Can Relevant Assignments Change Perceptions in Required Courses?


Required courses are among the most challenging to teach, and the lack of student motivation is one of the big reasons. Students don’t want to take these courses. Most do not understand the justification for requiring them, especially those in fields that appear to be unrelated to their majors. Most teachers try to show the relevance of course content, but it almost always feels like an uphill battle without much success.

The situation is complicated further at large institutions where multiple sections of the same course are offered, often taught by graduate students without much teaching experience. That was the venue for the work done by Fedesco, Kentner, and Natt, which tried to get around the experience level of the instructors by tackling assignments used in a required public speaking course. Students taking the course routinely complained that the speaking assignments “had nothing to do with their majors” (p. 201). The faculty research team reasoned that course coordinators had more control over the assignments in the course than the instructional approaches used by those teaching the sections. Could they redesign the assignments in ways that would make the content and skills developed by the course more relevant to students?

To rework the assignments, the course director met with faculty from a wide range of departments (e.g., engineering, pharmacy, technology, English), asking them “to identify communication skills that incoming first-year students would use in major classes” (p. 201). Both those in the communication department and other departments observed that “students were often unable to equate presentation assignments and skills learned in the public speaking course with presentations they were making in their courses in their majors” (p. 201). And although the case in point here is discipline-specific, it is regularly true that students in a variety of required courses fail to see how they can use what they are learning in those courses in other courses and their professions.

Based on the feedback from those in other departments, assignments in the public speaking course were changed significantly. A table in the article compares the new assignments with those used previously. The new assignments were used in 27 sections of the course taught in the fall semester of 2015. Students in those sections responded to several surveys: one that asked about the relevance of the course material and others that measured motivation, course satisfaction, and perceptions of learning. Responses of those students were compared to the responses of students in 77 sections taught with the old assignments in the spring semester of 2015.

The new assignment configuration produced positive results. It changed students’ perceptions of the relevance of the course. “These findings support the research that shows how the packaging of course material can be an effective strategy to increase perceived relevance” (p. 205). The more relevant assignments also impacted students’ motivation. They reported higher levels of intrinsic motivation. “They were more likely to report that the reason they [were] participating in the course was that they enjoyed the material and . . . deemed it personally important, as compared with students in the preintervention condition” (p. 205).

The measure of overall course satisfaction did not show higher levels for students in the experimental sections. The research teams wondered if that could have been the result of the new assignments being implemented across multiple sections taught by a variety of instructors using different approaches. On the other hand, students did report greater perceptions of learning. The researchers are quick to point out that students’ perceptions of how much knowledge they’ve gained are not as reliable as measures that document actual changes in what students learned. Higher perceptions of learning “may be more indicative of overall course satisfaction and motivation to apply knowledge” (p. 205). Even so, when students think they have learned more in a course, that positively impacts their feelings about the course and its content.

In general, not enough attention is paid to course assignments as should be. They tend to be pretty consistent across courses and disciplines. This study shows that if they are designed to be responsive to skills students need in their major courses, that can change perceptions of a required course, and anything that changes what students think about required courses is worth serious consideration.


Fedesco, H. N., Kentner, A., & Natt, J. (2017).  The effect of relevance strategies on student perceptions of introductory courses.  Communication Education, 66(2), 196–209.

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