Course and Assignment Design
Understanding the Learning Process
Effective course design begins with understanding the process of thinking and learning. These processes are commonly termed "metacognition."
Metacognition includes a critical awareness of one’s thinking and learning and oneself as a thinker and learner. The effectiveness of a metacognitive approach to instruction was one of three key findings in "How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience and School," the National Academy of Sciences’ synthesis of decades of research on the science of learning.
Metacognitive practices increase students’ abilities to transfer or adapt their learning to new contexts by asking them to engage in thinking about thinking: that is, thinking about their tasks and assignments as designed for learning, and thinking about their own practice as learners.
Thinking About Student Writing
One of the key steps in designing an effective writing assignment is understanding what good student writing looks like and why mastering academic writing is so difficult for students.
Metacognition in Writing Assignments
While these metacognitive practices are effective for student learning, many of these precepts should be applied to the process of designing successful writing assignments in the first instance. Key to metacognitive assignment design is maintaining an awareness of what the assignment is trying to achieve and how it seeks to achieve it. In writing assignments, it is important to bear in mind:
- The course content the assignment is asking students to demonstrate.
- What discipline-specific writing conventions students will need to master in order to present this content.
- How and why these conventions evolved in the first place.
Effective Writing Assignments
The more detailed a writing assignment is, the better the student papers are in response to that assignment. Students respond best to instructions that make explicit the process or steps necessary to complete the assignment. A checklist to bear in mind:
- Have you used explicit command words in your instructions (e.g., “compare and contrast” and “explain” are more explicit than “explore” or “consider”)? The more explicit the command words, the better chance the students will write the type of paper you wish.
- Does the assignment suggest a topic, thesis and format? Should it?
- Have you told students the kind of audience they are addressing — the level of knowledge they can assume the readers have and your particular preferences (e.g., avoid slang, use the first-person sparingly)? (Click here for information on effective writing formats.)
- If the assignment has several stages of completion, have you made the various deadlines clear? Is your policy on due dates clear? (Click here for guidance on sequencing your assignment.)
- Have you presented the assignment in a manageable form? For instance, a five-page assignment sheet for a one-page paper may overwhelm students. Similarly, a one-sentence assignment for a 25-page paper may offer insufficient guidance.
According to the principles of Universal Design for Learning, writing can help to foster an inclusive learning environment by making classroom discussion accessible and by providing additional opportunities for participation.
Feedback and Assessment
Like many instructors, many students have been trained by past educational experiences to think of all written comments on their papers as negative and evaluative. Comments on final drafts often serve to justify the grade; even if we do not intend them to, students will frequently read comments with this purpose in mind.
Students also have assumptions about the ways teachers respond to them. Even helpful questions can be read by students as being sarcastic or critical. Therefore, it is a good idea to discuss or demonstrate your responding strategies in class before students receive their first written responses.