“Mandatory coursework assignments can be, and should be, eliminated!” currently reading Haugan, Lysebo & Lauvas (2017)

The claim in this article’s title, “Mandatory coursework assignments can be, and should be, eliminated!“, is quite a strong one, and maybe not fully supported by the data presented here. But the article is nevertheless worth a read (and the current reading in iEarth’s journal club!), because the arguments supporting that claim are nicely presented.

Mandatory assignments are often used to incentivize continuous learning throughout the whole course period. The idea is that if students have to deliver because otherwise it will negatively affect their final grade, that would motivate them to work on each deliverable, and since these are occurring often enough, tricking them into continuous learning while continuously receiving feedback on their performance. The problem identified in the article though is that mixing formative (i.e. feedback that will contribute to learning) and summative (i.e. figuring out which grade a student should be given for their performance) assessment rarely works. The constant pressure to deliver (and often in many courses simultaneously) leads to students finding smart strategies do deal with the assignments both in a timely manner and “correctly enough” to pass. Copying peers’ solutions or “faking good” is not conductive to actual learning, (and the feedback often comes too late to be useful, but that’s a separate problem in my book).

A suggested solution is to eliminate mandatory assignments and replace them with truly formative assignments and a peer-feedback component. Also, assignments are now designed to show that students have reached the learning outcomes for a specific part of the course, and that they could be part of the final exam (which would have been a smart choice, whether the assignment is mandatory or not). Students are encouraged to only attend sessions when they feel they benefit from them — when they have prepared and have questions they hope will be answered there. This seems to ultimately lead to both more time spent on the assignments and better performance — students praise the choice they have in whether or not to do the assignments, and to regulate their own schedule (also with the view of them taking several courses in parallel and being able to allocate efforts between them).

There are, of course, other ways to approach the problems identified in the article. The pressure to perform can, for example, be lowered by giving students the option to resubmit and their response to feedback contributing to their grade (But that does not decrease the time pressure component, nor the workload on the teacher’s side). Or assignments can be mandatory, but students get a certain number of free shots that are not counted in the end. Or — revolutionary idea — better coordination between courses that run in parallel… In the end, what works in each context will be depending on that context, but it is great to see and think through different alternatives!

John Haugan, Marius Lysebo & Per Lauvas (2017) Mandatory coursework assignments can be, and should be, eliminated!, European Journal of Engineering Education, 42:6, 1408-1421, DOI: 10.1080/03043797.2017.1301383

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