Can assignments be meaningful?

Nupur Hukmani

When I look back on my schooling, the one thing that I remember with most dread (among many other school-related things) is the assignments that we were given – both classwork and homework. The fact that I was not allowed to break free from the shackles of drudging school work even after physically escaping the school building, made me hate homework. I passionately despised the individual and group assignments given in class too. These were given to us after the teachers finished their delivery of a nightmare of a lecture, while we forced ourselves to do it, as time passed by sluggishly. So why did I, like many other children even today, detest these class and home assignments so much?

Firstly, they were plain boring. They were usually repetitive and mostly tested only factual information taught in class. Looking back, their main purpose seemed to be to keep me as a child out of the way of the adults around. I vividly remember filling up page after page of the letters of the alphabet and numbers (each number or letter had to be written on a page to fill it up). The instructions given to us were, “Be quiet and write in neat handwriting.” Even today, this assignment seems to be a favourite with teachers in early grades. Secondly, I never knew the purpose of the assignments. No adult around me sat me down to explain why I was supposed to do mind-numbing work in class or at home. The only thing I was told was that if I didn’t do it, there would be consequences. As a result, I ended up doing most of my assignments mechanically. I was more absorbed in figuring out a procedural hack that would help me find the easiest and shortest way out of it, rather than focusing on the learning and understanding of the content. Thirdly, there was no room for the application of the learning in real life. These assignments were alienating, to say the least. When was the last time knowledge from school work helped you understand the world better? Or was able to help you build real-life skills? Or maybe helped you understand yourself better? Lastly, homework and classwork were both anxiety-inducing, because there was constant pressure from both parents and teachers to complete it in a short duration, little to no support in doing them, while having to perform it in a hyper competitive environment. All these factors led to comparison rather than centring on a personal journey of learning. The assignments were always expected to be presented publicly, for which we were praised or reprimanded openly, only leading to more fear and anxiety.

Reflecting on my childhood experiences with school assignments made me wonder about questions that are pertinent even today to teaching and learning practice – What are the perceptions of students and teachers toward assignments? Do students appreciate the relevance of these assignments? Are they aware of the objectives of the assignments? Will knowing the objective or the “why” behind the assignment enrich their learning? How can we help students become better at engaging with assessments, leading to visible learning; rather than concentrating on the outcome of the assessment in terms of grades and marks?

For this article, I spoke to educators and students across grades, subjects and boards to understand their perspectives. To both students and teachers, I posed questions related to current assessment practices in class and at home, and what their attitudes were towards their design and execution. I also asked how useful both sets of people found these assignments.

To start with, I asked teachers about what form of assignments they usually administer in class. Across grades and subjects, the common answers were worksheets, textbook exercises, pre-lesson reading. Some mentioned a mix of group and individual work which was based on discussing worksheets or textbook exercises and writing the answers to those exercises. Some teachers also shared that they conducted think-pair-share activities in class, or had exit slips or quizzes based on the day’s objective. The overarching aim was to revise the lesson, learn definitions and mostly practice writing questions and answers. One teacher shared an inventive idea where she gave the class an assignment to work on, in groups. The students had to create a video on the Big Bang theory and the evolution of mankind. All over the world, research has shown that most teachers focus on practice or preparation assignments (like the ones mentioned above) whose emphasis is on improving the speed and accuracy of completion of a task, retaining factual information, preparing for the next day’s lesson, and developing certain skills over time like test-taking accuracy. In my sample too, I found that only a few teachers focus on assignments that require higher-order or abstract thinking, creativity, and a collaborative execution to solve real-life problems by extending the learning in the classroom.

Attitudes of children toward assignments is another aspect that needs consideration. All teachers in my sample had one complaint – most students looked at assignments with terror and did not engage with them. There could be many reasons for low engagement with assignments. Some students may be functioning at a level below the level of the assignments; they might not be developmentally ready to do the task; they may not have a conducive classroom environment (bullying is one major reason for low engagement with group assignments) or they might be going back to an unfavourable home environment. Another reason for low engagement is that the assignment itself may not be intrinsically meaningful or motivating to a child. Many times, students are unaware of the purpose of the assignment, they do not understand it’s real-life application and end up working toward its completion solely for marks or grades. These reasons were cited by the students whom I spoke to as well. Another concern that they mentioned was the stress related to the completion of assignments. All the children I spoke to reported that they were strained more about completing the assignments than about their quality. They also mentioned working on homework for hours after school because different subject teachers gave different subject assignments. I spoke to a parent of a child who is currently in pre-school. Not only the child but also the parent was feeling burdened by the number of worksheets that they had to help their child complete during and after school.

The attitude of teachers toward assignments is also telling. All teachers I spoke to, agreed that assignments are important to gauge the understanding of students, to know how to plan their lessons better and to keep the students engaged in varied forms of learning. All of them agreed that assignments were useful in improving grades. However, only a few of them believed that students should be provided with purposeful assignments which clarified the “why” of it and had real-world applications. All the teachers I spoke to mentioned that they do tell students the structure and design of the assignments as well as the procedure expected in completing them. They also mark the assignments quantitatively and appreciate students who have done well on it. But none of them shared the big picture of ‘why’. Many teachers are unable to provide personalized feedback due to a time crunch and/or a lack of training and perspective.

Assignments are relevant for many reasons – they help improve immediate learning through retention. When children are able to make connections between assignments they have worked on they develop metacognition, and in this way, assignments have long-term academic benefits. They also have non-academic benefits like building collaboration, critical thinking, problem-solving and communication skills. They help children become more independent, self-regulate and build essential life skills. Real-life application of assignments means that the child develops a scientific temper, rational behaviour and a research outlook. Assignments may also increase stakeholder investment. Useful, well thought out assignments not only increase student engagement but also increase parental involvement in the child’s progress and the school.

The purpose of good assignments is not just to keep busy or increase speed. A good assignment is learning-centred. It is not only directly connected to the objective of the day, but it also has a big picture purpose. A well thought out assignment is reasonable in terms of the time a student gets to complete it. If an assignment is causing stress, then the anxiety of completing it on time will supersede the quality of learning. Before giving an assignment, an educator must also make sure that students are ready to do the assignment – developmentally, comprehension-wise, resource-wise, as well as their levels of motivation. Assignments can be more meaningful and build a higher-order skill if students are partners in designing them. Before giving out an assignment, the teacher can hold a discussion asking students to contribute toward the design of the assignment, collectively agreeing on timelines to complete it, and deliberating on the feedback process. Research also supports that when teachers share the design of the lesson as well as assignments with their students, they not only understand the content better but are more engaged in self-improvement and self-monitoring because they are intrinsically motivated. When teachers keep the “why” at the forefront of the assignments, they can find out reasons why students might be struggling with the completion or of the quality of the assignment.

For example, an assignment for grade 4 given by a teacher in my sample was “Make a hygiene checklist of all essential items to keep a house clean. Use the checklist on your house to do a hygiene audit”. The assignment was part of the lesson “Living Safely” in EVS. The teacher first had a class discussion on the importance of personal and community hygiene, made text to self-connections and also asked students to read the lesson. Post the discussion, the students were asked to make a laundry list of the essential things and processes we need to keep ourselves, our homes and our community clean. These included things such as soap, floor cleaner as well as daily processes like segregating and safely disposing of waste. The students then had to come and report the gaps they found in their house in their respective groups and work on any one item for a month. Basically, they had to invest their family members and bring about one change in the house to improve hygiene. The teacher asked students to write about their experience in any format they wanted – a summary, a poster, a poem or a story. One student came up with a short story about the origin of a store bought floor cleaner, the chemicals it has and its harmful effects on our health and environment. The student in question had researched for his assignment on how one can make bio-enzyme at home using easily available household items like orange peels and sugar. This idea prompted the entire class to make bio-enzyme for the school to slowly shift from a store bought floor cleaner to a more sustainable option. This project, the teacher mentioned, was not only based on content taught in class but also helped children build collaboration, process-oriented thinking and execution, research skills, and thinking not just about their immediate surroundings but also about the world in general. This assignment has many components that a good assignment must have. However, there was one missing part – an established process of feedback.

The final cog in the wheel of assignments is feedback. The way teachers manage the feedback process directly affects the impact on learning and motivation to complete assignments. Lack of feedback or feedback that promotes competition over learning both can have a negative outcome on learning as well as the motivation of students to complete the assignments. The students I spoke to mentioned that they did not know why they had gotten a certain grade on an assignment. One student reflected on his own to realize that he had been repeating a pattern of mistakes in math over multiple assignments causing him stress until he figured out what he was doing wrong all by himself. Another problem was that students did not find the grading/marking system very useful. One student mentioned, “I get good marks for almost all of my assignments, but many times, I don’t know why exactly.”

Giving students feedback that is non-evaluative, specific, timely, and focused on the objective will go a long way in helping them submit quality assignments which are aligned to the objective. Allowing students to give feedback to each other in a planned manner can also help enrich the feedback process for students and give them multiple perspectives on the same assignment. Students can get three types of feedback – self-assessments, peer reviews and teacher feedback. These cannot be arbitrary but should be based on a structured process and involve references like project specific rubrics. Before starting on an assignment, a teacher needs to set feedback expectations around the process of offering and receiving feedback.

Developing “assessment capable students”, a concept by educator John Hattie, has gained traction over the last few years. It involves responsibility both on the teachers’ part as well as students’ part. The teacher is responsible for a focused objective, as well as the guided instruction. The rest of the time should be spent on facilitating responsible student behaviour which involves collaborative and independent learning. In this process, students are not only aware of the purpose of the assessments but are also aware of the monitoring systems for the assignments so that they know exactly what to work toward and are part of a collaborative and reflective feedback process where they give and receive feedback in a structured manner. In this process, there must be scope for redoing the assignment because the aim of the assignment is learning and not a quantitative outcome.

At the end of the day, assignments are a means to an end – to develop a reflective, structured and thoughtful student who owns their learning.

Note: My sample for this article consisted of five teachers teaching across grade levels from class 2 to class 10 in Pune, Kolkata and Mumbai. They also belonged to different boards – SSC, CBSE, IB and ICSE. I also spoke to five children from classes 3 to 10, studying in schools affiliated to different boards in Pune and Mumbai. The one parent I spoke with resides in Mumbai.

References

  1. https://repository.stcloudstate.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1030&context=ed_etds
  2. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01528/full
  3. https://www.edutopia.org/blog/providing-feedback-as-formative-assessment-troy-hicks
  4. https://www.edutopia.org/article/benefits-sharing-our-planning-students
  5. https://www.edutopia.org/article/whats-right-amount-homework
  6. https://www.edutopia.org/article/simple-ways-solicit-peer-feedback
  7. https://visible-learning.org/2013/01/hattie-lecture-about-the-future-of-measurement/

The author holds a Masters in Psychology and has been an educator for the last eight years. She is currently pursuing a Masters in International Human Rights from the Indian Institute of Human Rights, Delhi. When she is not teaching or writing, she loves reading, cooking and long-distance running. She can be reached at [email protected].

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