Intentional Ambiguity in Assignment Design

When deciding to incorporate writing into a course, most instructors have learned that this is not as easy as “I’ll just assign an essay.” For many, the first step is to determine what the learning objectives are for the writing assignment: what do you want your students to get out of writing this paper? Since papers take time to write and time to grade, I find that these learning objectives are very important. That said, while I want the learning objectives to be clear, I don’t feel the need to spell out every minute detail of an assignment for my students—one of my objectives is that they learn how to figure those things out.

My reason for wanting to give students a situation where they can “figure it out” is that I teach a senior level Capstone course called Swine Production (View Syllabus (PDF)). After this course, many of my students graduate and begin writing for the real world rather than for their professors. One of my goals is to help them make that transition to being writers in the profession in class, rather than having to learn these things the hard way on the job. Since this learning objective is clear for me, it is something I stress in all my writing assignments.

When designing assignments, there are infinite ways to go about it. Some like to look at how many pages they want the students to write, then assign one or more essays to achieve that. Many like to provide precise detail of what they expect, and then ask the students to comply with those guidelines, often using rubrics shared with the students so they know exactly what is expected and how much effort to put into various aspects of the final product. In many instances these are good approaches, though my approach is almost the polar opposite: I intentionally leave out certain information in my assignment descriptions, so that students learn to do the work of figuring things out.

My Approach to Assignment Design

Instead of laying everything out for my students and telling them exactly what I want in minute detail, this is how I approach assignment design: with an emphasis on audience, education, sequenced assignments, and some intentional ambiguity.

Audience Awareness: I want students to start their writing process by considering who their audience is, so I begin the class by identifying who my audience is. My audience is college seniors in this Swine Production course, with an enrollment of about 50 each fall semester. For many, the course fulfills one or more graduation requirements, and for a few they really want to learn about swine and the swine industry. Nearly all of these students are graduating within the year and are preparing for jobs in industry. I try to design assignments that will serve both audiences, and I urge my students to consider who their audiences are when they write.

Disciplinary Education with emphasis on Critical Thinking and Problem Solving: My goal is to foster better discipline appropriate writing, critical thinking, and problem solving to further students’ education in multiple areas. Students need to learn how to determine what the real questions are, how to identify credible sources of information, and how to communicate science to non-scientists; these are things that really tie to their educations, not their degrees. I want them to learn from their mistakes, and I want them to learn to think critically. I hope they begin to understand their audience and identify it as someone besides a college professor. I ask the class how many came to MU to get a degree. After most hands go up I explain I would prefer they came for an education, at the end of which they would earn a degree; I want to ensure that they learned something.

Sequencing Assignments: For me, assignment design means designing a semester worth of assignments, not just one assignment sheet. My course is taught as a WI course, so I know there will be multiple assignments and revision integrated throughout the course. As such I try to have these assignments build upon each other.

To build confidence and help students understand what I expect, the first assignment asks students to consider their experiences and goals, and it is one they can do without too much difficulty. I ask first for a bio that incorporates what background students have with swine, why they are in this course, and something about what they hope to do when they graduate. That is all information they do not have to work hard to acquire, but writing this allows me to learn something about them, and students have the opportunity to consider their goals.

After this, the mid-portion of the class includes a number of shorter assignments. We work through several other genres of writing including letters to the editor, job application materials, reflections on course materials, and video reviews. These assignments are shorter, with somewhat lower stakes, but the skills learned from these help with the final paper by getting students more comfortable with writing and asking them to engage critically with materials through writing.

For their final project, students prepare a summary of a refereed journal article for a pig farmer, and finally their five year plan (having been developed over the semester) for a farm. The assignment that tells me perhaps the most is the scientific article summary. Students either find it to be their favorite or least favorite assignment. I believe those who came to MU for an education like it. It requires them to understand a research paper well enough to write a summary for a pig farmer, someone with an unknown level of training in scientific methods, statistical analyses etc. The farm plan asks students to think critically about real-life issues facing farms today, and students work collaboratively to complete the assignment. The work leading up to this prepares students for critical thinking and writing that considers specific audiences.

Intentional Ambiguity: What many of my peers find most intriguing about how I teach is that I am intentionally ambiguous in my description of assignments. As you can see from my syllabus, the prompts for each assignment are short, and the bulk of the prompt discusses learning objectives. I am clear to the students on why I want them to write the paper (my objectives) and who their audience is. I am less clear about how much detail or how long or what format to use. To me, those are the sorts of things I want them to be able to decipher based on the objectives and audience. When they graduate, most writing will be in response to something, and other than perhaps grant proposals or permit applications, they will not be told how long to make it. They should, however, understand to whom they are writing and that should determine the level of detail and length appropriate for that audience.

So what is important to me in assignment design? Three things:

  1. First of all, it must be clear to you why you want them to write. What are your objectives for having them do the assignment? If you as the instructor understand your audience (i.e. your students), the level of detail you need to provide in your assignment sheets will become clear.
  2. Second, it is important to consider how each assignment fits with the body of writing that students complete throughout the semester. How does one assignment connect to and build on another?
  3. Finally, remember that someone has to read all these assignments when grading, so design assignments that you or your graders will want to read.

If you keep these things in mind, you might find that students are writing in more meaningful ways that enhance their educations, not just their degrees.

Tim Safranski was hired by the Animal Sciences department in 1996 at the University of Missouri through Extension.  Most of his academic efforts have been directed at solving problems for pig farmers and veterinarians, either through research or education.  However, in 1998, he began teaching the senior level course in swine production.  It had historically been taught as a WI course, so he accepted that responsibility.  He has found it rewarding to watch students grow intellectually. His syllabus and assignments barely reflect the syllabus he had in 1998, and the course has significantly developed over time.  He strives to make each paper meaningful and to result in concrete learning objectives for students.