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IN MY OPINION

A call to end single use, throw-away assignments

The gold standard for assignments would engage the student in learning while also contributing to the social good.

By JOANNA ASHWORTH | September 13, 2016

Years of teaching in professional programs in the continuing studies unit of a university, and within professional associations and businesses, have taught me the value of designing assignments that have recognizable value and immediate relevance to the learner. And yet, typically, an assignment in traditional undergraduate and graduate programs has just one use, and that is to have the student demonstrate his or her competence in researching and developing an idea, supported by scholarly evidence, for the purpose of submitting it to their instructor for evaluation. This is what I call a single use, throw-away assignment. It may have a clear and purposeful pedagogical aim and direct relevance to the aspirations of the student, just as a throw-away coffee cup has such a use. But I think we can do better, in fact, we have to do better for a number of reasons.

The gold standard for assignments would engage the student in learning activities that develop their capacity for research, analysis and writing while also contributing to the social good – perhaps beyond the walls of the academy, but definitely beyond the walls of the classroom – or at the very least, intervene in a meaningful and useful way into “real world” practices, wherever we might find them.

My educational practice is located in the field of environmental and social sustainability where some interesting examples of academic teaching is moving in that direction. A colleague teaching in the faculty of environment’s Master’s in resource and environmental planning gives students an assignment that has them assist a local municipal government by researching a sustainability planning issue. The assignment involves the professor setting up agreements with various sustainability planners in local municipal governments in advance to ensure the scope and framing of the project is doable within the timeframe of a semester.

According to Professor Sean Markey who teaches in the master’s program, the students enjoy “wrestling with the complexity and uncertainty of real world issues.” They also experience the satisfaction of producing a piece of work that serves the city in a practical way. As one student remarked, “the assignment was to create a sustainability check list; one we developed from our evaluation of what other cities were doing. This assignment made the course more meaningful because the City could use our work.”  

Another colleague in the business school, who also directs the development and sustainability minor, designed an innovative teaching arrangement bringing two undergraduate courses together across disciplines. Students are undergraduates from the faculty of environment and business school, and bring both an international-development as well as a business perspective to the course. They were formed into teams and then each team was assigned to a firm, and the owner shared the business model with them in detail. The firms included Share Shed, an outdoor equipment sharing business, Urban Streams, a recycling business, and Ayo Smart Home, a small homes builder. The assignment was to analyze the business, create a marketing plan that both internationalizes the businesses operations, while also advancing at least one of the United Nations 17 sustainable development goals.

With these intertwined objectives, the students were required to understand the business model thoroughly, understand the sustainable development goals and actions that would advance goals related to infrastructure, housing, maternal health and more. And they had to research potential new opportunities for the firm that would expand the business while advancing change in one or more of these goals. Then came the compelling presentation for the business owners outlining the student teams’ recommendations. The response from the firm owners was supportive. The presentations opened up a conversation among and between the student teams and the owners about what was feasible and what proposals held both social and economic impact.

In a recent directed studies course in the sustainable community development academic certificate, my student, a major in the school for the contemporary arts, wanted to explore the literature intersecting performance art and climate change communications. I made it a course requirement that two of the written assignments would be published online (a third assignment was an annotated biography). I wanted her to submit her paper to me for critique and feedback and for us to begin this conversation, but not have it end with just the two of us. I asked her to be bold with her ideas, to support them with good evidence and her own experience as a young artist and then, when the piece was ready, to involve other readers. I wanted her to engage with other students and with her followers on social media about her ideas, to get a conversation going about the role of art in educating the public on the impacts of climate change, and to explore what it means that the polar ice caps are melting and what art may have to contribute to finding solutions to climate change. For this think piece she found an audience with the university’s student sustainability organization, Embark. The second written assignment, an interview with a sustainability leader, and the founder of local arts and sustainability festival called Vines, was published on the organization’s website.

Another opportunity for no more throw-way assignments comes from a new Canadian-led initiative called Participedia – a global research project that aims to mobilize knowledge of methods and cases of democratic participation using an online platform. I am the lead researcher for Participedia at my university. Most of the budget for this five-year, $2.5-million grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council is for graduate research assistants. My research assistant is doing a Master’s in resource and environmental management and our focus is on elaborating a set of case studies on participatory environmental resources planning and governance in British Columbia, particularly with watersheds regions. As we have come to realize, publishing these cases online is only one part of the engagement equation. The other is to promote the use of these cases as teaching and learning resources.

Since publishing online does not guarantee readership, these cases need to be promoted once they are uploaded to the online platform and we need to develop teaching guides for the use of open resources that encourage faculty to consider using the cases to teach about civic engagement, collaborative resource management and other topics that relate to democratic participation.

As the teaching fellow in my faculty, I am starting a conversation with colleagues about their views and experiences with, and shifts away from, single-use learning assignments. This inquiry begins with questions about their definitions of what an engaged, non-disposable assignment is within their various disciplines of geography, ecological restoration, environmental sciences, sustainable development, archaeology, and resource and environmental planning. What are they already doing that is beyond single-use that others can learn from? What do they see as the limitations and barriers to such engaged assignments? What are the benefits?

I am interested, too, in what would happen if it became second nature to develop assignments that are generative rather than disposable after one read and then “thrown away.” Would our teaching practices line up more closely with the ecological principles that guide our disciplines, and with the priorities and concerns of the world in which we live and teach? And would our students then learn that their ideas, propositions and arguments, when shared more widely, have the capacity to make a difference in the world, even while they are students?

Dr. Ashworth is a teaching fellow and director of professional programs and partnerships in the faculty of environment at Simon Fraser University.

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