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When Assignments Move Beyond "My Work" to "Our Work," Student Learning Is Improved

I’m always on the lookout for resources and approaches to faculty collaboration as a form of faculty development, so I was very interested in a session at AAC&U’s 2016 Annual Meeting on “Assignment Design as a Hot Spot for Faculty and Institutional Collaboration,” convened by Pat Hutchings of the University of Illinois. Colleagues from four institutions described various charrette-style multidisciplinary opportunities for faculty to gather and provide feedback and suggestions for improving and enhancing assignments. These peer review processes were each built upon their own unique elements but all included a critical feedback loop that collected information and input from colleagues and students alike. Such assignment design workshops allow individual faculty members to share a self-authored assignment with a small group of faculty from different disciplines, receive feedback from colleagues, and revise the assignment before delivering it to students. During and following the deployment of such an assignment, these faculty members also collect feedback from students and include that feedback as documentation and information for revising and sharing the assignment in the future.

Laura Gambino of the Stella and Charles Guttman Community College described this process as moving beyond "my work” to “our work.” Gambino, who serves as the associate dean for assessment and technology at Guttman, asks faculty how they know that they’ve designed an assignment that elicits students’ demonstrated achievement of the learning outcomes. Designing good assignments, she has learned, is a key to successful assessment. Collaboration with other faculty through assignment design workshops expands the audience for an assignment beyond the students and, as a result,  “learning” no longer refers to just student learning but also includes faculty learning and institutional learning.

Brad Mello, chair of the Department of Communications at Saint Xavier University, shared his own experience as a faculty member in such a program. The suggestions of a colleague in mathematics led him to make adaptations to his assignments that he would not have otherwise considered. His involvement in these collaborations with faculty from other disciplines also inspires the interest of colleagues within his department.

Assignment design workshops like these can be fun and motivating for faculty. They also lead faculty into deeper conversations around what students need to learn in introductory and foundations classes to prepare them for success in upper-level courses. These are the conversations where faculty identify what and where the opportunities exist to develop the skills that their students will need in upper-level courses and the assignments to achieve such learning outcomes.

Natasha Jankowski of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment added that in her work at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign some assignment design “charrettes” are student run. In such cases, students are provided the learning outcomes and asked what kinds of assignments might enable them to demonstrate mastery of those outcomes. As we’ve already heard elsewhere at this AAC&U meeting, the assignments that students design are often more challenging and creative than those designed by faculty.

As the session came to a close, I wondered which institutions (other than my own) encourage faculty to engage with the assignments and activities of their colleagues as learners. I understand the value that peer review can hold when we consider the well-written documentation of our colleagues’ assignments, but I’ve also experienced the benefit of those messy moments that come close to replicating what happens in an actual classroom, and the joy and discomfort we sometimes feel when experiencing an assignment not as teachers and colleagues, but as learners. The presenters acknowledged the vulnerability we all feel when sharing assignments with other faculty and the importance of an atmosphere that is safe and supportive. Perhaps one way to balance this sense of risk and vulnerability is to allow our colleagues to present their assignments to us in the ways they do with their students. Chances are, we’ll all learn something in the process. Again, to quote Professor Gambino, in this way, student learning becomes faculty learning and institutional learning.

Lott Hill is the executive director of the Center for Innovation in Teaching Excellence at Columbia College Chicago.