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Building-in Student Buy-in: Disposable vs Renewable Assignments

Introduction

In any given classroom, students range from “here for the credit” to “here to learn as much as I can” with the majority lying somewhere in the middle. While there will always be students who are unable to engage, there are many who can be enticed towards deeper participation when given the opportunity. Open Pedagogy can provide that opportunity.

Open Pedagogy is a broad term with many different definitions. At its core, Open Pedagogy leverages the “open” nature of Open Educational Resources (OERs) to facilitate learning and emphasizes community, collaboration, sharing resources, ideas, and power (Ray, 2020). Engaging in open pedagogy centres learner agency and consent; care and compassion; justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion (JEDI); students creating content; and scaffolding for tools and assignments.

While these concepts can be applied to all teaching practices, open pedagogy is most commonly applied to assignment design to transform disposable assignments into renewable assignments.

What is a Disposable Assignment

Traditional (non-open-pedagogy) assignments “are often very transactional in nature, seen only by the instructor for the purpose of demonstrating content mastery and achievement of learning objectives” (Clinton-Lisell & Gwozdz, 2023, p. 125). These transactional assignments, in the light of open pedagogy, are labelled as “disposable” due to their non-existent life span after completion, disconnection from other course content or assignments, and lack of student agency.

Examples of disposable assignments include,

  • Discussion boards (e.g. students write 1 post and reply to X others).
  • Deliverables that get pitched after class (e.g printed posters).
  • Reflections without connections to course materials or lack transparency for why they matter.
  • Learning objects (e.g. essays, videos) only the student and instructor will ever see.
  • Assignments that feel like busy work (Larson, 2023).

These assignments are valuable for demonstrating knowledge, but provide little value for students outside of the grade that they receive for completing it. Therefore, they rely on a student’s personal or professional interest to encourage them to deeper or more meaningful engagement.

What is a Renewable Assignment

When the open pedagogy principles of collaboration, sharing, and learner agency get applied to assignments, they transform from a disposable, transactional exchange between student and teacher into an invitation from teachers to students to engage in a deeper form of scholarship. They “provide students with opportunities to engage in meaningful work, add value to the world, and provide a foundation for future students to learn from and build upon” (Larson, 2023). The assignment is “designed to be reused and revisited by more than just the student and their instructor” (Capilano University Library, 2022).

Examples of renewable assignments include,

  • Social annotation of a shared reading.
  • Contributing to an open textbook.
  • Writing quiz questions.
  • Creating tutorials or other “learning objects” for their fellow students and/or the public (e.g, Wikipedia entries).
  • Creating lists of “common problems” or advice for writing, after doing peer review of other students’ work and self-reflecting on their own (Larson, 2023).

When applied to assignments, open pedagogy tends to display five different characteristics: incorporating feedback, providing options, encouraging ownership, having value beyond knowledge, and being shared with others. These characteristics can appear singly, be used together, or have significant overlap. Renewability is a spectrum depending on how many of the characteristics are present, which provides room to choose which ones align best with the learning objectives of a course and classroom culture.

Opening up assignments to incorporate feedback can take a variety of forms. This could look like students submitting a draft version of their work for feedback they can implement before handing in the final version. Draft feedback could come from the teacher or from fellow students during a peer review session. Peer review by students also gives students the opportunity to practice analysis and communication.

Alternatively, feedback can also go in the opposite direction when students are asked for feedback on the assignment itself. This provides students with the opportunity to communicate whether there were any barriers they needed to overcome to complete the assignment, such as unclear directions, difficulty using a particular tool, or JEDI issues so that the assignment can be improved for future delivery.

Offering students choices for learning and demonstrating their learning overlaps with other pedagogical concepts like universal design for learning (UDL). This could look like students having a choice in what kind of learning object they create, what tools they use, or how they present or demonstrate their learning object. Another way this characteristic might be presented is by providing students with alternative assignment options or the ability to opt out of certain components that present them with difficulties or concerns.

Providing students with choices during an assignment automatically increases participation because they are actively needing to make decisions about how they are going to engage. Students may still choose to submit a traditional assignment because it is comfortable and familiar, but the choice can be very meaningful for students who express themselves in different ways or have different skills they can draw on.

A common way to encourage students to take ownership of their assignment is by participating in its design. This could be by asking students to choose their own topics that they feel strongly about or have a personal connection to, or by providing the opportunity to personalize a topic. These choices enable personal connections and more engagement, making the assignment more meaningful and valuable.

An alternative method is to have students can also take ownership of an assignment by co-creating the assessment rubric. By participating in assessment design, students are identifying the value of an assignment and what is important and mandatory to succeed.

The primary characteristic of a disposable assignment is that once the grade is earned the assignment has no more value. Increasing the value of an assignment can be done in a variety of ways, such as incorporating the development of collaboration and problem-solving skills. This could also be as simple as having students learn to use new tools and platforms to gain new competencies at the same time they demonstrate their learning.

Value could also be provided by having students reflect on how the assignment links to other core concepts in the discipline, and how the knowledge gained in this assignment scaffolds or fits into knowledge they will learn in the rest of their program or careers.

The word “renewable” is used because the assignment lives on after it has been graded. When assignments are shared with others, they live on long after the student has moved past the course. A common way of sharing renewable assignments is by having students contribute to or create an open educational resource (OER) that gets published online, contributing to the future knowledge and learning of upcoming students.

Another common strategy for asking students to share their knowledge is having assignments where they work in public spaces such as Wikipedia or on social media platforms where they are donating their knowledge to the community.Note: When asking students to publish or share their work outside of the closed classroom, careful attention needs to be paid to the assignment design so that students’ privacy and intellectual property are protected. Students need to give informed consent to having their work published and alternative options must be provided for students who decline.

Conclusion

By incorporating any of the characteristics of a renewable assignment, we are inviting students to engage more meaningfully and creating space for students to insert more of themselves into their learning. This has always been possible for keen and interested students, but explicitly designing pathways and presenting alternatives has the potential to draw in students who wouldn’t otherwise have taken the initiative or feel uncomfortable going outside of the implicit boundaries of traditional assignments. Value, agency, and longevity is added to assignments by applying open pedagogy principles, and it invites students to care more deeply about the knowledge they have acquired, to allow their creativity to flourish, and to see themselves as creators of information actively participating in the world.

Download The Renewable Assignment Spectrum infographic here

References

Capilano University Library. (2022, August 19). What is Open Pedagogy and Open Assignments? Open Educational Resources Library Guide. https://libguides.capilanou.ca/c.php?g=720956&p=5187701

Clinton-Lisell, V. & Gwozdz, L. (2023). Understanding Student Experiences of Renewable and Traditional Assignments. College Teaching, 71(2), 125-134. https://doi.org/10.1080/87567555.2023.2179591

Larson, Amanda. (2023). Disposable vs. Renewable Assignments [Presentation]. Open Pedagogy Learning Circles. Open Education Network.

Ray, Lauren. (2020, March 26). What is Open Pedagogy? Going Public: Using Open Educational Resources to Improve Classroom Equity [Webinar]. University of Washington Libraries. https://youtu.be/w2wjjWRgvgU

Amanda Grey
Open Education Strategist at Kwantlen Polytechnic University

Amanda supports and facilitates open education initiatives by providing expertise through consultations and technical training. She oversees the management of the Zero Textbook Cost (ZTC) Program, the Open Education Research Institute, and provides support to Open Educational Resources (OER) grantees, Open Pedagogy Fellows, and Open Education Research Fellows. Amanda also co-facilitates the use of our Open Publishing Suite (OPUS).

Amanda is a KPU Alumna who went on to get a Master of Library and Information Studies degree.

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