Creating Better Assignments (Workshop)

12March2014

Today, Linda from the Academic Literacies: Writing (ex-Writing Center) held a workshop on Creating Better Assignments.  The workshop gave me a better for for the work being done by the Writing Center staff with the faculty at NMMU.  The lecturers that attended the workshop were all graduate students who are finishing their degrees.  The students said that they were hired as “temporary lectures”. Is this the equivalent of  a graduate assistantship?  I don’t know exactly, but that is my best guess.  Two of the students who attended the workshops were teaching subjects that are not their specialty area.  One student lecturer was a double major in History and Literature as an undergraduate but getting his masters in Literature. While the other student majored in Political Science and both of these graduate students are currently teaching history.  I spoke with one of the students after the workshop and he lamented that it seems no one is really interested in South African history.  Departments have been cut almost to the point of elimination.  Of course academia in the United States has been suffering from the same sort of effects as government funding turns towards Business schools and STEM majors.

Anyway…back to the workshop…

I thought the demographics of the workshop were interesting because we get quite a bit of training before graduate assistants teach and then throughout the semester while we are teaching.  I felt bad for these graduate students who just seem to be tossed into the classroom.

As you can see from the above graphic the workshop focused on a scaffolding approach in hopes that the instructors would transition the students through a series of assignments during the term. She emphasized that deep learning depends less on the amount of writing a student does and more on the design of the writing assignment.  Her mantra?

“Quality over quantity!”

Linda also urged the instructors to think about different types of assignments for different levels (first year, second year, and so on).  Therefore the instructor can work students up to a large assignment through a series of smaller assignments.  Sometimes I think it can be difficult, as a grad student, to remember what it was like as a first year student.  Where as if you have been teaching for a few years, you have had exposure to more first year students and so, you may not have a clear first-hand knowledge of being a freshmen but you’ve been around it more than some grad students.

Then Linda spoke about teaching with “empathy and diversity” but not as we normally think about diversity in America.  In the States we normally talk about diversity issues and what we mean are racial, religious, gender, and sexual orientation.  In this case she was referring to gaps in background knowledge and situational diversity of the students sitting before you.  She cautioned the instructors to be empathetic to students’ diverse needs.

  • Are your students hungry?
  • Are they struggling at home with an abusive situation?
  • Are they struggling financially?
  • Or in other ways that may not be apparent just by looking at them.

These struggles may show themselves by a student frequently missing class because they only have one class that day and cannot afford the 3 taxis to school and then 3 taxis again to get back home.  She also urged the teachers to be flexible on how assignments can be turned in.  For example, allowing students to turn in a digital copy of an assignment, which saves them the cost and hassle of printing is another way to be empathetic.  This part of the workshop struck me as both something we could talk about more in the US but also it seemed very South African of her to mention it (ubuntu).  While, we do have students that struggle I think sometimes we expect people to enter the classroom and be the same as students no matter their background(bootstrap mentality). This is where I feel fortunate to be in the writing center culture because I think we deal with students who are marginalized on a more regular basis.

27 2 14 Designing assignment instructions (3)LATEST

Previous Writing Center Post…Next week I will write about the writing respondent training.

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