Disposable assignments and intellectual StairMasters

David Wiley calls them “disposable assignments.”

These are assignments that students complain about doing and faculty complain about grading. They’re assignments that add no value to the world – after a student spends three hours creating it, a teacher spends 30 minutes grading it, and then the student throws it away. Not only do these assignments add no value to the world, they actually suck value out of the world. Talk about an incredible waste of time and brain power (an a potentially huge source of cognitive surplus)!

My colleague Tom Woodward writes and talks about intellectual StairMasters.

I’ve never cared for burning calories just to burn calories. I’d rather go somewhere. Even running in a circle is better than running in place. I can’t stop thinking about how much time and energy go into things that neither the student nor the teacher want.

I like Tom’s StairMaster metaphor because it’s not like working out on a StairMaster is bad, in and of itself. Unquestionably, it’s good for people to do exercise that gets the heart rate elevated for a prolonged period of time. So, in that sense, StairMaster work is… fine. But, frankly, we can do better than fine.

Whenever I have the occasion to review a course syllabus, the assessment-related activities are almost always some combination of and some form of tests/quizzes and papers. “Class participation” is also typically “assessed.” Fine, I guess. But, again, we can do better than fine.

When I talk with faculty members about this, I point to examples such as the UCSF Medical School course wherein medical students edit medical-related Wikipedia articles, “selecting and improving important medical topics to developing them up to a high-level of quality.” Improving the quality of medical information on the Internet; relevant and meaningful work.

If colleagues ask for VCU-specific examples, I typically start by pointing to a graduate social work course. Before ALT Lab became ALT Lab, David McLeod was a doctoral fellow in our Center for Teaching Excellence who also taught for the VCU School of Social Work. He designed a course called Project 710 (710 was the VCU-assigned course number) that was “an effort to see just what a class is capable of accomplishing (both individually and as a group) when the focus is on learning through meaningful community based experiences.” Students documented their work on their blogs throughout the semester, and the final project was to create a meaningful digital story. Some students chose to create a PSA on an important local community matter.

Now, here at VCU and through ALT Lab, we are doubling down on this idea of meaningful student work. Our new Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP) is subtitled “Learning that Matters.” Possibilities and opportunities abound here, but to begin to offer a sense of what’s possible, consider the super simple cases of field botany and sociological theory.

Tom (and Molly) did a nice job of documenting the Field Botany course, so I’ll only add a little background. In the past, students in the course would go out into the field, take notes, and submit a paper to the professors indicating what they had learned about various plant life. A disposable assignment, and a huge lost opportunity. In stepped Tom with the idea of students collecting data and information that they could submit (via their blogs) to an aggregation hub. The result is a student-sourced, searchable, sortable archive of plant life in different areas around Richmond, VA. So, if you’re walking around Belle Isle and examining plant life, you now have a visual and narrative guide.

Another example of this sort of student-sourced resource is currently in development by undergraduate and graduate students in Dr. Jennifer Johnson’s Sociological Theory courses. Students don’t just read about various sociological theories and write papers about what they’re reading. They write about the theorists on their personal blogs, and by applying appropriate categories and tags, everything about a particular theorist is fed into a page of informative posts about a particular theorist. See e.g. this page about Karl Marx.

This student-sourcing of what are effectively open educational resources is, to be honest, the low-hanging fruit. However, to this point, faculty members seem to grok those examples and jump at the chance to do something similar. That’s easy enough for us to help with and we’ll continue to support that kind of work. But, this is just the beginning. I truly look forward to working with other VCU faculty members, staff and students to design experiences leading to and resulting in “Learning that Matters.”




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