Engaging Students with Meaningful Assignments
Professor Katie Ferraro (RD) discusses peer review, rubrics, and other ways to keep assignments interesting.
As a nutrition instructor for undergraduate and graduate-level university students for more than 10 years, I have learned there are a lot of things my students can complain about. Most of these are issues I can explain away or convince them why it is important for them to master the particular concept. And although students may disagree with my teaching style or grading rubric at times, there is one thing I never want to be accused of – and that is being an instructor that assigns busy work.
…there is one thing I never want to be accused of – and that is being an instructor that assigns busy work.
Beating Busy Work
By definition, busy work is work that keeps an individual busy but that has little value in itself. And as sly as you may think you’re being in doling out multiple-choice, self-grading assignments to save yourself time, students can spot busy work from a mile away. They’re paying good money to engage with your expertise, so you owe it to your students to assess them in meaningful ways. Here are a few tips for beating the busy work bug and engaging your students with more valuable assignments.
Let Them Talk About Themselves!
It’s a tough reality when working with high school and college-age students, but they can be an incredibly self-absorbed bunch. Constant access to technology and social media engagement has hampered many students’ ability to critically evaluate the important core concepts of many subject matters. Or to pay attention to anything for more than five minutes! But one thing most people – and this group in particular – are pretty adept at is talking about him or herself. So why not take advantage of that?
Apply concepts from class directly to their lives, and it’s amazing how quickly they will start paying attention.
In nutrition, one of the most rewarding experiences my students report from their evaluations is the ability to complete a thorough self-diet analysis project. It’s one thing to teach them about sodium, but when they analyze three full days of their own intake and see how their personal sodium levels far exceed recommendations for health, that sticks with them. As an instructor you can work to design assignments that have students assess their own strengths and weaknesses. Apply concepts from class directly to their lives, and it’s amazing how quickly they will start paying attention.
Provide Peer Review Opportunities
For years I have taught a very large online course at San Diego State University called Cultural Applications of Food and Nutrition. The culminating project is to create a food dish or recipe of cultural, religious or geographic significance. The students have to explain the significance of their chosen dish, document themselves making it, provide a recipe of the dish for the class recipe book, nutrient analysis of the recipe and test it out on friends or family to get honest feedback about their culinary attempts and upload all of this information to our course learning management system (LMS). While some students really got on board with the assignment and created beautiful videos, blog posts or graphic depictions of their dishes, most students submitted run-of-the-mill underwhelming powerpoint presentations that were disheartening to grade.
So how to address this depressing onslaught of sub-par projects at the end of each semester? I thought initially about banning powerpoint, but that was a band-aid approach that didn’t really address the underlying issue: students weren’t inspired to challenge themselves to put together a premium project. But what if they were graded against their peers? I began playing around with the peer-review assignment options on some of the online LMS options and found that both Blackboard and Turn-it-in had some impressive built-in functions that made peer-review grading a snap.
It turns out students were more scared of being graded by their peers than they were by me, and the quality of the projects they began submitting immediately took a turn for the better!
It was amazing how easy and transformative it was to transition to a small-group peer review process for this assignment. I provided students with examples of previous semesters’ “A grade” projects to set the bar high and then told them they would be graded against the other four students in their randomly assigned online group. Putting together a peer-review grading rubric was simple and I noticed an immediate uptick in the quality of projects being submitted. It turns out students were more scared of being graded by their peers than they were by me, and the quality of the projects they began submitting immediately took a turn for the better!
Rely on Rubrics
As a student, I always hated not knowing what I was being graded on. I liked objective grading rubrics laid out in the syllabus so I knew exactly what was required of me to get an A. I try to provide the same for my students, but I used to struggle with how to do so in subjective grading assignments like weekly low-stakes writing submissions and self-analyses of dietary adequacy.
It wasn’t until I was tasked with creating the first human nutrition course for Coursera, the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) platform that I really came to love the power of rubrics. My class had over 10,000 students enrolled each time it was offered, so outside of multiple choice grading options, there wasn’t much opportunity for creativity in assessment. At the behest of our academic aide for the MOOC, I opted for peer-reviewed small group assignments and created powerful rubrics to help guide students in meaningful peer review.
Rubrics take a little while to get the hang of, but there are some great online resources for making a strong rubric. The keys that I have found to creating really good rubrics are:
- Clearly define the criteria – think hard about what skills and knowledge are required to succeed in the assessment; it actually makes you write better assignments and instructions
- Make a rating scale – use somewhere between 3-5 levels to define various degrees of achievement and use simple labels to define each level
- Try out your own rubric – follow your own assignment instructions and try to use the rubric to see if your instructions are clear and easy to follow
For more tips on creating rubrics, check out UC Denver’s online tutorial: Creating a Rubric http://www.ucdenver.edu/faculty_staff/faculty/center-for-faculty-development/Documents/Tutorials/Rubrics/index.htm and DePaul University’s Rubrics page: http://resources.depaul.edu/teaching-commons/teaching-guides/feedback-grading/rubrics/pages/default.aspx.