Are Your Classes Suffering from “Assignment Creep?”

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Are my classes suffering from ‘assignment creep?”

I’ve been thinking about this concept a lot lately as I’ve been teaching some of the same courses for the past few years.

You’ve probably heard of “feature creep.” A quick search of Google reveals this definition from Wikipedia:

“The ongoing expansion or addition of new features in a product, such as in computer software. These extra features go beyond the basic function of the product and can result in software bloat and over-complication rather than simple design.

We see feature creep in apps, websites, products. Think of your car. If you’ve bought a car recently, you’ve probably noticed how expensive they’ve become in the last 10-15 years. When my wife bought her Mazda years ago it was a fairly basic sedan. Shopping for a newer used car reveals that is comparable in that same class of car today costs over $10,000 more. Why is that? Prices have gone up, of course. But our old car and our newer car are quite different. Our newer car is filled with technologies, comforts, lights that turn with the road, safety mechanisms, etc. The sales person put it this way: “Cars today are basically  computers.” The manual on the car is so cumbersome I have probably learned 1/3rd of the features. The rest, I don’t even know exist yet. It’s overwhelming. But all I really want to be able to do is drive from point A to point B safely and use 1 technology: the ability to listen to podcasts and streaming music through Bluetooth.  I’ll probably never use or even be aware of the the rest of the many features the car has.

I believe our classes can suffer from ‘assignment creep’ – the bloating of a class with assignments, activities,etc. These additional assignments go beyond the essentials of the class and can result in over-complication of your class that interferes with student learning and can contribute to student fatigue and a lowering of student motivation.

Similarly, take a look at your syllabus. Has it grown from 4 pages to 8 with new policies and warnings?

This bloat comes with the best intentions. We want to keep our students learning the most relevant information and help them remain competitive when they graduate.

There is a struggle to balance preparing our students for the constantly changing media environment alongside the growing demands on students to be prepared for their careers and trying to balance student workload and what can reasonably taught in a semester.

If you’ve experienced it, it probably looks something like this:  You go to conferences and see all the amazing things people are teaching all of the wonderful opportunities they are creating for their students. So, you look at your class and say what else can I teach them? How else can I prepare them? But if we’re not careful, we may find we are adding too much stuff to our classes and its having a negative affect on learning.

For me, even when I think I’m being careful, I still fall victim to it. It happened this semester. And I can see that many of my students are overwhelmed.

Here are 4 things I believe you can do to guard against ‘assignment creep.’

  1. Realize it isn’t just the big assignments that can cause this – It’s the little things. From what students tell me, I have a reputation for giving a lot of work; not just big assignments, but little things I want students to do. This semester, I’m requiring my students to present their key messages to the class for feedback and then go out and test their key messages with their target public. I added this because last year students struggled with key messages and I wanted to improve in this area and make the student experience more in line with industry practices. So my intention is good. But I’ve added several other things to the class which are less critical and which have worn the students down. So, by the time we get to this important step, the students are worn out and some are rushed or put it in less effort. So the whole exercise is less effective. Be wary of “death by 1,000 cuts” when it comes to student energy & motivation. Which leads me to…
  2. Why are you adding this assignment, activity, etc.? It is easy to get caught up in new technologies and want to integrate them into class. I am very guilty of this. It’s important to step back and weight the benefits/costs of adding something new for the sake of novelty. When adding things to your class, your emphasis on goals and desired outcomes.
  3. Force yourself into a zero-sum game – Realize that students can only do so much work before they’ll get burnt out on your course and learning will suffer. Set a number of major assignments for the semester that is reasonable.  If you add a new project, you need to remove another. For example, I added a book review assignment to my Strategic Campaigns class. In the past, I had given a final exam. I determined it simply wasn’t practical to assume that students could manage both assignments on top of all of the other work in the class. So I had to make the call on which was most important to their learning – taking another exam in college, or providing a reason to ensure they read a book I believe is very valuable for them. But, even in this situation the amount work that goes into reading an entire book and writing a paper about it ends up being more work than studying for and taking an exam.
  4. Motivate with Empathy – When I was getting my Ph.D., I had a pedagogy professor who told me: “A student’s job is to get the best possible grade with the least amount of work.” And there is some truth to that. We all want the greatest return for the least amount of cost. I don’t judge anyone for that. But the truth is, many students really do want to work hard and give it their all. Yet we must realize that students today are more likely to be working while in school, have family obligations, etc. Students are facing burn out. I am always trying to motivate and encourage my students to work hard and be their best. But we must empathize and consider what’s reasonable. We have to be able to read our students, balance the feedback we’re getting with our expectations, and have the ability to make adjustments on the fly – shifting the tone, giving a little leeway on time or demands, etc.

When students are facing lack of motivation, and even the occasional irritability or even cynicism, it is hard to motivate and inspire.

It’s challenging to try and find that balance between giving our students a rigorous education that will prepare them for the future and keeping our expectations reasonable.

As someone who is a bit of a workaholic who loves what I do, I’ve always tended to push myself very hard and – by the end of the semester – wear myself out. So it is easy for that mentality to find its way into my classroom and affect my students.

But helping our students be there best isn’t necessarily the same as getting the most work out of our students. It’s about getting the best work out of our students. And sometimes the way to do that is by cutting back, simplifying, and focusing on what matters most.

Now, if I can just remember to take my own advice and heed the lessons I’ve learned this semester when planning for next semester. 🙂

-Cheers
Matt

 

 

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