Twofers or Disposables? Reflecting On Classwork

All, Pillar, Reflections

Jon Becker blogged this week about disposable assignments and intellectual stairmasters. He credits David Wiley for the term “disposable assignments” which are explained like this:

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.

Becker is particularly taken by Tom Woodward’s metaphor for much coursework being the equivalent of using a Stairmaster to workout. Yes, it does give a workout and elevates the heart rate, but it doesn’t really challenge the person to do and be more. Becker repeatedly points out that this workout is fine, but we can do better. He also asks an important question – why are we wasting so much time and energy on these disposable assignments and stairways to nowhere? It is a good question.

I have wondered for years why we spend so much time on the “mutt genres” that Elizabeth Wardle described so aptly. Frankly, not only do I not want to teach and assign these disposable mutt-genre assignments, I do not want to read them either. While I do not believe the assignments themselves are harmful and some students might (accidentally?) learn something along the way, I do believe they are at the root of many of the writing problems that so many of my colleagues decry (see “Did you ever think it might be the assignment?”).

I believe it is essential that if we want to see better writing in our classrooms then we need to focus on creating writers – something that cannot be accomplished with disposable assignments. But my job is also to foster thinking and disposable assignments are not going to accomplish that either. While the assignment idea might pose an interesting intellectual challenge, most students are not going to invest a lot of time and energy on a task that they know is disposable. This is not because today’s student is lazy – it is because they are human. Adults make the same decisions all the time about where to invest their limited time and energy. Students learn quite young to do the same.

This is why I center my classes around project (or passion) based learning and why the assignments I use to scaffold those projects are more likely to be a “twofer” assignment than a disposable one. For example, last week I blogged about the PLN assignment my professional writing students are currently working on. I believe (very strongly) in the power of a PLN to help learners and professionals of every flavor and so I want my students to learn how to cultivate one of their own. The assignment is a twofer because they are beginning the process of building a PLN, but they will report their PLN projects to me in the form of an activity report (a common professional document). However, it is also part of my scaffolding process (not a Stairmaster assignment going nowhere) to support their work on their projects for the class – passion projects supporting their professional goals. My hope is for my students to learn more about their intended profession and to have a visible demonstration of what they have learned that can be shared with future employers. And in the process they are performing a variety of professional writing tasks which makes the project a threefer…

I really like this work. It is why I teach especially when I get to experience moments such as these in my class last night. One student was so excited about her PLN research she said it made her rethink everything about her future and another reported that her mind was blown by the questions I asked her to think about in the process of brainstorming  possible project topics. Not every student is as invested in their project, but there was a serious buzz in the room as students searched for professional mentors and role models to inspire their plans for the future and I asked them to seriously consider where they wanted to be in the future and what steps they needed to take to reach that goal.

How do you avoid giving your students disposable class work and assignments?

Photo by Adam Jones

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