Creating innovative classroom assignments can be a struggle when trying to balance all your other responsibilities. It can be easier just to rely on your old faithful assignments, rather than consider how to enliven your syllabus with new assignments that might better engage your students. Today’s post provides a lists of places where you can quickly find inspiration for classroom assignments. It also provides specific examples of my own assignments that have received good results from my students. If you’re looking for new ways to find classroom assignment inspiration, definitely check out this list of five resources.
This option is probably the most obvious one on the list, as many of us are passionately engaged with our research interests and are always ready to talk about them. Now, theming a whole undergraduate course around your research might not be the best idea, as many of these courses are meant to be surveys. However, creating a unit or assignment that connects to your research can help you feel more engaged in your course. It also gives your students an opportunity to learn from someone who is very well-versed in the current scholarship on this topic of study. Your students might also teach you something new about your own interests, even if that’s simply how undergraduates perceive the topic that you are researching.
Specific Example: In my literature courses, I always include an adaptations unit. We read multiple books in class, and then we end the course by reading a text, watching its movie adaptation, and reading/watching/viewing its online fanworks. Through this unit, my students and I discuss how literature is alive in today’s popular culture via the adaptations it inspires, by professional and fan creators. Considering a whole chapter of my dissertation is about the use of an adaptation unit in the literature classroom, this unit always inspires me to invest my attention in finding the best resources for my students. Resources I can also use in my dissertation.
Whether a graduate teaching assistant (GTA) or a part/full time college instructor, there are plenty of other instructors walking the hallways or walking paths of your college or university. If you’re looking for inspiration for class assignments and aren’t finding anything that appeals to you online, turn instead to those around you who are likely also looking for new ideas or are just waiting to share their own. Attend a department event and network with instructors that you know are also teaching courses similar to your own. Send a Facebook message to a fellow instructor asking to meet for coffee to talk lesson planning. If you know of an amazing assignment they are using, just ask if they’d be willing to share the assignment sheet with you.
At ISU, the Writing Program has its own resources page with full course plans that we are told to happily use as inspiration (though crediting the creators is a common courtesy when taking this route). The people around you can be full of classroom assignment inspiration just waiting to be revealed. Very often, all you need to do is ask. If you’re not ready to ask, though, this post mentions some potential online places for classroom assignment inspiration.
Specific Example: I taught ENG 101.10 for the first time last semester. I’ve taught ENG 101 before, but 101.10 involves co-teaching with a MA student who leads the study group discussions. So, to prep for this course, I asked two of my fellow cohort members for their course materials. I knew they had taught this version of the course before. I knew they were excellent instructors. As expected, they were both happy to share materials with me. I revised one of their assignments and made it part of my own course. I included an acknowledgement line on my assignment sheet, and my students benefitted from the trial and error of that assignment that occurred before I used a version of it in my own classroom.
SoTL, or the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, is an area of research that I’ve recently been exploring. With the help of the Office of the Cross Chair in SoTL, I’m currently working on a non-credited certificate in SoTL training. Via their website, I have access to dozens of journals that specifically publish scholarship about tested methods of teaching various courses, concepts, and assignments. Pedagogy is one of my favorite journals for finding classroom assignment inspiration. This journal is just one of many that includes brief and full-length articles about assignments instructors have used in their classrooms, the theories that inspired them, and the results from students completing them. If you want data about an assignment before you consider using it in your classroom, look for SoTL journals and books.
Specific Example: There are many useful pages on the ISU SoTL website, but here’s one page in particular with multiple resources about the topic. If you’re interested in finding SoTL journals in your field, or want to learn more about where you can publish your own SoTL work, here’s the page you should go to first. Finally, if you want to see a few examples of SoTL work, check out this page. ISU isn’t the only university with a SoTL department, so definitely check out if your own institution has resources on their website or campus.
Academic conferences are a great place to hear the latest research about your areas of study. They can also be fantastic places to find inspiration for classroom assignments from fellow instructors that have taught all over the country or world. I definitely recommend looking for panel titles that are specifically about pedagogy. Yes, finding out the latest news about your research interests is an essential element of attending conferences. [Here are some tips if you’ve never attended one before.] However, there should be at least one or two sessions when your specific research isn’t being explored in detail. Use those times to find panels about teaching practices. Or, look for the people who are presenting on these panels and ask them if you can buy them a coffee at some point so you can hear about their work. Many conference panels are live-tweeted now-a-days, as well. Check your conference hashtag on Twitter and see if any particular presentations seem worth following-up on via email or social media.
Specific Example: I just got back from MLA’s conference this past Sunday. It was my first time attending and I had a wonderful experience. I attended a lot of panels during the conference. I even managed to attend two panels on Sunday before heading to the airport. The last panel I attended was panel 711, Teaching Literature to Non-English Majors. I’m teaching the literature course, Gender in the Humanities (ENG 128), for the first time this semester. I’ve taught other general education courses before, but I’m always looking for new inspiration for class assignments. This panel definitely helped with that activity. Dr. Dowland’s description of his Literature and Medicine course was particularly inspirational for my new course.
I had already decided to take two weeks for each novel in my course, rather than my usual one. Dr. Dowland spoke of how he has students connect the literature in his course to their specific majors. In this way, they can see how “entangled” the course materials, and literature in general, are to their own areas of study. In my ENG 128 course, I am now planning on splitting the novel discussion into three days. The fourth day will be left for students to present on how they see the novel they have chosen to discuss connecting to their major.
I’m teaching five novels and I’ll have 30 students. With six students per novel, each student will have 10 minutes to present to their fellow classmates on the connections between the literature they are required to read in a gen. ed. course and the fields that they are more strongly invested in. Who knows? Perhaps this assignment will in turn increase their investment and/or interest in literature.
Having students help design their own classroom assignments is a difficult pedagogical strategy to successfully put into use. It requires a lot of off-the-cuff lesson planning on the instructor’s part. However, students can help give you inspiration for classroom assignments for your future versions of the same course. I wrote recently about the course assessments I have students complete at the end of each semester. In these assessments, I literally ask my students to tell me what assignments they felt they learned from the most and how they would change the design of any of our class assignments. I then use their responses to tweak future version of the activities.
You could also get a sense of what classroom assignments students appreciate or learn from the most by giving students options to choose from. If you give students two options for completing an assignment, and both options lead to the same learning outcome, then you can get a sense for what types of assignments students are most interested in just by counting how many students choose each option.
Specific Example: In my course assessments, and in the reflections I have students complete at the end of their group projects, it became more than obvious that my students’ favorite activity is the group project. Shocking, I know. But, every semester without fail, students will mention wishing they had more time to lead the class analysis activity. [I give them 20-30 minutes, with the option of going longer if we have the time. For a brief description of this activity, go here.] Their reflections also show me that this activity helps them see the benefits of exploring different perspectives on the same text, the difficulties of getting students to voluntarily participate in class discussions, and the complexities of leading a class activity that relies so heavily on both the instructor and students being prepared. [They can’t just lecture for 20-30 minutes. They must lead an analysis activity that requires participation.] I include a lot of reflective elements in my course assignments, especially for creative projects where it might be harder to see the critical skills being used and learned. But another benefit of these reflections is intended for me, not for them. They allow me to improve my assignment designs by informing me of how my students perceive their work and what they have learned from completing the assignments.
This list includes only a few places where you can find classroom assignment inspiration. Here’s my list of online resources you can use for this task. As the new semester begins, I hope you are excited about the assignments you have included in your syllabi. But, if you feel your assignments would benefit from some new inspiration, consider the above options the next time you are prepping a course. And definitely consider creating a course assessment activity for your spring courses, so that you have some student data to take with you during your next course prep session.
Where do you find inspiration for your class assignments? Share your resources in the comments section below!
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