Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Assignment: Relevance

I recently wrote a short post suggesting 6 questions that students should ask about each assignment.  That post prompted two comments.  One comment included the suggestion that teachers should encourage students to ask themselves something along the lines of, "How is this connected to something I'm passionate about?" for each assignment.

Thanks, Bill, for the comment.  It got me thinking, too!

Here are my thoughts.

I'm not sure there is any one thing with which each assignment should connect.  And while I agree that making a connection to a student's passion is desirable  I'm not sure it is possible given the fact that at any one moment a student can change their mind about which they are passionate.  

Of course all of this leaves out the other fact that, in a room filled with students, designing an assignment that connects to every person's passion seems virtually impossible.  

I am all in favor of teachers wanting to make the passion-lesson connection.  When you can make a connection between an assignment and something the student is passionate about there is certainly the potential for that lesson to truly have a lasting impression on the student.  Since such a result is highly valued, the passion-lesson combination is one teachers hope to make often.  Unfortunately, some students will simply not be passionate about what you are teaching.  

They may like it.  

They may tolerate it.  

They may realize it is something they need to do.  

But, they may never be passionate about it.  

Unfortunately, they need to do the assignment as well as those who may be passionate about your class.

So, in lieu of making the passion-lesson connection, what does a teacher do?  What is the more realistic goal of an assignment if the passion target isn't realistic?


While every assignment cannot connect to student passion, every assignment can certainly be clearly relevant to the course and its objectives.

When I talk with students about assignments, they rarely will be disappointed that the work didn't make a connection to the things about which they are most passionate.  Most students understand that in the real world their likes do not always determine the expectations others have of them.  However, students will clearly feel cheated if they believe the assignment has no relevance to their experience in class.  This is where the teacher must focus her attention when designing assignments.

My advice, then, is for teachers to be transparent and honest about student assignments.  

If the purpose of the assignment is to reinforce content related matters, then tell students that up front and explain how the assignment will help them learn the content better.

If the assignment is designed to refine an essential skill (collaboration, critical thinking, creativity, etc.), then tell students that at the start.

If the assignment was created to provide opportunities for independent learning, then make those expectations clear before the students begin.

What is interesting, though, is if you focus on relevance and work diligently to make that connection, you are giving your assignments the best chance to actually make the passion-lesson connection.  After all, not a single student can be passionate about a topic that has no relevance to them.  On the other hand, making a solid case for relevance and providing opportunities for that relevance to set in can prompt students to dig deeper into a topic - which is the genesis of all things about which we are passionate.
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