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Assignments Matter
September 13, 2012 | Volume 7 | Issue 25
Table of Contents 

Assignments Students Own

Jeffrey Carpenter and Jennifer Pease

Every teacher inevitably experiences it at some point: the seemingly airtight assignment that yields uninspired student work.

Driven by accountability pressures, many well-intentioned educators take too much control of students' learning, which leads to student complacency and lackluster performance. Students must be active participants in their own educations; they need to think critically and labor to learn.

Assignments that demand more responsibility from students will result in deeper understanding of content and the development of academic and life skills. We suggest three principles to guide the creation of such rigorous assignments.

1. Students must understand why the assignment matters.

If educators want to increase student responsibility for learning, students must see relevance in assignments. Students are often asked to complete tasks that seem to have little significance beyond the classroom.

Teachers must design assignments that are realistically contextualized and focused on transferable knowledge and skills so that learners recognize the assignments' utility and importance. However, students may not intuitively notice connections between their lives and assignments. Therefore, teachers should explicitly discuss with them how tasks cultivate useful knowledge and skills and relate to the world beyond school.

Assignments will be more engaging if they connect to compelling topics—justice, race, identity formation, current events, or kids' own lives—and involve an authentic audience beyond the teacher. When students recognize assignments' relevance, they are more likely to be intrinsically motivated to produce high-quality work. Strenuous effort can be rewarding if learners value the outcomes of their hard work.

2. Students must have a say in what the assignment will include and how they will complete it.

Although teachers traditionally take charge of creating and implementing classwork, young people benefit by contributing to the development of goals, expectations, and rubrics for assignments. Students who understand an assignment's worth will want to invest in its development. The creative process can be as important as the final product; involving students in making process-oriented decisions can foster increased responsibility and passion for learning.

Students must be granted some autonomy in their own work; they should make substantive choices regarding such matters as what format their final products will take, what content they will address, and how they will complete assignments. When tasks are too perfectly prepackaged, learners are less likely to grapple with ideas in meaningful ways.

Rigorous assignments balance adequate guidance with enough freedom for kids to be creative, ask their own questions, and take risks.

3. Students must assess where they are in relation to assignment goals.

In addition to engaging in assignments' development and completion, students must also participate in the assessment process. By evaluating, reflecting on, and improving their own work, students better understand standards for success and assume more responsibility for their learning. Too often, teachers expend considerable energy generating feedback that goes largely ignored.

Learners can and should self-assess their knowledge, skills, dispositions, and growth at different stages in an assignment's development. Peer assessment also helps students internalize assessment criteria and prompts reevaluation of one's own work.

Young people must become accustomed to appraising their own progress rather than passively waiting for others to judge their work. Such opportunities for growth come only when teachers and students together develop assignments that integrate a requisite feedback and revision loop.

Increasing student ownership of assignments may initially challenge both teachers and students, but even small shifts in the directions we recommend can be transformative. Young people who recognize relevance and participate in assignments' development and assessment feel more responsibility for the learning process.

By helping students own assignments, teachers foster rigor, independence, and engagement that will ultimately result in high-quality work and rich learning.

Jeffrey Carpenter is assistant professor of education at Elon University in North Carolina. Jennifer Pease is an assistant professor of middle, secondary, and mathematics education at James Madison University in Virginia.


ASCD Express, Vol. 7, No. 25. Copyright 2012 by ASCD. All rights reserved. Visit


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