Search This Blog

Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Assignments, The Whole Assignments, and Nothing But The Assignments

In a previous post, we talked about what students can do to be successful in a course. In that first segment, we mentioned that it is really important to turn in all assigned work. Students will often times think a missed assignment here and there might not impact their grades; to some extent, they may be right if there are dozens of assignments that are worth relatively few points, and they only miss one or two. But many students forget how many assignments they have missed, and too often this leads to poor final grades, even if they know the course material well.

Another issue professors typically see with poor performance on assignments is lack of following directions. Good professors provide assignments with explicit directions on how to complete the assignments they give in their courses. In fact, you may have had a professor that has given you an assignment with 1-2 full pages of directions on how to complete it, and you may have thought, "Wow - this is overkill! Does she think I'm stupid or something?" No, she does not think you are stupid - she just wants to make sure you include all that is needed to do well on that particular assignment.

Some professors require time to learn a valuable lesson, but when they do, it leads them to create assignments with lots of directions. What is that lesson? That students cannot read their minds! (I know - shocking, isn't it?) A few professors assume that students should know what to do to complete a reflection paper, or do a set of algebra problems. Those professors learn quickly that if they do not write out directions completely, then some students will ultimately not complete the assignments in the way the professors wanted them done.

What can be frustrating to a professor, though, is when she takes considerable time developing an assignment and the directions for it, and then a student simply does not follow those directions. When it comes to a difference between an "A" paper and a "C" paper, it sometimes comes down to whether or not the student followed the directions completely. It really can be that simple. Let me give you an example. One day I was sitting in my office when a student came to see another professor down my hallway about a grade he received on an assignment. For 45 minutes (this is not an exaggeration, by the way), I listened to the student and professor discussing why the student received a "D" instead of an "A". The student insisted that his writing style was "A"-worthy and that he had never once gotten a "D" on a writing assignment. The problem, as the professor pointed out, was that the assignment had four parts to it, and he only completed the first part. Thus, he actually only completed 25% of the assignment (he got off lucky with a "D", if you ask me, considering he only did 1/4 of the assignment). If he had simply done all four parts of the assignment at the level of writing he did, then he would have gotten an "A". Instead, his grade was barely passing, all because he did not follow directions to submit a complete assignment.

To be a successful student, you have to turn in all assignments AND make sure you have followed the directions carefully for those assignments. Sometimes you may feel as though the way you want to complete a particular assignment is a better way than what the professor wants you to do it. Don't fall for that urge! Though you may not recognize this, it is highly likely that your professor has designed the assignment to maximize your learning of the content, your development of critical thinking skills, and/or your mastery of a specific skill that is quirky for that discipline. For example, students taking upper level psychology courses are often told to write concisely in a boring, scientific manner while following seemingly ridiculous rules of format. This is called APA-style. Students who do poorly on APA-style papers often do so because they think that their fancy font looks better, or that flashy adjectives and rhetorical questions make for a more entertaining read. When they do this, they are not following APA-style, which is a technique that must be mastered for that discipline, as quirky as it is. When I talk to students who are in classes in which they must write APA-style papers, I tell them all the same thing when they ask what they can do to get great grades on those assignments - "Don't overthink it - just follow directions!"