Timing and Sequencing Assignments

It goes without saying that exams take place after, rather than before, relevant material has been covered in a course. To be sure, many of us use pre-tests or other diagnostics to find out where our students are at before we embark on a new concept, but the "tests" we use to measure student learning don't make sense unless they come after the learning has taken place. In that respect, the timing of exams has more to do with finding natural stopping points for learning (often driven by the semester calendar) than anything as radical as rethinking the temporal relationship of first learning material and then being tested on it. 

On a deeper level, however, timing is a crucial consideration when designing the global and more local aspects of a course, because learning is a process for which order matters. Not only is that true at the conceptual or thematic level, as we decide to place one lecture or reading or problem set before or after another, but it's also true at the level of smaller arcs within a course, as we figure out the best way to sequence lower-stakes assessments to help students track their progress leading up to higher-stakes assessments, namely, the mid-term or paper. 

When we think about course design in terms of timing and sequencing, we often refer to the concept of scaffolding, a metaphor that tries to capture the importance of providing students with low-stakes opportunities to practice—and fail at—using individual new skills alongside the skills they've already learned. Of course, the already learned skills were themselves practiced and honed in previous settings, and the new skills are building toward other, even more complex skills—all in the service of allowing the exam or term paper to play its role as a measure of the learning objectives students have been working toward, step by step by step. In this way scaffolding leads us to think not only about the skills or content students need to know for the test or the paper—but about how the order in which they experience the acquisition of those skills and content has a defining effect on what those skills and content, in fact, are.

Putting Assignments First

On the second or third day of every semester, eight hundred or so Harvard first-years are having the same experience for the first time: they're seeing the Unit 1 essay prompt for their Expository Writing seminar, and before they've even had a chance to dig very far into the readings for the unit or practice specific writing strategies, they're being asked to start imagining how their approach to those readings and their time in class belong to a process that will unfold over several weeks before there's a product on the page. 

The aim of this approach is to make students' reading as purposive as possible and each homework assignment and each in-class activity an explicit part of a goal-oriented process, but it's easy to imagine objections to timing things this way. For instance, doesn't giving students a specific focus or puzzle to solve before they've gotten a chance to dive into things instrumentalize their reading and prejudice their thinking? Aren't we doing our students a disservice as free-thinkers when start off an intellectual journey by telling them where it will end up? 

The two sticking points here are what we mean by "instrumentalize" and "end," and both points get a lot less sticky if we think about our assignements—and our course as a whole—in terms of backward design, i.e., in terms of our learning goals and how that led us to choose our materials in the first place. On a certain level, handing out out a prompt sooner rather than later does intrumentalize students' readings, but if we've been intentional about the materials we've chosen, the readings and class discussions were selected from a wide range of posssible options precisely because they were the ones best suited to lead students toward the types of intellectual activity called for in the assignment prompt. Viewed from this perspective, what we've been calling instrumentalization becomes something more like making students as aware as possible of why they're doing what we're asking them to do. 

With this awareness, however, comes the risk that student learning will end the moment they've uncovered the "answer" to the prompt somewhere in the readings. For example, let's take an essay prompt that asks students to choose one question among four possible questions, one of which asks students to draw upon two to three readings in a unit in order to account for the failure of democratic states in the late-twentieth century. In this case, what would stop students—prompt in hand on day one of the unit—from simply choosing this question and only engaging with two of the readings up to the point that it was possible to answer the question.  In short, nothing would stop them. The pedagogical question here, though, is less about timing than about the learning goals of the assignment itself. In this hypothetical case, we can see that handing out the prompt later in the unit wouldn't guarantee greater student engagement with the reading; instead, it would just keep them guessing, since anything whatsoever in the readings might turn up in the prompt. And to be sure, having a number of questions to choose from means that a lot of students might happen to find a question that reflects their reading or the themes that arose in their discussion section, but it doesn't mean students experienced their readings any more freely, or that the learning goals measured by the essay assignment were any clearer for them. 

Avoiding bad sorts of instrumentalization and ensuring  students remain open and alive to new materials is thus not a matter of holding our cards to our chest until the end, but a matter of making sure our assignments embody the learning goals we're after and making sure students experience each reading, each class discussion, and each smaller assignment along the way as a step toward those goals. And the best way to bring about this experience is through careful, transparent scaffolding.

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In course or assignment design, scaffolding simply refers to an approach to sequencing content and assignments so that each given reading, lecture, or activity is building off what came before and building toward what's going to come next. In an Expos course, for instance, a Unit 1 assignment often asks students to make an analytical argument about a single source, and students might not be 100% clear what that means when they first encounter the prompt.  Over the following few weeks, though, students will move from learning strategies for active reading to ways to develop analytical questions about a source to how analytical questions are answered by a thesis to how a thesis is an arguable claim supported by evidence to how a thesis supported by evidence and analysis is an analytical argument. In that way, each skill learned in the unit requires the previously learned skills and paves the way for the next, higher-order skill that will culminate in the essay assignment students were introduced from the start.

Scaffolding thus lends purpose and direction to students' development of new skills, but it isn't simply a design principle for deciding on what content to cover or when. In order to be effective, scaffolding requires instructors to build in lower-stakes opportunities, i.e., formative assessments, to practice each new skill at each stage, together with lower-stakes opportunities to synthesize newer skills with older ones. In the Unit 1 Expos example, students learning how to formulate analytical questions might be asked to formulate three of them in response to a reading and then workshop their questions with other students in class. For the next class, students might be asked to formulate thesis statements in response to new analytical questions and get the chance to workshop both the questions and the thesis statements, and in the next class they might produce a response paper that includes two analytical questions that they've found most compelling from the previous classes, along with thesis statements that might answer those questions and evidence from the text that supports and counters that answer or claim. Up to this point, none of these assignments would have received a grade per se. Instead, the fact that students are aware of their goal from the start and understand how each step contributes to that goal means that they're more likely to recognize the value of buying in and trust the process en route to whatever product they're working toward.

As important as this confidence is for traditional assignments such as essays, it's even more important for creative or non-traditional assignments, where students really need help ramping up new skills and knowing why they're ramping up those skills, e.g., working with a web-publishing platform such as Omeka. Ultimately, students' ability to successfully produce multimedia work depends largely on their preparation, and that preparation depends on thoughtful scaffolding. Just as students often complete lower-stakes writing assignments in advance of an essay or research paper, they need to practice working with multimedia—not just on the production side, but in terms of making arguments, citing sources, and developing a voice, well before they attempt a final project. Small-scale multimedia work can, for example, be evaluated on a complete/incomplete basis, since it's meant to serve as practice. Then, when it comes time to attempt the end-of-semester video, or website launch, or virtual exhibit, you'll find that the overall level of student work is high enough that you'll be able to grade this non-traditional work using many, if not most, of the very same criteria you'd use to evaluate traditional papers.

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