment asked students to analyze Samuel Beckett’s one-act play, Not I. The “Do More” offered the option to write a comparative response using one of his other short plays or films. Several students — and not just those who were comfortable with course materials — took me up on that option. One student who had been terrified of “making sense” of Beckett found that the second text helped her do so. Another remained flummoxed by both plays, which led her to argue that they were not intended to be understood in the usual way. Using supposedly negative reactions like discomfort, confusion and incomprehension, the students gauged for themselves what modern drama holds of intellectual and emotional interest.

Regardless of the number of students who “Do More,” I continue to expose my classes to the idea that assignments can be modified by them to be more challenging and interesting.

I hope this invitation to take control of one assignment, for one course, translates into more intentional academic choices overall.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education

Ria Banerjee, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of English at Guttman Community College in the City University of New York. She has taught undergraduate courses in writing, literature and film studies at different institutions since 2007.

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Ria Banerjee

Ria Banerjee, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of English at Guttman Community College in the City University of New York. She has taught undergraduate courses… See Archive

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