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Beyond Paper Assignments

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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It’s worth noting that although all these projects are constructed as hypothetical—in other words, students aren’t literally speaking to 12-year-old boys or writing to first-year math students—there’s nothing that says they couldn’t be realistic.


The posting below, a bit longer than most, looks at alternative possibilities to the usual paper assignments.  It is from Chapter 4: Creating Wicked Assignments in the book, Creating Wicked Students:Designing Courses for a Complex World, by Paul HanstedtPublished by Stylus Publishing, LLC 22883 Quicksilver Drive Sterling, Virginia 20166-2102.

Copyright © 2018 by Stylus Publishing, LLC. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

UP NEXT: Assessing Classroom Quality



Tomorrow’s Teaching and Learning

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Beyond Paper Assignments


What if you’re in a field where paper assignments aren’t necessarily the norm? Or what if the students at your institution aren’t particularly inspired by writing assignments, even nontraditional ones? What if you’ve seen enough papers to last you a lifetime, and you’re just looking for something new?

Oral Presentations

Almost everything we’re talking about here can easily be shifted to other genres and disciplines. Consider, for instance, a class where the major requirement is an oral presentation. Normally this means a student who has researched a topic related to the course stands up and gives a talk to a group of other students who’ve also researched a topic related to the course. Although this sort of assignment can work well in some situations—for example, when the students listening are particularly polite, or the student speaking has chosen a topic that has some intrinsic appeal to the audience—very often, presentations like this have an arbitrary, meaningless feel to them: The students are not doing this because it truly matters but because it’s expected.

What happens, though, if we change the implied audience for a presentation to a group of people who really don’t know much about a topic and have some intrinsic interest in it? It’s possible, in other words, to reconstruct the rhetorical context so that the speaker must take authority over the spoken content and what’s being discussed really matters. I’m reminded of a workshop I did years ago where, as we were discussing alternative assignments, a woman in the back of the room suddenly shouted, “Oh!” I stopped what I was doing, and we all looked at her, wondering if she’d had a heart attack. She hadn’t. What she’d had was an epiphany. “I teach gender studies,” she told us. “And every semester I have students give talks on male gender roles. And every semester it’s the same old thing, the choir preaching to the choir. What if—” and here she paused, for she had our attention now, “instead of having them talk to the class, I had them pretend they were talking to a group of 12-year-old boys?” And then everyone in the room said, “Oh!” Because we got it now too. In the first scenario, student talking to students, nothing really matters. In the second scenario, students talking to tween boys who are about to begin their own exploration of the varying models of maleness, everything matters. The latter speech, that talk, is an opportunity to change individual lives, social expectations, and society as a whole. Suddenly presentations that had felt like meaningless academic exercises felt very real, very significant, and very powerful.   

Frankly, at moments like this the whole issue of authority doesn’t really seem very important in comparison to our desire to make learning powerful and purposeful. But that’s the point: By shifting rhetorical focus, we’re creating a situation that transcends mere academia by putting students in challenging situations where things matter. Kind of like life.

Comprehensive Projects

The following instructions are from another assignment, developed by Zach Adams, formerly of Wesley College. They come from the major project for a first-year seminar on art and community murals:

Create a proposal for a local public mural in the Dover area for possible grant/funding applications. Include and prepare a rationale for a description of the project, the long-term goals for community impact, several means of creating community input and involvement, and a budget. (Z. Adams, personal communication, January 8, 2014)

There’s so much to like about this assignment. Most obviously, it asks students to assume authority in a very real way: They are working in the community now with real people, a real goal, and a real impact. This matters. The students must think about the needs of the Dover community so they can develop long-term goals for the project, learn about the various means of gathering community input for an art project, evaluate those methods, choose and rationalize an appropriate approach, conceptualize and rationalize an art project that would meet those needs, and develop a budget and a rationale. In other words, this project asks students to integrate multiple disciplines (art, sociology, mathematics), synthesize complex information from multiple sources, make meaning in the form of a new community mural, and do all this in a situation that has better and worse answers—but no certainty.

Quantitative Reasoning

That mathematics plays a role in Adams’s assignment is also important for several reasons. First of all, for most of our students, quantitative reasoning is usually going to matter in an applied way; that is, students will use it in their work for a nonprofit, a web design firm, or a car rental agency. Math matters, and this assignment makes that starkly clear to a group of first-year art students who at first may see mathematics as unnecessary. The students who take this first-year seminar will learn the value of mathematics to their career goals and may, as a result, approach any required mathematics courses with a higher degree of intrinsic motivation.

Second, I like that this assignment asks students to write about mathematics. They can’t simply put the numbers down and walk away. This is important, because as a lot of faculty who regularly teach quantitative reasoning will tell you, one of the biggest challenges they face is getting students to actually understand the ideas behind mathematical formulas. Students can do the math, but when the situation or the context changes, these same students find themselves at a loss; for example, how do they reconfigure a one-dimensional equation on a two-dimensional graph? Asking students to actually write about what they’re doing, to justify and explain their quantitative approaches, helps shift students’ roles from passive to authoritative (Bahls, 2012). 

Consider, for instance, an assignment designed by Patrick Bahls (2012), in which, as students go through the semester and learn various concepts, they write a mathematics textbook for other students, providing “explanations of key course concepts as well as visual aids, examples, and exercises as appropriate” (p. 110). Think about the complexity of this; to explain key concepts, students must first thoroughly understand those concepts, then find the language to articulate those concepts to someone who is unfamiliar with them. To develop visual aids, students must shift their thinking from numbers and words to images, which requires a complex cognitive translation not only of language but also the medium. To develop examples and exercises, students must step beyond what they’ve learned in the textbook and through discussion and lecture and create something entirely new, scaling examples and exercises in a developmental way to move their readers gradually from complete ignorance to understanding. Recalling Krathwohl’s (2002) taxonomy, clearly this project has students spending a great deal of time on the far right-hand side of the taxonomy, engaging in cognitively challenging acts. Although Bahls constructs this as a semester-long project (students do extensive and impressive work brainstorming, drafting, responding, and so on), he makes the point that it could easily be scaled back into a series of study guides or even 


A final quantitative example, drawn from the legendary physics professor Thomas Knorr at Wheeling Jesuit University, concerns a midlevel lab for physics majors (S. Vargas, personal communication, June 15, 2016). Knorr assigned each of his students a wicked problem they were required to solve completely on their own. For example, one student was asked to develop a method for calculating the ratio of buildings to lawns on campus, another was asked to calculate the number of blades of grass on campus, and another, the volume of water flowing in a nearby stream. In each case, students were to develop a method for determining the answer, provide their calculations, and provide a final number. They had absolutely no supervision, although Knorr was available to answer questions and offer support, which was good, because even his cohort of very good physics majors found themselves struggling—at least at first. There were no formulas for these problems, no answers at the back of the textbook. The Internet didn’t exist then, but even if it had, it wouldn’t have helped. Eventually, though, his students learned to calm down, think about various problems they’d dealt with in the past, and think about how they might adapt the methods they used to solve those problems to the current issue. They experimented. They bombed. Then they experimented again, eventually finding a fingerhold, then a foothold, and then a solution. Maybe it was not a perfect solution, maybe not the solution an experienced physicist would have found, but that wasn’t the point. The goal here was to place students in situations that replicated the kind of work real physicists do in the lab. Not telling them, “Here’s a problem, here’s a protocol, now plug in the numbers,” but rather, “Here’s a problem. Now what?”

We can tell this is an authoritative assignment because it makes no difference whatsoever that the audience for the final project is the professor. After all, in cases like these, he is the uninformed audience. As one former student put it, “What I realized much much later is that it wasn’t about coming up with a correct answer. (Like Knorr actually knew the volume of dirt?)” (M. Carigen, personal communication, June 21, 2016).

Perhaps most important here are the results, that is, the students Knorr produced. As one of them told me, “In hindsight I realize Dr. Knorr was creating great problem solvers. He never gave a lab that was straightforward. By the end of the semester you were just ready for the impossible and were willing to stay up all night to make it possible” (S. Vargas, personal communication, June 21, 2016).

Blended Assignments, Poster Projects, and Real-World Audiences

It’s worth noting that although all these projects are constructed as hypothetical—in other words, students aren’t literally speaking to 12-year-old boys or writing to first-year math students—there’s nothing that says they couldn’t be realistic. For years, the major first-year writing exercise at the University of Vermont was to have each year’s students construct essays and readings for next year’s freshmen. Sometimes the shift to a real audience is just what a project needs to push students further into authority. Consider, for instance, my experiences teaching Composition Theory and Practice, a course that teaches people how to teach writing. In early iterations of the syllabus, the final project was fairly standard: Students were asked to choose a population with literacy needs, such as high school seniors preparing for college, create a course of study for those students, and write a rationale explaining the choices they’d made as they completed the project.     

On the face of it, this is a fairly authoritative assignment. Students are looking at a wicked problem (teaching is always a wicked problem) and constructing new ideas for approaching it. Certainly, some of the projects I was given were pretty good, but even the better ones were—how can I say this—powerfully mundane? Students were clearly doing what was expected of them, but there wasn’t a lot of energy in their work. They achieved the desired ends, but there was no flair, no focus, no indication that students would leave the class and move into the world with a sense of urgency. And when you’re dealing with issues of language, identity, and power, this is rather troubling.      

It also bothered me—and this is a trend that I see often in matters of authority—that the better projects almost inevitably came from the better students. When I asked students to engage in this authoritative task, the students who already had a sense of their intellectual and academic authority were fine, but those who did not—the B and C students, the nontraditional students, and the first-generation students—struggled.       

This is not good. We are educators after all. Our goal is to educate—everyone. If we find ourselves in a situation where the best stay the best and the less stay the less, then chances are we’re not educating, we’re simply affirming the status quo. I don’t know about anyone else, but I didn’t suffer through seven years of graduate school so that I could leave things exactly the way I found them.       

What I eventually did, in a moment of frustration, was shift the syllabus project from a completely written assignment to a blended assignment, one that combined mediums. The first part of the project—the construction of a course of study for a particular population—became a poster presentation (see Appendix A). What’s more, this poster presentation occurred in the student center, just outside the dining hall over the lunch hour. Further, I advertised it on the campus website. My students were expected to show up looking professional, ready to explain the choices they’d made while designing their courses to anyone who stopped by. And people did stop by: friends, classmates, professors, even the college president. And they asked questions. I remember one group that designed an entire syllabus around digital literacies, arguing that this was a great way to reach disengaged high schoolers. A professor from the computer science program, known for his intelligence and his no-nonsense approach in the classroom, came to the session and read the group’s poster. Once he finished, he proceeded to grill the students, hammering them with question after question for almost 20 minutes. Standing back, I felt nervous for the group. They’d only been in my class for 13 weeks after all and were still learning this stuff. Once the professor left and the session was over, I checked in with the students. “That looked a little rough,” I said. “No,” they replied, almost in unison. “It was fantastic. He really cared!”   

Consequently, the students cared. In the weeks running up to the presentations, students would cluster at the end of class, swapping ideas and figuring out when to meet. I’d see groups in the commons late in the afternoon, sipping coffee and huddling over their laptops. Even the individual rationales students wrote for their projects had more energy, were more engaged and engaging. I saw students from all levels develop as thinkers and writers. Presenting students with real audiences in real situations sharpens even more that sense of urgency that can lead to authority: this is not a drill, not some meaningless exercise. What they’re learning in this class and the things they do in this class matter beyond the end of the semester. 

Videos and Other Digital Media

Another approach that invokes real-world audiences is video assignments. The basic premise here is that students create a short film incorporating some component of the course for an audience who would benefit from that content. For instance, I teach a first-year seminar on travel literature. In addition to reading and analyzing various travel narratives, my students also apply social theory and research on study abroad to our discussions. The final project for this course asks students to work in groups, sifting through the key ideas they’ve encountered over the course of the semester and developing a three- to seven-minute YouTube video for people about to study abroad, providing tips for a successful year (see Appendix B). The film must demonstrate complexity of thought about international and intercultural experiences and how they relate to learning and personal development. Students are encouraged always to consider their audience. Most college students won’t watch a boring video, so humor is important, as is music of some sort. All films must include a list of sources that were used in preparation for the filming. Students are also required to write a carefully researched rationale that includes a clear thesis unifying the tips in the film, arguing the value of each tip, and contextualizing and analyzing all outside sources.       

Key to the success of these films (several of which are good enough that I’ve actually sent them to our international education office) is the complexity of the task. Students have to evaluate multiple sources from multiple genres—some narrative, some academic, some theoretical, none of them particularly practical in a how-to kind of way—searching for ideas or the seeds of ideas that might apply to an undergraduate about to leave home for a long period of time. Then students must somehow synthesize these ideas into a cohesive structure, write a script, and edit it to a manageable size. Next, they must choose images to reinforce these ideas and music to fit the mood of the video as a whole and particular ideas more specifically. In doing this, they draft, receive feedback, revise, edit, draft, receive feedback, multiple times, continually deepening the level of thinking and the cohesiveness of the film as a whole. The project becomes very real, very meaningful—that is, very literally full of meaning. It matters.   

The one thing students don’t have to worry about as they create these projects is the technical aspect. The first time I had students create a video for a course, I brought in a specialist to talk about the various software and the nuances of film and sound editing. Halfway through his presentation, one of the students in the class who was a young poet and notorious daydreamer, said, “Hey look! I made a movie.” Then she turned her laptop around to show us that she had indeed created a short film, her first ever. Although claims that today’s students are always and already digital natives have been overused, the fact is that most of the software for these kinds of projects is so available and so intuitive that it’s difficult to form a group of students and not have at least two members already experienced in filmmaking.     

The same can be said for website design programs and software. The Internet is full of cheap and reliable sites that allow students to design and launch their own websites. Because of this, there’s no reason that this same assignment, or the assignment about literacy, creating a math book, or community murals, couldn’t be refigured into a website assignment. Here again, the idea that what the students are creating is open to the world beyond the classroom gives the work more relevance and pushes students toward greater authority. After years of formalized and carefully controlled education, students are able to half listen to our words or skim over our comments fairly easily. The first time they create a Twitter account, blog, or a website related to a course and get retweeted or reposted or simply receive a comment from a real person not in the academic world is electrifying to them.


Bahls, P. (2012). Student writing in the quantitative disciplines: A guide for college faculty. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Krathwohl, D. R. (2002). A revision of Bloom’s taxonomy: An overview. Theory into Practice, 41, 212-218.