Is It Worth It?

Last spring, one of my high performing students protested the “extreme workload” in my English 1B class. We were already several terms into pandemic teaching, and I had assiduously scaled down, lowered stakes, and increased flexibility. Taken aback, I tried explaining the purpose of the assignments, their sequencing, and their relative weight, but he was more concerned about numbers than about pedagogy. “Bottom line, is it worth it for me to do these assignments?” he asked pointedly.

As teaching professionals, our answer to this type of question is likely to be an automatic “Of course it is!” Every activity has a purpose. Every assignment and every assessment is part of a larger plan.

I understand this student’s concern, though, and he is not the only one expressing it. Dr. Betsy Barre, Executive Director of the Center for Advancement of Teaching at Wake Forest University, addresses students’ perceptions of workload in a recent podcast: “…This is a pandemic; our students are struggling; let’s lower the stakes on things; let’s be understanding. And so one way to do that is by having smaller low-stakes assignments, so instead of a big midterm, you have multiple weekly check-ins. But of course, our students can interpret that as, ‘more work,’ because if you’re just counting work by counting the number of assignments, then it is, by definition, more work.” According to Barre, a “too much busywork” perception has surfaced in survey results across her institution, from the law school to the divinity college to the general education classes.

At Riverside City College, we have all likely witnessed similar student perceptions of excessive workload expressed anecdotally, in student surveys, and during IOIs, especially recently. I know I have.

And it is easy to see why. Watching today’s college students navigate through their classes reminds me of the way I used to approach short-answer exams. If there were a lot of questions and a strict time-limit, I would answer the ones worth the most points first and save the ones worth the fewest points for last. That way, if the clock ran out, only the questions with the lowest stakes would remain unanswered. With so much competing for our students’ time and attention, we should acknowledge that no matter how beneficial low-stakes assignments and assessments might be, many of our students will prioritize the activities they perceive as having the highest stakes.

Am I suggesting, then, that students are too busy to benefit from frequent low-stakes activities, so we should move away from this approach? Of course not. Decades of research have shown positive correlations between low-stakes activities and faculty-student interaction, student attention and motivation, student self-efficacy, and deep learning. Frequent low-stakes activities might even make our classes more inclusive. In chapter 7 of his book Small Teaching, James M. Lang, Director of the D ’Amour Center for Teaching Excellence at Assumption College, argues that such activities—especially when they are highly structured—offer affirmation to those students who already feel adequately prepared and reassurance to those students who do not: “[T]hat extra work ensures that fewer students are left behind in the classroom, and more students feel like they belong” (183). The merit of frequent low-stakes activities is clear—at least to us.  

What I am suggesting is that we assist our students in shifting their emphasis from stakes to value. As Lang points out, “If we really want to inspire students to learn in our courses, we need to focus more of our attention on building up intrinsic motivators, leading them to learning with the same wellsprings of desire and interest that drove us into our disciplines and teaching careers” (196).

Of course, proselyting the merits of low-stakes activities is probably not going to change student perception of their relative worth, as I learned last spring. Small pedagogical changes, however, could make a difference, and if they are strategic, students might stop counting the number of assignments they are being asked to complete and look instead at what those assignments accomplish.

Lang’s book houses these small changes within a larger framework of cognitive activities that foster student knowledge, understanding, and inspiration. He asserts that students place more value on activities that repeatedly tap into prior and recently acquired knowledge because they feel that the work of gaining that knowledge has been acknowledged and appreciated. He suggests making small adjustments to our predicting, retrieving, and interleaving (reinforcement) activities accordingly. “Such activities, leveraged into the first and final minutes of a class session, can provide a powerful boost to student mastery of knowledge; so, too, can simple tweaks to the organization of your course and the order in which you introduce new material and review older material” (18).

Lang also claims that in order for students to value their understanding of subject matter, they have to form “meaningful and effective” connections to it themselves: “Your task [as an instructor] is to create an environment that facilitates the formation of those connections rather than simply lecturing them about connections” (98). He proposes that making small changes to—and allowing more time for—connecting, practicing, and explaining activities will make the class concepts more relevant, practical, and applicable for students, thereby making them more worthwhile.              

Finally, Lang points out that students tend to place a higher value on activities that inspire them: “Classrooms are thoroughly social settings, and our connection to the people around us—or lack of connection—can have a significant impact on the quality of our learning” (159), and making small adjustments to activities that foster belonging, are motivating, and help students understand their own learning process will lead to inspiration. If we are bonded with our students, they might react more positively to the enthusiasm we have for our subject matter and trust our teaching expertise, which in turn could make those frequent low-stakes assignments more acceptable.

Lang’s book lists dozens of specific teaching strategies that I am not sharing here for two reasons, the most obvious one being the current length of this blog. The other reason is applicability: not every strategy works in every situation, for example, classroom vs. online or English 1A vs. English 1B. Furthermore, a strategy that works for one class might not work for another, for example an 8 AM class vs. a 6 PM class or a multi-day lecture vs. a once-a-week flipped format.

What I want to share instead is a suggestion and some thought-starters: If we would like our students to benefit from frequent low-stakes activities, we should look closely at our own classes and ensure these activities are truly worthwhile.

For instance, Barre brings up how much more labor intensive discussion board postings are than the in-class conversations they are intended to mimic because students will worry more about wording and grammar both in their initial post and in their replies to peers. So is it really necessary to have multiple discussions each week? (This is a question I am asking myself right now.) Or, as Barre suggests, could students record their spoken answers instead of writing them down?

What about the way we approach assessment? For example, is there a way to make reading quizzes more about retrieving learned information and less about demonstrating that they have read the assigned literature? Could students take turns writing and administering their own quizzes instead and then have those quizzes lead the discussion of that day’s stories?

And on the subject of grading, are we indeed differentiating between low-stakes and high-stakes activities in our syllabi and gradebooks? Evaluating our assignments’ relative worth might help us better explain that worth to our students the next time they express concern about workload.

—Brit Osgood-Treston, Ed.D., Associate Professor of English, Riverside City College Department of English and Media Studies