“Choose your Own Adventure”: New Approaches to Assignments

Wendy Hyman, Associate Professor of English (Oberlin College), April 17, 2017

"Macbeth," Holinshed Chronicles Folio. Public domain

“Macbeth,” Holinshed Chronicles Folio. Public domain

Like most teaching faculty, I’ve experimented with an array of strategies for augmenting (and evaluating) student learning over the years. Some have been fairly conventional: response papers, short quizzes, class reports, blackboard posts, final research papers, cumulative exams, and the like. Others have been more creative and comparative: writing “biographies” of books in Special Collections (trying to discern something like the “life story” of a 400- or 500-year old object), curating an exhibit in the Allen Memorial Art Museum  (although a literature professor, my scholarship sometimes delves into visual studies), writing imagined dialogues between literary characters, selecting among textual variants in order to create mini “editions,” or creating “liner notes” to speculate whether Petrarch or Dante is the mysterious “Italian poet from the thirteenth century” in Dylan’s “Tangled Up in Blue.”

But until recently, one thing I had never experimented with was giving students a choice about which assignments to complete or when to complete them. After all, standardizing the “what” and “when” of student work not only enables one to anticipate the grading tsunamis, but also ameliorates the grading process itself (read a few essay-based exams in a row, and you quickly develop a rubric for what “A” or a “B” answers looks like). Plus, as a female—and, for a while there, young—faculty member, I worried that I needed to be stringent in order to be taken seriously. Like developing a cherished reputation as a hard grader, I thought of inflexible deadlines as my friend. My reasons for keeping things simple and keeping them on a set schedule were not entirely self-interested, however. Like many professors, I found myself persuaded by the oft-repeated truism that it is part of our job to teach our students respect for deadlines. Surely it is the rare academic who has never turned in an article, book review, or assessment report after a promised deadline, and I admittedly felt a bit hypocritical playing bad cop. But we hear again and again that the work world, unlike higher education, will not tolerate the foibles of the disorganized and dilatory; in order to best prepare our students to flourish after graduation, it thereby seems like it must be our mandate to keep them on schedule.

A Midsummer Night's Dream act IV, scene I. Engraving from a painting by Henry Fuseli, published 1796. Public domain

A Midsummer Night’s Dream act IV, scene I. Engraving from a painting by Henry Fuseli, published 1796. Public domain

But over the years I began to resent occupying the role of the disciplinarian who insisted on calibrating demerits for each day of lateness. In terms of contact with students, deadline management also places inevitable emotional friction into the least edifying part of the student-teacher relationship. I’d so much rather talk about how my student’s thinking is evolving than adjudicate whether they really needed another 24 hours to turn in the essay reflecting said thinking. More important, the rigidity seemed inimical to the kind of creative, inventive, higher-order thinking I wanted to foster in both my students and myself, and the impression I wanted to leave of their encounter with the material. Do I want them to remember that I was the person who taught them to turn in an essay on time even if they have the flu? Or the person that enabled then to do their best work because I had not discouraged self-care?

Stepping Gradually into the New Assignment Waters

A few years ago, a new class gave me a chance to test out doing a few things differently. It was a new lecture-style course, a 100-level Introduction to Shakespeare directed at non-majors. I therefore anticipated many first-time visitors to college-level humanities courses: opera singers and oboe players, geologists and mathematicians, pre-med students taking a required English class, or first-years who had promised a grandparent they would try out Shakespeare. I wanted to signal my understanding that each of these students would bring different interests and strengths to the table, and I also wanted the “opportunity costs” of trying out something new to be low. At the same time, with 50 students in the class (and half that many in another that was writing intensive), there was a limit to how much I could really personalize things. So I considered a compromise. What if, in addition to short quizzes and a final exam, I gave students a menu of 4 choices for the remaining 10% of their grade? And what if I allowed them to turn in or perform their student-choice assignment whenever they chose?

Christian de Köhler, Othello with Desdemona, 1859. Public domain

Christian de Köhler, Othello with Desdemona, 1859. Public domain

To my delight, the experiment went very well. Most of the students chose to do a recitation (option: to perform a soliloquy or group scene either in class or in my office), while others cheered them on. Several chose to analyze a film adaptation, while another analyzed a performance of the opera Otello. A few discussed a scholarly article about one of the plays, and a couple others even examined primary sources reproduced in our textbook. While a few did treat the assignment as peripheral, most really relished the opportunity to take agency in their choice, and to round-out the course’s approach with something more personal. Certainly, the recitations animated the classroom, and created a sense of mutual respect and group bonding that made the lecture hall feel more intimate. But best of all, I was enabling a kind of multi-modal learning even in a lecture course, and in a way that I think increased the student sense of buy-in.

All In: Choose Your Own Adventure

I was pleased enough with how this went that, last semester, I decided to radically increase the student-choice component of an upper-level course, giving students what I described as “choose your own adventure” approach to the majority of assignments. It took a good amount of planning to set up, a significant amount of flexibility to administer, and a willingness to take a real leap of faith in my students. But if it enabled me to focus less on my role as Keeper of Deadlines, and more on my role as enabler of scrupulous analysis, elegant expression, and metacognition, how could that be bad? It certainly seemed like a class called Shakespeare and Metamorphosis, which read Shakespeare in conversation with classical Ovidian myths about transformation, was an ideal place to ask for more self-direction from students—and to try out something new myself.

Ovid, Metamorphoseon libri XV.... Title-page. Collection of Hayden White and Margaret Brose, 1556. Public domain

Ovid, Metamorphoseon libri XV…. Title-page. Collection of Hayden White and Margaret Brose, 1556. Public domain

Of course, the details of any such experiment would need to be adapted to the learning goals of the course, the skill level of the students, and the exigencies of the professor’s schedule (full disclosure: I am not doing anything like this now, during my hectic 3-course semester). But for me, it looked like this: all students were required to write one analytical essay (6-8 pages) worth 25% of the grade; and all students would receive 15% of their grade for their attendance and participation in discussion. Beyond this, it was up to each student to determine the means by which they would find it most beneficial to be evaluated according to a menu of options that I provided. Admittedly, this took me some time to work out:

 

 

 

5%:    Start off class discussion with a substantive response to something we’ve read; pose         questions.

10%:  Oral presentation (5-10 min) of an article—summarize, analyze, point to ideas it raises;

          or Visual analysis (3pp) of an object in the AMAM in relation to Ovid/Shakespeare;

          or Response paper (3pp.) analyzing any primary or secondary reading for the day.

15%:  Annotated bibliography of 3 articles not on the syllabus (one paragraph per source);

          or Analysis (3-4pp) of a translation of one of our primary texts.

20%:  Attempt to create your own myth (!);

          or Continue the story of any Ovidian character.

25%:  6-7 pp. analytical essay on any primary source from the second half of term;

          or an Ovidian Shakespeare text (e.g. Venus and Adonis) not on the syllabus;

          or one or more myth(s) from another culture/linguistic tradition, etc.;

          or a Final exam comprising discussion of terms, passage analysis, and one essay.

50%:  Final original research paper, 16-20pp.; requires 6-8 secondary sources and a consultation with a librarian.

?%:    Online virtual exhibition/web page: let’s discuss what you envision, and agree on scope.

          or? I am open to other unconventional approaches.

This menu of options was followed by five samples of how a student might get to 100 points, and some ground rules: All students had to submit a personal plan by week 2 for how they intended to meet the course requirements (they were allowed to modify the plan after this date if their interests changed, as long as they submitted a revised plan and explanation). I stipulated that no more than three of any element could be submitted, urging that in most cases two would be better to expand the skill set developed. All students had to earn at least 20 “student choice” points by the end of week 10, unless writing the research paper, and all were required to turn in a sheet showing their “accounting” at the end of the semester.

Ovid, Metamorphoses, "Minerva at the House of Envy," 1664 - 1700

Ovid, Metamorphoses, “Minerva at the House of Envy,” 1664 – 1700. Public domain

There were scheduling issues I had to think through. I needed to allow only two discussion starters per day so as to not take too much time away from class discussion; that part was therefore handled by sign-up sheet. I had to take into account the registrar’s rules for the submission of final projects. And I had to help the students, primarily through one-on-one conversations, think through how to figure out their rubric. But here is where the somewhat dizzying logistics made way for intentionality and responsibility: because each student had to give serious thought to what their aims and intentions for the course were. Is this a semester, I asked them, in which you really want to work on your writing by tackling a series of short essays with ongoing feedback? Is this the semester in which you want to try bringing together your English and Creative Writing majors by writing your own myth? Are you interested in working on your research skills, and therefore want to develop an annotated bibliography? Do you need more practice giving in-class presentations, and can we set up a schedule for those? It almost goes without saying that by asking them to take responsibility for what they most wanted to work on, they were more likely to achieve it. And far from thinking that flexibility was a synonym for slack, the class truly set itself wonderfully high expectations: from a scholarly 20-page research papers for a graduate-school bound student, to a site-specific installation by a TIMARA major in Tappan Square, replete with an original score, which reimagined the town green as an allegorical landscape.

And what about those deadlines? As you might imagine, students were initially a bit overwhelmed by this array of options. They did their earnest best to come up with plans they could stick to. But as they kept learning, their interests changed, and so did their intentions. I accepted every revision. Likewise, as deadlines piled up, many students had to revise their own due dates. I accepted every new date. Each time, the students seemed apologetic that they had fallen short in some way, but I told them that, instead, they could use this as a wonderful opportunity to self-reflect about how they worked best, what they might need to prioritize differently in the future, and how much time they required for various tasks. Because in reality, the world of work very rarely dictates singular deadlines that can be tackled one by one. Instead, we all must learn to multitask in increasingly complex and demanding environments that reward us more for nimbleness than for rigidity. And that, too, is something that my Shakespeare and Metamorphosis students so deftly taught me.

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