Papers, projects, and presentations are excellent opportunities for students to demonstrate their learning and investment in a course. Students typically welcome such assignments when they come with clear guidelines as well as room for some flexibility in topics and creativity in content.
Creating Interesting and Effective Assignments
Because papers, projects, and presentations allow students to spend a significant amount of time preparing the end product, these kinds of assignments can focus on the highest-level goals for the course. For example, assignments may require analysis and synthesis of competing perspectives, application of theory to real-world problems, or creative extensions of course material.
When you choose a topic or format for this kind of assignment, make sure that it challenges students to meet these kinds of high-level goals. Otherwise, exams and homework are usually a simpler assessment tool.
Several approaches can make a basic assignment more interesting. Consider adding the following angles to your assignment:
- Have students target their paper, project, or presentation for a specific audience, other than the instructor. Target audiences might include a review board or funding agency (for research papers), a judge or jury (for logical arguments or analyses), the general public (for informational reports), or a historical figure. The format of the assignment can be tailored to the audience, for example a proposal to a review board or a letter to a historical figure.
- Require students to use experiential resources alongside traditional library resources. For example, students can conduct an interview or engage in observer-participation at a relevant site or event.
- Invite an expert to discuss students’ work at the end of the quarter. For example, you might invite a colleague in academia, industry, or service to oversee a presentation of student projects and select the most innovative project, or discuss how the students’ relate to professional or real-world activities.
- Allow for some aspect of collaboration or peer feedback. For example, students can respond to drafts of another student’s work. Or, you can assign students to different aspects of a single topic and reserve some class time for discussion among students working on the same topic.
When writing your assignment instructions, recognize that introductory students (especially first-years) appreciate specific assignment topics and instructions, whereas advanced students often prefer more freedom. If you decide to allow for a wide range of topics and formats, make sure that your instructions are still specific enough to ensure that students produce high-quality work.
For example, you might allow students to choose their own topic, but provide specific instructions on how to produce a good literature review, grant proposal, or informational website (whatever the format is); or, you might let students choose the format, but still give specific requirements about the number and quality of resources they need to use. For all students and assignments, it is helpful to:
- Give clear grading guidelines;
- Make samples of previous students’ work available;
- Break the assignment into stages (i.e., outline, draft, revision, final project) to prevent procrastination or misunderstanding.
The Hume Center for Writing and Speaking also has a variety of resources for help in assigning oral or written projects.
There is nothing more arbitrary to a student than a paper passed back with a grade but few comments. To avoid this, when grading papers:
- Write comments judiciously and legibly. Do not obliterate the text—use the margins, the back, or append a note.
- Try to be specific enough with your suggestions so that the student has a good chance of doing better next time.
- If you find that you are saying similar things to several students, prepare a handout on whatever the students are stumbling over—how to write a review, for example, or how to develop an argument.
- Even better, give such a handout at the time an assignment is announced, so students are prepared.
A paper should be judged on its content, organization, and style. It is useful to the students if you evaluate the paper in each of these areas; however, students should understand that the overall strength of a paper’s “content” (ideas, analysis, or insights) cannot be separated from its execution (organization, mechanics, and style). After all, language is the medium through which students must present and arrange their thoughts.
Some teachers have had good success with asking students to write papers twice. The first draft is submitted and subjected to constructive criticism on these areas of content, organization, and style. The second draft is graded and usually shows the kind of improvement that is satisfying to both the student and the teacher.
Follow the same strategies for grading papers as you would for essay exams:
- Read a few papers before you actually start grading to get an idea of the range of quality.
- Stop grading when you get too tired or bored.
- When you start again, read over the last couple of papers you graded to make sure you were fair.
For further strategies, check out the Grading Exams portion of our Testing Guidelines page.
Grading Projects and Presentations
Projects and presentations can present special grading challenges because of their unique formats. To ensure a fair and painless process:
- Make sure you have given students explicit guidelines for the assignment and consider preparing a grading checklist or “score sheet” based on these guidelines.
- This guideline can include anything from assignment length to use of sources to overall creativity in these guidelines.
- Whether or not you return this score sheet to your students is up to you; however, students always appreciate (and deserve) some comments explaining the grade.
Grading Group Assignments
While group assignments can achieve learning goals (such as improving collaboration skills) not easily addressed by traditional coursework, they are notoriously difficult to grade fairly, for a variety of reasons:
- Work is often distributed unevenly among group members. For this reason, some instructors allow members of a group to individually suggest a grade for “effort” for each of the group members, including themselves.
- In addition, because collaboration limits the ability of any one student to “control” the final product, group work may not perfectly reflect the true abilities or effort of either a struggling student or an outstanding student. For this reason, consider implementing both individual and group accountability.
- For example, each student might be individually responsible for a certain topic or section, as well as receive a holistic grade for the group’s performance. In this case, be sure to provide some classroom time or other structured instructions for group coordination and discussion, so that the group does not splinter.
Also recognize that some projects do not lend themselves well to collaboration; traditional or scientific papers, for example, are almost always “divvied up” by students with little discussion, feedback, and integration of perspectives. Assignments that work well with collaboration often result in “products,” such as films, computer programs, physical inventions, or “proposals,” presented in class or in writing, based on a problem-solving assignment or case study.