Assignment Design as Teaching Tool

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I am often asked about simple suggestions to help multilingual students in FYC and IRW co-requisite classrooms. For the next several weeks, I want to examine some strategies for addressing the needs of all students in diverse classrooms, with a particular emphasis on multilingual learners. I would love to hear from you as well: what techniques, assignments, strategies, and resources would you recommend when you are working in a multilingual and multicultural classroom?

One place to begin is a review of assignments and the written instructions that accompany them. An article by Joy Reid and Barbara Kroll, “Designing and Assessing Effective Classroom Writing Assignments for NES and ESL Students,” outlines several criteria for effective writing assignments, covering context, content, language, task, rhetorical requirements, and clear evaluation criteria. 

The Reid and Kroll article provides excellent guidelines for teachers to assess their own assignments and evaluation criteria. The goal, as the authors suggest, is to provide assignments that “stretch the students without overwhelming them and provide students with significant learning experiences” (20). In a multilingual classroom, I’ve seen assignments that have done just the opposite: they have overwhelmed students and, as a result, put them into panic or survival mode—and in some cases pushed them towards cheating or plagiarism. One thing that has worked for me, in addition to the suggestions provided by Reid and Kroll, is to make the assignment instructions themselves (and whatever problems students have with them) a teaching tool. In short, I think engaging students as co-evaluators of assignments can promote reflection and agency, serving as scaffolding for future “significant learning experiences.”

When I introduce a new assignment or tweak an assignment in some way, for example, I give the students time to read and think about the instructions. Then I do a quick anonymous survey via a Google Form:

  • Do you have all the information you need to begin this assignment?
  • If not, what else do you need to know?
  • Do you have the resources you need?
  • What questions do you have for me?

We spend just a few minutes at the beginning of the next class discussing the questions and concerns, and if needed, I update the assignment instructions (kept on a shared Google Doc). 

Next, once students have worked through each part of the assignment, I ask them to consider the writing or reading decisions that the assignment has required them to make. I ask:

  • Which decisions were the most difficult?
  • Did you have the information and resources you needed to make those decisions?
  • Why or why not?

Once again, we discuss the writing choices they are making, and if needed, I further adjust the assignment instructions. If the writing decisions that trouble them stem from word choice or sentence structure, we may spend class time identifying helpful and relevant structures. I also make a note to consider teaching certain structures as part of future instruction with this assignment.

We may go through several iterations of this feedback loop. Then, once the final draft of the paper has been submitted and graded, I ask for one final reflection:

  • What surprised you about this draft?
  • What did you learn about yourself as a reader or writer?
  • What is something you wish you had known when you started?
  • If you could change one thing about the assignment itself, what would you change and why?
  • If you could do one thing differently in writing this paper, what would you do?

I use these reflections to further refine and develop the assignment instructions for students. Their comments help me understand how successfully the assignment communicated its purpose and process. The comments also help me understand what scaffolding can support future student success.

I plan to try one additional step this semester. I am going to ask the students to work with me to develop a rubric for assessing assignments. We’ll use what they discuss to outline what makes an effective assignment (and I am guessing that their criteria will be quite similar to those suggested by Reid and Kroll). Then, I am going to let them assess an assignment I am planning for the future, using the rubric they have generated. Based on their comments and feedback, I will refine the assignment, and I will acknowledge their feedback on the final version of the assignment that I develop.

Involving students in assessing, revising, and refining assignments can benefit all students, but I think it has great potential for multilingual students, as the process can make expectations and resources for academic literacy explicit for those students, and it invites them to voice concerns and seek needed assistance without stigmatizing them as somehow “deficient.” 

I will be looking at other strategies for working with multilingual writers over the next few weeks. If you’ve got a teaching tip you would be willing to share, let me know.

About the Author
Miriam Moore is Assistant Professor of English at the University of North Georgia. She teaches undergraduate linguistics and grammar courses, developmental English courses (integrated reading and writing), ESL composition and pedagogy, and the first-year composition sequence. She is the co-author with Susan Anker of Real Essays, Real Writing, Real Reading and Writing, and Writing Essentials Online. She has over 20 years experience in community college teaching as well. Her interests include applied linguistics, writing about writing approaches to composition, professionalism for two-year college English faculty, and threshold concepts for composition, reading, and grammar.