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Assignment and Project Ideas

This section offers assistance for assignment design. In addition to helping faculty assess how effectively students are mastering course material, assignments provide the connective tissue between class meetings and give the instructor formative feedback to help them fine-tune their instruction. Here we offer some insights on choosing writing and reading assignments, and provide twelve sample assignments and project ideas that are adaptable across disciplines. Finally, we wrap up this section with providing a few first day of class activities to help you get started!

Choosing Assignments

Assignments rarely go as planned the first time they’re taught. If we understand this, we can work to make sure that students find our assignments useful now matter how they turn out, and we can refine them for the next time.      

As you plan your course, think about what role assignments will play. Some questions you might want to consider:

  • How will your assignments promote student learning? How will they connect to the learning goals of your course?
  • Will you use them to assess your students’ comprehension of course material, perhaps in the way an exam or a quiz does, or will they help deliver, problematize, and eventually provide an opportunity for students to synthesize course material?
  • Will your assignments provide lower-stakes scaffolding for work that builds towards a higher-stakes culminating artifact?  
  • Do you prefer to vary the types of assignments you’ll require, and if so, how will you decide what to assign and when?
  • What kinds of assignments will be necessary to prepare students for the course requirements you’ve laid out? For example, many courses require students to make in-class presentations. How might preparation for these presentations inform earlier assignments?
  • How might secondary course objectives inform your assignment design? If you’re interested in students working with technology in the classroom, for instance, could you design an assignment that makes use of the technology you’re exploring?
  • If you’re breaking your course into modules or units, might it be beneficial to think about assignments in terms of micro (unit-specific) goals, and macro ones that ask students to make connections across units?
  • How will you represent these assignments on your course syllabus? One option is to include a three-column table that lists, in the first column, the date; in the second column, the reading due; and, in the third column, assignments due. Another option is to include a table or list of key due dates on your syllabus. Since you want your syllabus to be a manageable document, consider passing out or posting assignment-specific instructions in a separate document.

Selecting Reading Assignments

There’s no magical number of pages that’s perfect for each and every course or class meeting. Steve Volk, director of the Center for Teaching, Innovation and Excellence at Oberlin College, offers some general guiding questions: What do you want the reading to do? Where does the reading come in the course, and will this impact your students’ ability to complete it? Can less reading be more impactful? If students are novices in our field, how should that impact our expectations for their reading?

As you consider how many pages of reading to assign, make sure you’re clear–both in your planning and when you communicate with your students– about what kind of reading you expect students to do. For instance, do you expect them to engage in close reading and to annotate carefully? Skim for the main ideas? Don’t assume your students know how you expect them to engage with different kinds of artifacts. During the semester, it could be beneficial to model the reading practices you expect, or to give students guidelines or materials that help encourage those practices. One possibility is to share a text you’ve annotated, or to annotate a text together using an overhead projector or online annotation tools.

As you’re picking texts, consider what you want students to do with the material before reading, while reading, and after they’ve engaged with it. Do some texts open up options for place-based or problem-based assignments that would allow students to take a more active role in their learning? Do some texts pair nicely with one another for comparative assignments, or provide usefully divergent points of view? What type of assignments do you plan to build out of the readings, and, inversely, how might the assignments for the course help you determine reading options?  

When selecting readings, make sure that students have the access and time necessary to fully engage with them, though also be prepared for some of your students not to have completed the readings before class! You should also consider:

  • The type of text (theory, novel, textbook chapter, philosophy, poetry, etc.)
  • What you want students to do with that text (close-read, skim, pull out central argument, etc.)
  • What you want the text to do (provide background context, be the basis for class discussion, supplement the lecture, etc.)

Sample Assignment and Project Ideas

The twelve assignment and project ideas below can be scaffolded, aligned with common learning outcomes and skills, and adapted across disciplines. This list is not exhaustive or prescriptive. Rather, these examples represent the various types of activities that you may ask your students to undertake and are intended to generate creative thinking and adaptation.

Each category includes a brief description of the assignment, skills that can be developed and assessed through the assignment, and some tips and notes.

  1. Review of the Literature

Description:

A literature review is a scholarly paper focused on synthesizing current knowledge and major contributions to the area of research that students are interested in pursuing. This is a useful method of enabling students to become more familiar with scholarship on a particular topic. If assigned as part of a larger research project, completing a literature review also provides students with the opportunity to contextualize their research interests and ideas, and/or refine their research questions. This assignment works very well across the disciplines, and can function as a precursor to a research project or as a stand-alone assignment.

Learning Outcomes:

Intermediate-to-Advanced Research Skills

  • Collect and analyze literature and data to address a research question.
  • Identify relevant sources needed and required for the research project.  

Critical Thinking/Analysis Skills

  • Evaluate claims and arguments in a text.
  • Draw connections between and contextualize a series of texts.

Persuasive Writing Skills

  • Construct a clear and cohesive rationale for research project through writing.
  • Integrate elements from secondary sources into your narrative.
  1. Site Visit Report or Reflection

Description:

A site visit is a great opportunity for students to connect theory to practice. This is especially powerful in a discipline that is preparing students to become practitioners in their respective fields. You should consider pre-selecting a list of sites where students may visit, and think through ways in which the site can provide opportunity for students to reflect on or develop an awareness of praxis.

The site visit can be conceived as a place-based learning assignment. Guidelines for the report or reflection can function as a means of facilitating how you want the students to engage and interact with the space. It could be beneficial to include a set of questions or prompts for guidance.

Learning Outcomes:

Critical/Analytical Thinking Skills

  • Connect theory to practice or real-world applications, and make sense of an experience within a larger framework.
  • Test, challenge and/or problematize theory by examining how it works in practice.

Narrative Writing

  • Construct a clear and cohesive narrative.
  • Employ writing to reflect on theory and practice.

Notes:

You may consider asking the students to take photographs or record audio if and when it is appropriate and permitted, and integrate visual media into a final report or reflection on a digital platform.

While this assignment can work well as a group visit, be mindful that off site visits can be difficult to schedule with a large group of students. It is important to be mindful of student’s schedules and accessibility issues when designing this assignment.

  1. Case Study Report

Description:

For the case study report students are invited to identify a relevant site for doing research, and then use appropriate methodology to gather data from that site. Students are then invited to engage with theories presented in class to contextualize their findings. Alternatively, students can be provided with published case studies and asked to analyze them using disciplinary criteria. In this version the focus can be placed on evaluating and critiquing the methodology and/or findings of the case study.

Learning Outcomes:

Intermediate-Advanced Research Skills

  • Analyze and evaluate research tools and methodologies.
  • Read and interpret scientific measuring instruments and research findings.
  • Design a method of collecting data from the site.

Critical Thinking/Analytical Skills

  • Identify connections between theory and practice.
  • Evaluate best practices for data collection.
  • Examine and critique research findings based on a disciplinary standard or course criteria.
  • Weigh the validity of claims based on a careful analysis of how evidence is used and claims are supported.

Close/Critical Reading:

  • Conduct a thoughtful analysis of the text, and evaluate  the argumentation and claim presented.

Notes:

This assignment is suitable for midterm or final assignment as a vehicle to assess students’ comprehension of research methodologies and analytical skills. It is an opportunity for students to practice evaluating how theory fits into real-world applications. Students can also practice using disciplinary language as they engage with doing or analyzing a case study. Alternatively, this assignment can work as a low-stakes in-class group activity if they are using pre-existing case studies. Consider modelling a case study with the students before asking them to undertake this assignment.

  1. Scavenger Hunt

Description:

For this assignment, students are provided a list of types of sources or artifacts that they are required to locate. You may consider asking students to create a reference page/bibliography of their sources, and even annotating them if appropriate. This is an practical introductory exercise to doing academic research. By encouraging students to intentionally search for relevant materials you provide the conditions for students to use library resources and the opportunity to expand their repertoire of different types of sources and research available. The scavenger hunt also offers up opportunities for collaborative group work.

Learning Outcomes:

Basic Research Skills

  • Locate appropriate sources.
  • Differentiate between primary and secondary sources.
  • Cite in proper disciplinary style.

Collaboration skills

  • Communicate and coordinate with peers (either in person or virtually) towards a common goal.

Notes:

The scavenger hunt is suitable for the early part of semester in courses that might need students to develop academic research skills. It can be used as a primer for research projects later in the semester. It is also a good opportunity for early exposure to materials students might need to know later. Depending on campus or time constraints, some component of the hunt can undertaken during the class session if there is easy access to library and computers. Alternatively, this assignment can be adapted to use at a museum or another site that invites students to find particular artifacts.

  1. Interview

Description:

Conducting an interview provides students with opportunities to engage in collecting their own primary source data. Depending on the needs of the course, this assignment can be couched within a larger research project that invites students to contribute primary source data. It can also work as a stand-alone exercise. You may ask the students to then present their interview findings in the form of an edited video, as part of a research project or a short essay.

Learning Outcomes:

Intermediate-Advanced Research Skills

  • Design a basic interview protocol.
  • Conduct an interview using appropriate methodology.
  • Record and report findings in an appropriate format.

Descriptive or Narrative Writing Skills

  • Construct appropriate interview questions.
  • Describe the process of gathering data in a written format.
  • Communicate research findings in a clear and descriptive written narrative.

Oral Communication Skills

  • Effectively pose interview questions.

Notes:

This assignment provides opportunity for students to engage in making original contributions to a research project. By asking them to step outside of the class and draw on resources around them, this assignment empowers students to engage in knowledge construction. Consider coupling this with a site visit or case study if you want to guide the students through a project.

  1. Survey

Description:

To engage students in quantitative research methods, designing and implementing a survey is an effective exercise that enables them to grapple with the process of data collection. Students can gather data by using a range of free online tools, and can work individually, in pairs or small groups. Findings can be integrated into a larger research project, or as a stand-alone presentation or report.

Learning Outcomes:

Intermediate-Advanced Research Skills

  • Design a basic survey.
  • Record, report and cite findings in an appropriate format.

Collaboration skills

  • Communicate and coordinate with peers (either in person or virtually) towards a common goal.

Digital Literacy Skills

  • Engage digital technology to collect data.

Writing Skills

  • Construct clear, concise and appropriate questions.

Notes:

Creating and implementing a survey does not have to be complicated or grand in scope, and students do not have to necessarily become trained survey-makers. Rather, this assignment can function as a rich opportunity for students to make decisions about data collection. There are a number of easy and free digital survey tools that students can use to create and implement their survey.

  1. Speakback/Feedback

Description:

This reading assignment provides the conditions for students to engage and interact with a texts closely. For the Speakback/Feedback paper, students are asked to respond to a written piece with critical comments, questions and ideas. This can be done on the margins of a text or as a separate document. You may consider integrating an annotation tool if you want students to do the work digitally. This assignment works well for responding to feedback as well. Students can be asked to write a response to instructor feedback, with an emphasis on how they will develop their work by integrating the feedback.

Learning Outcomes:

Close/Critical Reading Skills

  • Conduct a thoughtful analysis of a text by evaluating the argumentation, claims, and/or use of evidence presented.

Critical/Analytical Thinking

  • Formulate responses to an argument.
  • Weigh the validity of claims based on a careful analysis of how evidence is used and claims are supported.

Notes:

The Speak Back/Feedback Assignment provides an excellent low-stakes opportunity to use an online reading tool and for students to digitally interact with a text together or individually. There are a number of annotation tools that can facilitate this process. It is also an effective way to ask students to engage with your feedback on their work. By asking them to write a short paper on how they might incorporate your suggestions, it enables them to critically consider the feedback and draw up a plan of action for the next draft or phase of their larger assignment.

  1. Blogs

Description:

Students are invited to utilize an informal digital platform to express ideas and responses to course material. Instructors can use weekly prompts to enable students to write frequently, or can assign the blog as a supplement to a more formal assignment as a means of documenting the process of learning. Journaling or blogging can function as a good low-stakes and informal platform for ongoing dialogue between student’s own ideas and course material.

Learning Outcomes:

Narrative Writing/Creative Writing Skills

  • Position one’s experiences within a larger social, cultural or political context through writing about the self.
  • Deploy reflection and storytelling as a space to learn and share ideas.
  • Cultivate awareness of different audiences.
  • Practice writing in a digital, networked environment about a range of media.

Reflexive/Critical Thinking Skills

  • Develop appreciation for subjectivity, and position identity issues (racial/ethnic/class/cultural/gender/sexuality/ability) within a political, social, cultural, psychological or inter-personal context.

Digital Literacy Skills

  • Engage digital technology to build a presence online.
  • Develop aesthetic sensibilities about presentation of work.
  • Cultivate and understanding of privacy issues related to sharing work online.

Notes:

Before asking students to engage in journaling or blogging, it is advisable to provide them with a platform to do so, and an overview on how to use available tools. We tend to forget that students have widely varying degrees of comfort and literacy with digital technology. Getting a lab space with access to computers for a portion of a class session and giving a quick tutorial could be extremely helpful for providing adequate support structures.

  1. Wiki

Description:

A Wiki assignment is a rich opportunity for students to engage in producing and contributing to a live body of knowledge. Students are invited to edit or contribute to a Wikipedia page. This work can be undertaken individually or in a small group. Wikis have become increasingly popular and relevant to the college classroom, and CUNY has a number of resources on teaching with/using wikis in the classroom.

Learning Outcomes:

Intermediate Research Skills

  • Locate relevant and appropriate sources.
  • Use appropriate citations.

Collaboration Skills

  • Communicate and coordinate with peers (either in person or virtually) towards a common goal.

Writing Skills

  • Summarize and synthesize relevant texts and materials into concise pieces of writing.

Digital Literacy Skills

  • Engage digital technology to build a presence online.
  • Cultivate and understanding of privacy issues related to sharing work online.

Notes:

Wiki assignments can be scoped down to a classroom activity, or scoped up to a final project. Students can engage with larger socio-political issues about knowledge construction by collaborating on and negotiating the process of adding content, and essentially contributing to knowledge beyond the scope of the class. It is advisable to conduct a workshop or demonstration somewhere with computer and internet access. Consider reaching out to your college librarian for support and resources.

  1. Autobiography/Autoethnography

Description:

A reflexive personal essay can hold great potential for students to position themselves within a social, cultural or political context. Both the autobiography (a narrative about oneself within a focused context) and the auto-ethnography (a research methodology that uses self-reflection to position one’s experiences within a larger social context) can be effective tools for empowering student voice and positionality.

Learning Outcomes:

Narrative Writing Skills

  • Utilize writing to examine positionality and engage with a larger social, cultural or political context.

Critical Thinking Skills

  • Develop appreciation for subjectivity, and position identity issues (racial/ethnic/class/cultural/gender/sexuality/ability) within a political, social, cultural, psychological or inter-personal context.

Notes:

Writing an autoethnography or autobiography has been used across the disciplines. Whether you are teaching in the Social and Behavioral Sciences, Humanities, Arts, or in a STEM discipline, inviting students to critically reflect on their positionality within a specific context is a rich opportunity to engage them in the material, and for you to better understand your students. It would be helpful to hand out a few texts that model the assignment. You could also consider asking students to integrate visual media, whether on paper or on a digital platform.

Be aware that this assignment is personal in nature so it is important to keep that in mind as you facilitate the assignment, and consider how you ask students to share their work.

  1. Anthology

Description:

Students are invited to demonstrate their knowledge of a body of literature, and formulate an understanding of key theories and debates within a field by bringing into conversation a collection of texts. By curating book chapters, articles, poems, songs, letters and other relevant items. Students must contextualize the collection by writing an introduction and conclusion that frames the themes and ideas they have presented.

Learning Outcomes:

Intermediate Research Skills

  • Select and curate a collection of relevant literature for a project.

Critical/Analytical Thinking Skills

  • Construct a claim or argument based on a careful analysis of a body of literature.

Digital Literacy Skills

  • Engage digital technology to build a presence online.
  • Develop aesthetic sensibilities about presentation of work.

Persuasive Writing Skills

  • Present a compelling and cohesive rationale for the literature selected.

Notes:

This assignment works very well for courses that require a deep understanding of a body of literature. The Anthology can function as an effective final project that asks students to engage with keys themes, debates and/or discourses in a body of literature.

You may scaffold the project by asking students to complete components of the assignment over the course of the semester (like annotating one text at a time and creating a project proposal with a rationale for their collection). Consider bringing in one or two anthologies that can function as a model for the students. You may also consider asking students to use digital technology to curate the collection online.

  1. Portfolio

Description:

Asking students to produce a portfolio of their work can be an effective way to facilitate their understanding of the connections between assignments and course materials throughout the semester, and to encourage students’ metacognitive awareness about their own learning. This project invites students to construct, edit and curate their work throughout the semester into a print or digital portfolio that can be shared or presented at the end of the semester.

Learning Outcomes:

Information Literacy Skills

  • Select and curate a set of artifacts.

Digital Literacy Skills

  • Engage digital technology to build a presence online.
  • Develop aesthetic sensibilities about presentation of work.
  • Cultivate an understanding of privacy issues related to sharing work online.

Notes:

If you decide to use the portfolio project, be sure to introduce it relatively early in the semester. This can be a great method to encourage students’ taking ownership of their voice and reflecting on their own intellectual development. This is also a wonderful option for summative assessment.

First Day of Class Activities

On the first day of class faculty too often merely distribute the syllabus and release students early. This approach misses an opportunity to set a tone for the semester, to begin to establish rapport with your students, and to help them understand the kinds of work you’ll all be doing together. The suggestions below offer creative alternatives to the bland “syllabus day” approach, and have been drawn from Graduate Center faculty and students. These originally appeared as part of the Teach@CUNY series on Visible Pedagogy (http://cuny.is/vp).  

Writing a Recipe of Yourself: By Anke Geertsma

This semester I’m trying out a new first day of class activity. Rather than just asking for students to briefly introduce themselves, I want to ask them to write a recipe for themselves. I’m thinking of titles such as “Recipe for Sweet Steven” or “How to Make a Delicious Helen.” I’ll encourage students to be creative: tell what has gone into making them, such as personal or ethnic backgrounds, languages and experiences, but also what they care about and what motivates them. They can include a photo of what the recipe looks like when it’s ready (a selfie or something that stands for who they are).

I’ll explain the activity and ask them to write down some thoughts in our first class. During this first class I also plan to have them share some thoughts in small groups so that they can get to know each other already. I’m teaching a hybrid class with a course site, so I’ll ask them to publish their recipes online, but this type of activity would of course also work in a regular class by asking students to bring their recipes the second class and sharing them (in small groups or with the whole class).

Besides introducing themselves, I also hope to direct my students’ focus to different genres of writing, for, while most students won’t immediately think of the recipe in these terms, it’s a genre just like the essay or an epic poem. I’ll ask them to consider the genre’s components (list of ingredients, directions, cooking time) and mimic these features in their recipes for themselves. Let’s see how it goes!

Anke Geertsma is a TLC Fellow and a Ph.D. candidate in Comparative Literature

First-Day Free-Writing: By Luke Waltzer

My hope for the first day of class is to help students see how we’ll move as a learning community towards the goals of the course. After we all briefly introduce ourselves, we review the syllabus. Students should see the arc of the semester, the logic of selected readings, the intentionality and connection of assignments, and the space that’s available for modification. They should see a structure, but also how we might improvise.

A syllabus review is not enough, however. It’s crucial that students begin the course with an understanding of their roles and responsibilities. I ask them to do some free-writing about their points of entry into and goals for the course, and then they share what they’ve come up with. This exercise makes clear that they will be expected to be active participants in the classroom space, engaging, contributing their thoughts, bolstering the structure. There can be no hiding. This sometimes makes students uncomfortable, which is not necessarily a bad thing; good things can happen in a classroom when one grows comfortable with one’s own discomfort.

The prompt I give takes different shapes depending on the nature of the class. For instance, in the DH Praxis course, students are expected to produce a working prototype of a digital project by the end of the semester, and the process requires significant attention to the rhetorical choices that come with project development and advocacy. On the first day students composed a tweet about their proposed project, and the enabling constraint of 140 characters emphasized the need for and challenges of precision, clarity, and simplicity when discussing complex projects. Returning to this exercise throughout the semester helped students recenter their understandings of their work, which is important when things are moving quickly. Courses that are less pressure-packed than DH Praxis, such as survey-based courses, have had prompts oriented to helping students situate themselves and their histories within the context of the course. By the end of the exercise, they should feel some ownership over and investment in the space we will all build together, and a readiness to work.

Luke Waltzer is the Director of the Teaching and Learning Center at The Graduate Center, CUNY, and a member of the doctoral faculty in the Interactive Technology and Pedagogy Certificate Program.  

Imagining Artworks: By Joy Connolly

On the first day, I like to ask students the following questions.  Imagine a non-verbal artwork — a musical composition, a painting, a sculpture, a digital image — that captures what you think an ideal class should be and feel like.  Is it a jazz band or choral performance, where instruments or voices resonate with one another?  Or the glorious chaos of a painting by Jackson Pollock?  What kind of intellectual dialogic experience does your artwork convey?

The students describe their pieces and explain their reasoning.  It’s a creative, encouraging way to explore and open up students’ ideas of what a classroom experience should be.  For myself, I offer the picture of a sculpture by Anthony Caro.

For me, it embodies three important ideals: ideas and arguments burst forth from a level floor, conveying the dynamism and equity I value in the classroom, and it is slightly awkward, the L shape in front dominating the smaller planks in the background — like so many classes, with some voices louder or more frequent than others, but still maintaining an essential balance.

To imagine the classroom in aesthetic terms also allows the students to think of their contributions as artistic gestures made in collective space, which both challenges and frees them to think creatively and contribute more frequently.  When this exercise works well, the classroom becomes an artwork that it is up to them to create — a memory whose effect can ripple through the entire semester. I occasionally end class meetings with the question of which artwork that particular class recalled — which allows for a peculiarly reflective and insightful self-criticism on all our parts.

Dr. Joy Connolly is the Provost and Senior Vice President of the Graduate Center and a Professor of Classics.

Exploding the Text: By Wendy Tronrud

On the first day of class, I like to end with the “Explode the Text” exercise detailed below. As a strategy, “Explode the Text” requires all students to participate aloud and to collaborate in the meaning making process with a complex and challenging text; it opens up interpretive possibilities, rather than directing students to answers, and it builds in differentiation and student-choice. Thus as a first-day exercise it models so much of what we want students to do for the semester as a community and as individuals, and it is perfect for a class that does not know each other yet.

Step 1: For the “explode the text” exercise, I begin with a poem that is complex but relatively brief (I’ve used Hayan Charara’s “Elegy with Apples…” or Seamus Heaney’s “Digging“). It is helpful to have a poem around 20 lines or so. The teacher reads the poem aloud in this exercise, while students have their own specific tasks.

Step 2: Once all students have a copy of the poem before them, I introduce the activity, explaining to students that as I read aloud, they should underline any line(s) that stand out or speak to them in some way. This ensures that students have a choice as to their entry point into the poem and allows them to appreciate and respond to a smaller section of language without the pressure of having to immediately grasp the poem as a whole. For a class of students with varying skill levels, this choice of entry point is essential; each student can choose a line whose language s/he feels more comfortable working with given my expectation of whole class participation.

Step 3: After I’ve read the poem aloud for the first time, students are given 3-4 minutes in which to freewrite using their choice of line as a starting point. I explain that the freewrite should and can take them wherever it needs to as the “explode the text” exercise is about opening up the complex language and connotations of a given poem through the images, associations and personal responses students bring to it. I encourage students to freewrite directly on the poem handout.

Step 4: I then read the poem a second time, and this is where the text is “exploded.” As I get to the line a given student chose, the student interjects his/her free-write aloud to the class. When I get to the end of the poem, every student in the class has “exploded the text” with his/her associations, ideas, images, etc.

Step 5: After this collective experiment, I open whole class conversation around any observations or reflections students have about the process, experience or poem. For instance, a number of students may choose the same line to freewrite from or a number of students may bring similar or conflicting connotations to various lines and all of this makes for great discussion. This part can take a more directed exploration of the text (perhaps you have questions you want students to consider), but I think what’s important is to first ask students to reflect aloud or in writing about the process of this strategy and what they noticed and learned from it.

Wendy Tronrud is a Ph.D. candidate in English at the Graduate Center and an instructor at Queens College and a Writing Associate at The Cooper Union.

 

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