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Creating Engaging Assignments

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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"As these examples have shown, engaging assignments within the classroom can be developed in a variety of ways. Through providing students with choice in their assignments, structuring high- stakes presentations, or incorporating drama within a class, professors have encouraged deep student engagement in their assignments. Similar assignments could be incorporated, with appropriate adaptations, in many other contexts."


The posting below looks at three case studies of course assignments that led to significant engagement by students. It is by L. Lamar Nisly, Sarah Cecire, Melissa Friesen, and Amanda Sensenig, Bluffton University, Bluffton, Ohio, and is from the March 2015 issue, Volume 24, Number 3, of the National Teaching and Learning Forum. It is #73 in a series of selected excerpts from the NT&LF reproduced here as part of our "Shared Mission Partnership." NT&LF has a wealth of information on all aspects of teaching and learning. If you are not already a subscriber, you can check it out at [ ] The on-line edition of the Forum - like the printed version - offers subscribers insight from colleagues eager to share new ways of helping students reach the highest levels of learning. Copyright ©John Wiley & Sons, Professional and Trade Subscription Content, One Montgomery Street, Suite 1200, San Francisco, CA 94104-4594. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis
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Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning
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Creating Engaging Assignments

For many years, teachers have focused on the importance of engaging students deeply in their work since we know that effort and motivation are central to learning. During the 2013-14 academic year, the Bluffton University faculty immersed itself in a year of Retooling for Student Learning and Engagement. Rather than allowing ourselves the usual laments about student preparation and interest in courses, we decided to take head-on the challenge of finding ways to engage students in their learning. To open time and energy for this effort, the faculty voted to place on sabbatical most of the usual faculty governance work. In its place, each faculty member designated at least one course as a focus for this Retooling work.

However the particular revisions were designed, professors were intent on finding ways to engage students in their learning. Miller (2011) defined student engagement as "students' willingness to actively participate in the learning process and to persist despite obstacles and challenges. Indicators of student engagement include class attendance and participation, submission of required work, involvement in the learning environment, and participation in the extra-curricular learning opportunities provided on their campus" (2).  Each of the three case studies presented here details an example of course assignments that led to significant engagement by students.

Student Choice in Assignments

Students regularly say that they like to have choices in what they do rather than having one set assignment. In their survey of studies about student choice in assignments, however, von Mizener and Williams (2009) found that the most frequent conclusion of these studies was that student choice or lack of choice in assignments did not lead to differences in performance, though students had better attitudes about their learning. Still, in 22% of studies, student choice in assignments did lead to superior performance rather than if they had no choice. Seeking student engagement with course assignments led to this innovation in presenting assignments.

Case Study #1: Providing Student Choice in Assignments

Dr. Sarah Cecire, professor of education - I teach the Computers and Technology in Education course, a required course for all teacher education candidates. There are several issues that I have encountered in teaching the class:

* Students have varying levels of technology knowledge and skill, so some are bored, and others are lost.

* Students complained that I had too many assignments.

* A few students never turned work in on time which created a nightmare in keeping up with grading of assignments.

To address these problems, I restructured my class based on an idea from Maryellen Weimer's (2013) book, Learner-Centered Teaching: Five Key Changes to Practice. I required two assignments, the final exam, and a technology integration unit. These two assignments addressed the key objectives of the course. The final exam addressed the knowledge base for the course, and the integration unit addressed the application of the knowledge. The rest of the assignments were optional. The students then chose which of the remaining assignments that they wished to complete to earn the grade that they wanted. Each week we explored a different topic, and there were several activities/assignments that students could choose to complete; some were independent assignments, and some were group projects. There were several discussion forums available as well. I provided a grading scale which showed students how many points they needed to earn an A, B, C, etc. The rule was, at the end of the week, the assignments closed, and students could not submit any longer. Once the assignments closed, I graded the work that had been submitted.

The students responded positively to this change. It gave them choice and responsibility. If they had a particularly busy week, they could let things go in my class. If they did not like an assignment, they could skip it.

This change also greatly reduced my stress. I was no longer chasing down missing assignments, and I could get all of my grading completed in a timely manner. Once I had worked through an assignment, I was finished; I did not have to keep rechecking to see if someone turned something in late.

The biggest benefit of this change was that the responsibility for learning was on the student where it should be. They chose what they wanted to get out of the class.

High-Stakes Assignments

One of the challenges students sometimes have is taking seriously an assignment when it seems to be "just for the class." A way to counteract such attitudes and help to encourage intrinsic motivation is to increase the stakes of an assignment, often by creating a structure with a larger audience than just the class or instructor. For example, Pollard (2008) reported success in having students develop Wikipedia entries for a history class. The students created higher quality work than they had for other, class-based assignments: "Some students who performed at the 'average' level on customary assignments such as book reviews and the traditional research paper, excelled beyond all expectations with the Wikipedia assignment" (p. 19). Similarly, Bluffton University's Civic Engagement Day led to an assignment that began within the classroom but expanded to a much larger audience.

Case Study #2: Preparing a Group Presentation for an External Audience

Dr. Amanda Sensenig, assistant professor of psychology - Psychology of Learning, a 300-level class of 30 students, focuses on cognitive psychology, the study of how we think, decide, and make sense of our world and the people in it. Our class participated in Bluffton's annual Civic Engagement Day, a campus- wide conference-style activity day in which students, faculty, and staff led and attended sessions structured around the year's theme, "Race and Ethnicity in America: Celebration, Struggle, Opportunity." Given Bluffton's focus on innovative teaching techniques this year, I chose to highlight Civic Engagement Day as an extended learning opportunity, involving the whole class in a collaborative learning activity.

The class first read articles about the concept of stereotype threat, which holds that every group has some negative stereotype associated with it (for example, that women are bad at math). Although we might not agree with the stereotype, we may be worried about fulfilling it, and that worry can cause anxiety, distress, and other distracting conditions that often, ironically, cause us to perform more poorly, thus fulfilling the stereotype (Steele and Aronson 1995).

 Students split into small groups and signed up to investigate further stereotype threat as it applies to gender, age, or race. These small groups went to the library, read articles about their topic, and spent class time working through questions about the cognitive pros and cons of stereotyping, how stereotype threat relates to their topic, and how we might observe and correct stereotype threat on Bluffton's campus. The groups gave presentations to the rest of the class, which included skits, videos, and summaries of research findings. Class members in the audience were tasked with selecting the best parts of each presentation. Together, we then created one hour-long presentation on stereotype threat for Civic Engagement Day, with content from each of the group presentations. Volunteers gave the presentation to an audience of over 100 people on Civic Engagement Day.

Students learned a lot about stereotype threat and how it can influence our cognition and interaction with people. The presentation was well-done, and the format of the preparation for this activity was likely the reason. The various pieces were broken down and individually graded (answers to questions, class presentation), and there was a sense of ownership and accountability to other group members. In addition, it seems that the pressure of presenting to peers and professors on Civic Engagement Day led students to work harder than they normally would to learn the material and present it in an accessible way.

Drama as a Teaching Tool

One approach to encourage active participation in class is to have students act. Cawthon, Dawson, and Ihorn (2011) have found that adding drama to a classroom increases the number of students who are engaged in learning by about 30%. Likewise, Weinbaum (1999) reported that having students act out or orally interpret literature was a particularly effective way to have students engage the texts. A general education theatre class, then, offered a perfect opportunity to put into effect the power of drama within the classroom.

Case Study #3: Developing a Dramatic Presentation

Dr. Melissa Friesen, professor of theatre and communication - Theatre for Social Change, a course I taught for the first time in fall 2013, is open to all students and fulfills a Fine Arts option in our general education program as well as serving our theatre and peace and conflict studies minors. Bluffton University's Retooling efforts stimulated my development of this new course in ways that I hoped would engage students deeply in their learning. The course examines theoretical, practical, ethical, and aesthetic elements of theatre created to promote social justice. In addition to traditional pedagogical strategies, students were also expected to learn through performance. Students researched and practiced performance methodologies that promote civic dialogue and created collaboratively an original piece of theatre, which we performed for a public audience.

Using insights about scaffolding assignments so that students build upon previous skills and knowledge, as well as the pedagogical benefits of having students immersed in the learning process physically, emotionally, and intellectually, I developed a sequence of assignments that gradually raised the stakes for students. I strove to follow one of the best practices identified by Ken Bain (2004) by crafting assignments that allowed students "to try their own thinking, come up short, receive feedback, and try again" in an environment safe for risk-taking (28).  Not only did the assignments develop in complexity, but they also moved from in-class participants toward involving invited participants and finally to a public audience. After participating in many ensemble- building activities and theatre games led by me during the first weeks of class, each student led the  class in a 5-10 minute warm-up game.

In groups of three, students then prepared a 45-minute Interactive Theatre workshop using techniques learned in class. Each group selected its own topic, such as bullying, suicide, racial discrimination, and self-harm. This workshop included warm-up, bridge, and activating sections inspired by Michael Rohd's book Theatre for Community, Conflict and Dialogue (1998) or techniques developed by theatre for social change practitioners. Each group first led its workshop with our class, and we all processed experiences, strengths, and opportunities for improvement together. The team then incorporated this feedback into a revised workshop presented to a campus or community group, including a seventh grade math class, a church youth group, on-campus hall chaplains, and members of Bluffton's Multicultural Affairs Organization. After conducting the out-of-class workshop, each student wrote a self-evaluation paper.

I was pleased with the results of this sequence of assignments, as I clearly detected improvements in leadership, communication, and facilitation skills. Students were overwhelmingly positive in their feedback in class, in their journals, and in end-of-semester formal course evaluations. In their self-evaluation papers, students noted the benefits of interactive theatre techniques for their own and others' learning. A social work major wrote that these techniques can be "a method of getting students more deeply involved in their learning, and doing so in a fun way," while an education major saw broad applications: "Interactive theatre keeps things authentic and allows people to come to realizations that would not be possible without coming together as one." Even though this was the first time I had taught this particular class, the deep learning and high engagement evidenced in student evaluations and course assessments far surpassed my experiences with other general education theatre courses, and challenged me to include careful attention to performative assignments in future courses.


As these examples have shown, engaging assignments within the classroom can be developed in a variety of ways. Through providing students with choice in their assignments, structuring high- stakes presentations, or incorporating drama within a class, professors have encouraged deep student engagement in their assignments. Similar assignments could be incorporated, with appropriate adaptations, in many other contexts.


Bain, K. (2004). What the Best College Teachers Do. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP.

Cawthon, S., K. Dawson, and S. Ihorn. 2011. "Activating Student Engagement through Drama-Based Instruction." Journal for Learning through the Arts 7 (1): 1-28. Retrieved from EJ985619 

Miller, R. 2011. Introduction. In Promoting Student Engagement, Volume  1: Programs, Techniques and Opportunities, edited by R. Miller, E. Amsel, B. Kowalewski, B. Beins, K. Keith, and B. Peden, 2-8. Society for the Teaching of Psychology. Retrieved from ebooks/pse2011vol1.pdf
Pollard, E. 2008. "Raising the Stakes: Writing About Witchcraft on Wikipedia." The History Teacher42 (1): 9-24. Retrieved from

Rohd, M. 1998. Theatre for Community, Conflict & Dialogue: The Hope is Vital Training Manual. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Steele, C. M., and J. Aronson. 1995. "Stereotype Threat and the Intellectual Test Performance of African-Americans." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 69 (5): 797-811.

von Mizener, B., and R. Williams. 2009. "The Effects of Student Choice on Academic Performance."Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions 11 (2): 110-128. doi: 10.1177/1098300708323372.

Weimer, M. 2013. Learner-Centered Teaching: Five Key Changes to Practice. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Weinbaum, B. 1999. "The Practice of Performance in Teaching Multicultural Literature."Multicultural Education 7 (1): 16-24.