Assignments: How Students Perceive Them

Assignments are one of those ever-present but not-often-thought-about aspects of teaching and learning. Pretty much every course has them, and teachers grade them. The grade indicates how much the student learned by doing them. But is this learning something that students recognize? Too often students see assignments as work the teacher makes them do for a grade. How often do students see or experience assignments as learning opportunities?

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Assignments are one of those ever-present but not-often-thought-about aspects of teaching and learning. Pretty much every course has them, and teachers grade them. The grade indicates how much the student learned by doing them. But is this learning something that students recognize? Too often students see assignments as work the teacher makes them do for a grade. How often do students see or experience assignments as learning opportunities?

We don't know much about students' perceptions of their assignments. Teachers don't often ask, and it's not an area that's been explored much empirically. Some descriptive work recently reported in Teaching of Psychology begins to uncover what students think about assignments and whether they are proud of their work and understand it as a learning experience.

In the first of two studies, the research team sought to determine if assignments engendered pride upon completion. Did students feel proud of their assignment work? The assumption, verified by related research, is that feelings of pride and accomplishment motivate effort, which should mean more learning. The researchers also wondered if students reported feeling proud of certain assignments. Could the assignment features that engendered this sense of accomplishment be identified?

To answer the question, researchers asked 113 undergraduates in four sections of an introductory psychology course to select the one of 19 assignments they completed that they were most proud of. This collection of assignments belonged to a category of work required in the course “Learning by Doing.” They were described as “activities for you to observe and think like a psychologist” (p. 324). The assignments were graded as a set, and they counted for 20 percent of the overall course grade.

Students selected the task of responding to “what you consider to be your best assignment . . . the one you are most pleased with or most proud of” (p. 324) by explaining why they were pleased with it. Students chose from the 19 assignments, and statistical analysis revealed that “yes, academic assignments can be distinguished on the basis of the feeling of pride they are associated with” (p. 324).

The assignments themselves were content-specific and, therefore, not as interesting to those outside the field as the reasons students gave for selecting them. Three themes emerged, starting with effort. If students worked hard on the assignments, they felt that sense of pride. Second, the assignment engendered pride if it had self-relevance. This theme is broadly defined. Sometimes the relevance was a function of students' connecting with the field as an area of intended study. In other cases, it was that the assignment had personal relevance. For example, the assignment most often chosen as the one students felt proud of involved a self-assessment that explored personality and career choice. The final theme involved recognition by others, which in this case consisted of positive feedback from the teacher.

In the second study, the researchers asked “whether variation in pride associated with the assignments were correlated with student judgments that the assignment was a useful teaching tool” (p. 326). Said more directly, they asked whether students thought they had learned something by doing the assignment. The methods and procedure were the same, but in the second study a different student cohort and smaller collection of assignments were used. At the end of the semester students were asked to select the assignment they learned the most from and the assignment they were most proud of. Here as well, they were asked to give reasons for their choices.

Three themes emerged here as reasons for selecting the assignments; the time and effort and self-relevance themes were present in this data set along with a new third theme, helped me understand the course material. For the assignment students said they learned the most from, 42 percent said the reason was that it helped them understand the course material. However, with the assignment they were most proud of, only 2 percent said the reason was because the assignment helped them understand course material. In other words, if the assignment required time and effort, the student got involved in doing the assignment, which caused pride far more regularly than what they learned from doing the assignment. 

The authors of the study note, “The findings of this study suggest that in planning a course it might be wise for instructors to balance assignments that simply and clearly elucidate course material with those that demand the time and effort (student complaints not withstanding) to create a prideful experience” (p. 327).

Reference: Pines, H. A., Larkin, J. E, and Murrary, M. P. (2016). Dual outcomes of psychology assignments: Perceived learning and feelings of prideful accomplishment. Teaching of Psychology, 43(4), 323–328.