Skip to content Skip to navigation

Do Your Students Really Understand You Assignments?

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

Message Number: 

Academic tasks constitute much more than a list of specific instructions and criteria in a course outline. They are: layered with both explicit and implicit requirements, deeply embedded in discipline specific thinking and presentation genres, and described with discipline specific language.


The posting below looks at how to enhance "task understanding" among your students. It is by Allyson Hadwin and is from LTC Currents - Optimizing Learning Environments sponsored by the Learning & Teaching Centre University of Victoria. Currents Vol. II, No. 3, August 2006, p.1. 250-721-8571 · L T C Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

UP NEXT: Interdisciplinary Teaching and Learning

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning


-------------------------------------- 1,374 words ---------------------------------

Do Your Students Really Understand You Assignments?


Why is it that some students completely "miss the mark" on assignments? Didn't they read the instructions or listen when you took time in class to explain the criteria? It seems like such a waste of time and energy, for both you and your students, when they complete an academic task in a way that does not fulfill your expectations or advance their understanding, in the way you had hoped.

Task understanding refers to the interpretation a student develops of an academic task. It


* Figuring out what you are being asked to do and why you are being asked to do it

* Activating relevant knowledge and experiences of the task, content, and yourself as a learner

* Constructing a personal representation of an externally assigned task.

Task Understanding and Self-regulated learning

Self-regulated learners strategically monitor, evaluate and adapt learning strategies and processes. Task understanding, or developing a personalized interpretation of the assigned task, is an important phase in self-regulated learning (Winne & Hadwin, 1998). Students who develop accurate and complete understandings of academic tasks are more likely to successfully self-regulate their learning, and perform well on the task. This is because they have accurate standards against which they can check progress, generate feedback for themselves, and intervene when something goes awry. Without these accurate standards, they may have incomplete, inaccurate or biased perceptions of the task, and little awareness that they have misunderstood

or misrepresented the task.

When do students realize they are having problems?

(1) During task completion - indicators that task understanding may be incomplete or inaccurate include: (a)

not knowing what to do, (b) not knowing how well you are doing, or (c) not being sure if this is what you are supposed to be doing. Following is an example from data I collected from a first year student (Hadwin,


The philosophy assignment is not just as straight forward right or

wrong questions, it requires thinking. As a result, I am totally

lost in my first assignment. I don't know what to do actually,

even though I did answer all the questions, I am very uncertain

with my answers.

(2) After receiving feedback - indicators that there may have been a problem with task understanding include: (a) a poor grade, (b) an oral or written comment indicating that the student was off track, (c) comparison with other assignments that indicate other students did something completely different. Examples, from student reflections after having received feedback on an assignment:

The whole time....I thought an analytical approach was using my

own words. I did not know the professor really wanted me to write

about the stand I was taking on the topic and [articulate] argu-

ments I was bringing] forth.

Now I feel I can use the feedback that I received (bad score) on

my test to help me....also, I am now aware that different profes-

sors add and expect different things from these tests.

So the next time I pick up my Economics 103 text or any other

course book, I must keep in mind that the purpose is not only to

complete the assigned task, but also to recognize what the assigned

task is here for.


(3) Never - Unfortunately, many students do not realize that they had inaccurate or incomplete task understanding even after receiving feedback. My research shows that students often attribute the problem to something else such as: poor time management, not having a repertoire of strategies to complete the task, having a bad teacher, or applying insufficient effort.

Why are academic tasks so difficult to understand?

Academic tasks constitute much more than a list of specific instructions and criteria in a course outline. They

are: layered with both explicit and implicit requirements, deeply embedded in discipline specific thinking and presentation genres, and described with discipline specific language. Successful students may be more capable and strategic in deciphering three aspects of task understanding because they develop understandings of the:

* explicit task by identifying and accurately interpreting: criteria, standards, grading, and language associated

with the documented academic task. This is where instructors and students often invest a great deal of

time and discussion.

* implicit task by considering: (a) the purpose of the task, (b) the timing of the task in relation to other activities and readings, (c) concepts and strategies necessary for completing the task, and (d) connections between this task other course activities. Often this implicit information is embedded in course objectives and purpose statements but many students completely overlook these aspects of tasks.

* socio-cultural aspects of the task by considering: (a) disciplinary beliefs and genres for writing and thinking,

and (b) instructor values for learning and (c) beliefs about knowledge and thinking in this course. Successful students incorporate the subtle distinctions between instructors, courses and disciplines in developing an understanding of academic tasks.

What can instructors do to help students with task understanding?

Butler & Cartier (2004) make the following recommendations.

(a) In the selection of academic tasks, ensure that you make explicit:

* The goals for student learning

* Specific tasks that are required

* The nature of academic work associated with this task

(b) When writing assignment instructions, include explicit directions for monitoring and evaluating their conceptions of the task and strategies for completing this academic work

(c) In the design of evaluation practices:

* Match evaluation criteria carefully to task purposes

* Engage students in self-evaluation of the assignment

* Require students to actively interpret the feedback that you give them to ensure that they understood the purpose of the assignment.

Rather than simplifying academic tasks, research about self-regulated learning suggests we should assign challenging but achievable tasks as well as tasks that require some deciphering, thinking and problem solving. When tasks are complex, I recommend three strategies to help students navigate the task itself:

* Make task analysis a graded part of course assignments. For example, ask students to identify the purpose

and criteria of assigned tasks in their own words. In my research, I ask students questions such as:

* Why are you being assigned this task?

* How does this task fit in with other course readings, lectures, and activities?

* What does your teacher value in student work?

* What kind of thinking are you being asked to do?

* What are the criteria for this task?

* How will you be graded for this task?

* Support collaborative task analysis. For example, have four students individually analyze the task, share

their understandings with one another and then collaboratively co-construct a description of the task that is submitted for grades.

* Emphasize post task discussion and analysis. When course tasks are completed, graded, or given feedback, engage students in reflecting upon what went well and why, as well as what, did not go well and why. Students can interview one another, or engage in a reflective assignment. The advantage of this approach is that it: (a) engages students in serious reflection about the grade and feedback, and (b) provides the instructor with an idea about how students interpret feedback.

An invitation to collaborative research

I am interested in collaborating with instructors to research: (a) students' understandings of a variety of formal and informal academic tasks, and (b) ways of helping students develop more accurate and complete un-

derstandings of tasks without relying on the teacher to map out every detail for them. If you would like to work with me on researching your own course tasks and students interpretations of those tasks, please

email me at


Butler, D.L. & Cartier, S.C. (2004). Promoting effective task interpretation as an important work habit: A key to successful teaching and learning. Teachers College Record, 106, 1729-1758.

Hadwin, A. F. (2000). Building a case for self- regulating as a socially constructed phenomenon. Unpublished doctoral dissertation. Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, BC, Canada.

Hadwin, A. F. (under review). What do university students tell us about strategically self-regulating their learning. Studies in Higher Education.

Winne, P. H., & Hadwin, A. F. (1998). Studying as self- regulated engagement in learning. In D. Hacker, J.

Dunlosky, & A. Graesser (Eds.), Metacognition in educational theory and practice (pp. 277-304). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.