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Writing Homework Assignments

Module by: The Cain Project in Engineering and Professional Communication. E-mail the author

Summary: This handout explains what instructors should do to help their students and other support people, such as lab assistants, writing mentors, or presentations coaches, ensure that students can carry out important tasks in a course. At the end of this document are three sample assignments. The first shows a poorly written assignment followed by suggested revisions. The second gives a well written example of a Take-home Final Exam in Biosciences. The third gives clear directions for an oral presentation. Also shown are links to other types of assignments among the Cain Project collections. Contact: Dr. Janice L. Hewitt (jhewitt@rice.edu)

  1. Put all assignments in writing, with ample lead time for finishing. Remember that often it will take students up to four times longer to do an assignment than it would take you. Allow longer lead time for more complex or more time-consuming assignments.
  2. In the written assignment, make very clear what you expect. Ask a colleague to read the assignment for clarity and possible ambiguity. To identify aspects that are confusing or incomplete, go over the assignment in class and ask for questions.
  3. Indicate in writing how the assignment will be graded. (If you won’t be doing the actual grading, make certain that the assignment and your expectations are clear to the graders.)
  4. Be sensitive to the sequencing of assignments. Make certain that the sequencing is logical, with each assignment combining new skills with previously mastered material. For example, assignments can move from the least to the most complex: (1) interpreting graphs to identify and compare trends; (2) generating the graphic comparison of trends; and (3) using sophisticated statistical techniques to evaluate outcomes and to predict trends.
  5. Check to see if the students have an adequate background for success. This reality check is especially important in the courses that draw students from diverse backgrounds. Some students, for example, may need instruction in how to design effective graphs and may not know when to use a line graph or a bar graph. Others may not realize the importance of explaining in words a complex sequence or algorithm, thinking that the graphical representation speaks for itself. Use models to illustrate choices and effectiveness. And if you ask them to compare the quality of the information from two sources, you may need first to discuss how to evaluate sources on the internet.
  6. Always relate assignments to the overall goals of the course even though different assignments will have different purposes. Many students will be motivated by seeing how the pieces fit together and why a given assignment is necessary. For example, one assignment may test understanding of a concept, another may foster the development of necessary tools, another may ask for the application of a concept, and yet another may require combining of necessary skills. Asking for a written explanation in addition to mathematics and graphs will foster two outcomes: (1) students will understand the material better and (2) it will be easier for you to evaluate the level of their understanding.
  7. Assignments will be most successful if they are clearly related to important class content. Students need to feel that the time spent is worth the effort. A short pop quiz could be effective to test whether the students have read the assignment, but choose the questions carefully. For example, you would learn little if students could answer the quiz just by skimming the opening paragraph of the reading assignment.
  8. Although it is difficult in a large class, try to give time for students to respond to and discuss each other’s work. A lot of learning takes place during those exchanges. If you tell them to write for each other rather than for you, the teacher, that will help them realize the level of explanation needed.

Example 1: Sample assignment with suggested revisions

Original: Read a research article related to global warming and write a summary of its important points. Due November 15 at 5 p.m.

Revised: Due November 15 at 5 p.m. Read a technical article about global warming in one of the sources listed below. As your read the article, fill out the relevant parts of the Template for Reading Research Articles (handed out in class and available on the Cain Project Web site: www.owlnet.rice.edu/~cainproj). Then write a 2-3 page paper summarizing and evaluating the article’s key points. Your summary should include

  1. What is the focus of the article? In other words, what aspect of global warming is addressed?
  2. Why is that focus important?
  3. What is the claim of the article? In other words, what do the authors say that is new?
  4. Identify and explain any method(s) used in their work.
  5. Show how the claim of these authors relates to the context they give in references to related work.
  6. What evidence do they give for their position or finding?
  7. How persuasive is that evidence? In other words, identify and explain your response to the article.

Write your paper in Times New Roman, 12 pt. Put a paper copy in my mailbox by 5 p.m. on November 15 and send an electronic copy to me via e-mail. The paper is worth 10% of your final grade and will be evaluated for clarity, completeness and accuracy of content. Proofread it carefully for spelling, grammar, and typos because I take points off for sloppy work.

Example 2: Sample Assignment A that is well done

Take-Home Final Exam: Poster Revision Assignment by M. Purugganan and J. Zeleznik (Biosciences 305 at Rice University, Fall 2003)

For this assignment you will revise the accompanying scientific poster. Your revision should improve the document’s organization and layout, use of visuals and color, and the conciseness of the text.

Purpose

Researchers in the biosciences use poster displays to present current research to their colleagues. Your revision of the poster will enable you to use PowerPoint as a poster design tool, help you to learn ways to balance and incorporate both visual and verbal information, and allow you to design a clear, accurate, and aesthetically pleasing poster.

Tasks

We will provide you with a poster adapted from a “real” poster designed by a graduate student in Dr. Zoghbi’s laboratory. Because we have made some changes to the student’s poster to provide ample opportunities for revision, we have removed the student’s name from the document.

We will provide the poster in paper form and electronically as a PowerPoint file. In addition, we will provide the student’s raw data in paper form and electronically as an Excel file.

Use the strategies we discuss in class to revise the poster. Be sure to correct the following errors:

  • Organization and Layout. The overall organization and layout of the poster is ineffective. While no significant information is missing, you will need to reorganize the poster to better enable viewers to understand the poster’s message and to create a poster that is more aesthetically pleasing.
  • Use of Visuals. The visuals are not reader-friendly. Use strategies we have discussed throughout this course to revise the visuals and/or their captions.
  • Use of Color. The use of color throughout the poster hinders the comprehension of its message. Revise the ways color is used throughout the poster to make the poster easier to read.
  • Conciseness. While the information in the poster is accurate, the poster is too wordy and too text-heavy. Revise the poster for conciseness. To do so, you may reword sentences, use bulleted lists, or eliminate text that you feel is unnecessary.

Submission

Provide an 8 1/2” x 11” color printout of your revised poster no later than 5 p.m. on Wednesday, December 17, 2003. If you do not have access to a color printer, we can print your file for you; please email us for an appointment BEFORE the due date. The printed poster may be left in our office or in the Cain Project “In” Mailbox in Room 211 Anderson Biology Building.

Evaluation

We will evaluate your poster revision according to the following criteria.

  • Organization of the poster is logical and layout of the information helps viewers understand the poster’s message
  • Visuals are properly referenced and captioned, and all visuals effectively communicate their data.
  • Color is used properly to make the poster easier to read.
  • Conciseness is improved.

Example 3: Sample Assignment B that is well done

Teaching Project (Bioengineering 575 at Rice University)

Date assigned: February 16, 2006

Date due: See below

TA: name, email, phone extension

Grade: 30% of final grade

The objective of this project is for students to develop and teach a lecture concerning a continuum mechanics model. Each student will work to develop a single lecture, along with the other assignments listed below. This lecture will be given to the entire class, the instructor, and the TA and will last the entire length of the class period (75 minutes). Students are free to choose any one model, as long as it has a clear biological application. The following is a list of potential subjects.

  1. Bone
  2. Cartilage
  3. Muscle
  4. Blood flow
  5. Tendon
  6. Ligament
  7. Single cells
  8. Heart

Each subject may have more than one model associated with it. Students must choose a subject and talk to the project TA about potential models to teach. The project will require a large amount of effort, and the following due dates have been designed to help you stay on task.

Table 1
Assignment Due Date Percentage of Project Grade
1. Topic selection February 21 5%
2. Model selection March 2  
3. Outline March 10 5%
4. Presentation rehearsal Week before lecture 5%
5. Typed report April 4 25%
6. Lecture Assigned on March 10 50%
7. Homework Day of lecture 5%

In addition, peer evaluations will account for 5% of your project grade. Meeting the deadlines for each of these assignments is critical to your success. The following will discuss the objectives for each of these assignments in detail.

Topic and model selection – Due March 2

It is preferred that each student select a subject he or she finds interesting, and then searches the literature for appropriate models, rather than simply finding any model. This way, the biological relevance of the material is clear, and the search method is structured. These models can come from original papers or book chapters. Students should decide on a topic (above) by February 21 and inform the TA via email so that there is no overlap.

Success with the project highly depends on the selection of a model that can be taught within the allotted time and that the audience can understand.

This means that highly esoteric subjects are strongly discouraged. In fact, it is most desirable for students to select models that demonstrate or reinforce basic principles of continuum mechanics. They do not have to be recent models. Some of the best sources of material come from papers published over 40 years ago as well as from book chapters.

As you begin your search, inform the TA of your topic choice, and he or she will guide you in finding the appropriate references. Also keep in mind that this is not a trivial quest. Many of the papers are not in the library proper, but in storage. Additionally, you will be making many trips to the library before you find an appropriate model to teach. Again, the TA will help you determine whether or not the model is appropriate. Thus, you should begin with this search as soon as possible and interact with the TA during your search to maximize the efficiency of this process.

Outline – Due March 10

This assignment aims to help you plan your lecture. There are several key questions that you need to address when developing the outline. What is the motivation for using the model? What are the relevant equations that need to be included or derived? What are the basic assumptions? What are the boundary conditions? What are the salient conclusions of the model? How can it be applied? The outline should be about 3-5 pages long, and show the basic steps in deriving the model and its use.

Rehearsal – Must be completed at least one week before assigned lecture date

Presentations coaches are specially trained and well experienced to assist you in developing your lecturing method and style. All students are required to set up an appointment to present your lecture to a coach a minimum of one week before your assigned lecture date. You must have your lecture ready to present at your appointment.

The best plan of action is for you to have your lecture (see Lecture requirements below) finished far in advance of this appointment so that you can practice the lecture on your own, keeping track of time, learning what it is like to write on a white board for 75 minutes, and discovering how your voice holds up. The project TA will also attend the Cain Project rehearsal. Your actual lecture will be videotaped to allow further feedback. The Cain Project is a unique resource in academia, and you are encouraged to utilize it beyond what is required here.

Typed Report – Due April 4

The typed report is due on the first day of student lectures. This report should include all of the lecture content (spoken content such as general introduction, basic explanations, etc., as well as written content such as equations, derivations, boundary conditions, assumptions, etc) with the relevant references. Journal references should include the author(s), title, date, pages, and journal name. Book references should include the publisher and publication city, in addition to this information. The report should flow in the same manner that your lecture will. This is essentially a typed version of your lecture, which you can use when giving the lecture. More specific details than those in the lecture about the derivation of your model can be included in the typed report if applicable.

Lecture – To be assigned March 10

The lecture should be designed so that the students and instructors of the class can learn continuum mechanics as applied to a biomechanics topic. Thus, your objective is to teach this subject. There is a clear distinction between teaching a subject and presenting a paper. Paper presentations are not wanted.

Your only lecture tools will be the white board and dry-erase markers. You may refer to your own typed notes as well. Success in this part of the project will be determined by how well the lecture is organized, how well you explain the material verbally and in written form, the relevance of the material to biomechanics, and your general presentation style (stance, handwriting, voice projection, tone, time management, etc).

The lecture should include a brief introduction that describes the motivation of the material, derive the most relevant equations, state basic assumptions and boundary conditions, and show the salient conclusions and applications. You will quickly find out that the derivation of every equation is not possible (or desirable). Emphasis should be placed on key concepts, especially as they relate to topics previously covered in class. At the end of the lecture, students and instructors should have a grasp of the most important aspects of the model derivation, the model’s significance, and how to apply the model.

Homework problem – Due the day of lecture

After the lecture has been given, you are expected to hand out one problem that can be solved based on the content of your lecture and previous material. The homework will be graded by the lecturer, who will email the class grades to the TA. These grades will be factored into overall homework average for the semester. The homework problems assigned by the lecturers will be combined at the end to count as one homework grade. In the end, this homework grade will account for 1/6 of your homework average.

Important notes
  • Remember that the objective here is to teach a subject, not present a specific paper.
  • Also keep in mind that your peers will also be evaluating you as you lecture, and this will contribute to 5% of your grade. The evaluation will be based on the effectiveness of the lecture, your lecture style (handwriting, pace, time allocation, stance, voice, etc), and your homework problem.
  • You have the option to view past student lectures. All are strongly encouraged to do this. If you are interested, contact the TA.
  • The TA is available for consultation at any stage of the project. Email or call if you have any questions or problems.
  • This project is designed to expose students to teaching. You are participating in a pedagogical experience that has so far been extremely successful.
  • This novel and exciting idea has recently been described in the International Journal of Engineering Education*.

*Scott CC, Volz T, Athanasiou KA. Learning how to teach continuum biomechanics: see one, do one, teach one. International Journal of Engineering Education 22(1):183-187, 2006

Selected Sample Assignment Modules in the Cain Project Collections

Table 2
m Group Paper Proposal Assignment
m Design Context Review Report
m Analysis of Algorithms and Data Structures Assignment
m Résumé and Letter of Application Assignment
m Critical Analysis of a Scientific Article
m Recommendation Report Assignment
m Critical Book Review Assignment
m Earth Sciences Current Topic Assignment

In addition to these sample assignments, you can find many guides and “accelerators” (annotated examples, tips, and activities to help students comprehend how to fulfill your assignment) in the Connexions and Communications Folder Tool Archive on OWL-Space at Rice University.

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