“Why did you assign that?”

A valid question that many students would like to ask if they had the nerve.

When we develop our class sessions, we often have a pretty good sense of where we are headed, of what different topics and concepts and learning experiences we plan to incorporate. We have thought about the assignments coming up and have laid out the syllabus. Our students, in contrast, might have read the syllabus quickly to get an idea of how many assignments there are and the overall gist of the course. Most often, they look at the syllabus myopically, just one assigned reading after the other. They do not know the destination and they certain don’t know the way there. It’s a little bit like they are driving in the dark along an unfamiliar road to a new destination, listening for their course GPS to tell them when to turn next.

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I had assigned a short video interview of a prominent scientist. At first glance, it did seem vaguely out of place for my freshman writing seminar on biodiversity. I was happy that our growing class community was supportive enough that the student felt she could ask that question in class when I asked them what they thought of the video. It hit me that our students don’t know the journey we’ve laid out for them. They don’t know the destination. While we spent time the first day or so telling them what the learning goals are, they don’t see the road map within the syllabus.

At the beginning of each class session, I write the session’s learning goals on the board. Now I will incorporate a better explanation of the session preparation goals to better prepare them for the session ahead, in the same way that knowing the route makes it easier to drive to the new destination.

Spending a little time now and then explaining why you’ve assigned things they way you have will give your students some added context to help frame their reading or writing.

Help them see that you made choices in the readings and assignments for good reasons. Including them in your thought processes about the course goals and structure will deepen their engagement with the assignments.

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