Embracing the messiness of authentic assignments

Authentic assignments can be messy.

That’s not a bad thing. In fact, the messiness helps students deepen their critical thinking, improve their decision-making, learn about themselves, and even take more control over their learning.

That messiness can be challenging for both students and faculty members, though. For students accustomed to a lecture-and-test format, it means grappling with ambiguity and working through failures. For instructors, it means ceding considerable control to students and devoting time to individual and group problem-solving.

Here's an example from a journalism class called Infomania, which focuses on research skills and critical thinking. To promote those skills, students are challenged to solve a problem or answer a question using information and digital tools. They work in groups to identify elements of the problem, conduct research, and create a prototype of a solution.

The results have been impressive, but the process is messy. Students must identify problems and focus questions; identify sources; brainstorm solutions; distribute work among groups; set deadlines, and ultimately give shape to their ideas. The instructor, Doug Ward, sets aside one class period each week for group work, moving among the groups, challenging their thinking, pushing for context, and guiding them toward appropriate resources. He also brings in librarians, who provide important perspectives on finding information.

An example from chemistry

Drew Vartia, an assistant teaching professor in chemistry, has also used authentic assignments effectively. Students in Honors Chemistry I worked in groups to create posters about the chemistry of everyday things: caffeine, coffee, blood, fabric softener, pigment, oil, limestone, and body odor. Students researched their everyday items and explained the chemistry behind them on an online site. They used the posters to highlight key information and to entice readers to scan a QR code on the poster and go to the online site where students had posted information.

“Traditional writing assignments are typically two-party transactions between the student-author of some research paper and the instructor,” Vartia said. “They do some back and forth and then the utility of the assignment is over. In this case, students were excited that what they were doing mattered to a greater number of people and had the ability to influence people that they’ve never met.”

Vartia was inspired to try the poster assignment after listening to a speaker during Open Education Week. That speaker, Rajiv Jhangiani of Kwantlen Polytechnic University in Vancouver, British Columbia.

“Traditional assignments might just be sucking energy out of the world,” Jhangiani said during his speech. “Students hate doing them and faculty hate grading them.”

Alternative assignments offer more incentives for students to complete the work, he said. Students often take more time and care in completing them because they know the work will be on display for others to see and use.

“I’m amazed at how much pride students put into these assignments,” Jhangiani said.

Preparing for authentic assignments

If you plan to try something similar, keep a few things in mind:

Embrace the messiness. It takes a while for students to come to grips with the idea of controlling their own learning. It is helpful to provide material at the beginning of the semester on how to do that. Students who have mastered test-taking often struggle the most, but all students need reassurance and guidance. Ward gives them one piece of advice so much that it is almost a class mantra: “Try it.”

Provide choices. Choice motivates students, but students need assistance in honing their ideas, thinking through their research questions and what they really want to discover, and identifying what is significant.

Trust students. All too often, instructors set low expectations and assume that students need to be told what to do at every step. Structure is important, but too much structure teaches students to be passive consumers of information and of education. Students generally respond well to challenges and high expectations. Consider that for years, students have told the National Survey of Student Engagement that they expected college to require more work than it really does. If we give students meaningful work, they will respond to the challenge.

Give students time. Setting asside class time for group work is important. Many groups still meet outside class, but student schedules often don't allow that. So class time creates a regular schedule for group meetings, and provides a regular time for instructors to meet with the groups. As you move among the groups, you can answer questions, offer advice and head off potential problems. When you encounter questions that other groups need to know about, you can then provide a mini-lecture or simply provide answers that the entire class needs to know.

Don’t expect miracles. Ward's students have created such projects as a digital survival guide for freshmen, an e-book on KU traditions, an interactive guide for finding study spaces on and off campus, a prototype of an app for basketball camping, and a guide for matching volunteers and organizations. There have been many shallow projects, though. Even with those, students learned to research and think through problems more effectively.

Nearly all students struggle with this process. That’s important because it forces them out of passivity and empowers them to take control over their own learning. Here’s how one student described the process in an end-of-semester self-evaluation:

“In other courses I have taken at various levels of schooling, it was essentially me pleasing the teacher and nodding my head. In this class, I was forced to take the lead and complete my work on my own.  This required focus and organization that had never been required before.  Although at the beginning of the class I despised it, I have come to realize that this is how the workplace will be. There is nobody providing you with the guides to succeed. You have to take it on yourself. This class has taught me that.”

Other students haven’t been as positive. Nearly all recognize the importance of authenticity, though.

Using Open Pedagogy and Open Educational Resources in Your Classes

Doug Ward talks with Karna Younger, open pedagogy librarian at KU Libraries.