In ancient China, a doctor prescribed for the Emperor a rare medicine containing rhino horn powder. Since rhino horns were hard to find, the Emperor had to use bison horns which are slightly less potent. So why prescribe the rhino horns? First of all, they are best for this prescription, according to the doctor. Secondly, since the Emperor couldn't really get rhino horns, the doctor would have something to blame for if the Emperor does not get better.
If we assign an amount of assignments that is unrealistic for most students to do, we are no different from the Chinese doctor in the story. Of course the more students study the more they learn, but what if most of them can't complete the assignments anyway? And when/if they fail, do we blame it on not finishing the assignments?
I began my career at Ramapo College of NJ, a liberal arts college and New Jersey's equivalent of U of M Morris. A rookie math professor, I would go over the exercises in the books and assign over 100 problems a week. I graded 4 or 5 of them, and left the rest unattended.
When I moved to Metro State University, I focused only on essential topics and I assigned no more than 40 exercises a week. But with carefully designed assignments, my students at Metro State learned just as much even though they were less prepared and had less studying time than my students at the 4-year elite institution,
A few general thoughts on creating assignments:
(1) Have a clear agenda and set the priorities. What do we want to accomplish in an assignment? Is it about memorizing particular formulas? Drilling certain techniques? Understanding concepts? Making applications? Manipulating tricky skills? Modeling and problem solving?
(2) Be efficient and effective. Keep control on the amount of work in each assignment. When an assignment gets too big, cut it to size according to your agenda and priorities in (1).
(3) Integrate the assignments into teaching. Follow up on the agenda and the priorities: Have the students accomplished them? How do the assignments help them learn the content and prepare for tests?
Community college students often juggle with jobs, personal and family life, and a challenging course load. Let's design effective assignments that would help them use their studying time efficiently and maximize their success.
Dr. Ben Weng