Replied to a tweet by Jesse StommelJesse Stommel (Twitter)

When you worry students won’t understand an assignment, the answer is often not to add more instructions, but to take instructions away.

Students get bogged down by all the words and minutiae we clutter assignments with. I think the best assignments are spare and evocative, not weighed down by expectations.

But this also means making sure we don’t have “hidden” expectations — making sure we are genuinely prepared for students to do something novel and unexpected. And prepared to work (or collaborate) with students at any point in the process.

I’ve seen assignment sheets for 1-page papers that were themselves more than a page. I wouldn’t demean anyone using those. As teachers, we care deeply about our work. But I’d ask whether all those words are actually helping get us or students closer to the germ of the work.

The final project for my digital studies course goes to the other end of the extreme. In the syllabus, I call the prompt “deceptively simple.” It’s just 8 words: “do something on the Web about the Web.”

When students ask for clarification, we talk about what’s possible, about all the ideas they have, even maybe imaginatively about the kinds of stuff I might do in their place. I tell them my final project is the course syllabus I’ve been building (with their help) all semester.

I don’t add more instructions. I don’t answer “do you mean,” “can I,” or “are you looking for” kinds of questions. I don’t show examples (unless students get really stuck).

The point of an assignment, for me, is not to create gotcha moments or to point students toward paint by numbers outcomes. An assignment, in my mind, should be like a canvas for students to experiment upon.

Not all assignments can be expressed in just 8 words. Some are more intricate, layering different skills atop one another. I teach with that kind of assignment as well.

As a side-note, I’ve actually stopped using the word “assignment” altogether. I say the “work of the course,” “do some stuff,” or “project” to remove transactional language like “assignment” or “submit.”

I also don’t have students “turning in” their work to just me. By whatever means I (or we) devise in a given semester, students share their work with each other (and also me) or with the world.

Me also, my instructions (across the board) have become more and more spare over the last 20 years. I have 50 students this semester, and I've gotten only about 3 questions all term about instructions or logistics.

I’ve noted before the idea of 10 word answers with relation to politics and complexity highlighting a short video snippet from The West Wing.

Jessie Stommel distills assignments down to a roughly similar 8 words, but then smartly relies on students to fill in the complexity of the idea with their own work. In the West Wing framing, he’s asking students to give the next 10 words and then again and again. Filling out the complexity of ones’ ideas is really where learning takes place.

His idea is closely related to the one I had been making about Trump’s communication style. Though even in the completely made up versions of things like the Turbo Encabulator, teachers will need to be careful about what’s coming back in the assignments.

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Chris Aldrich

I'm a biomedical and electrical engineer with interests in information theory, complexity, evolution, genetics, signal processing, theoretical mathematics, and big history. I'm also a talent manager-producer-publisher in the entertainment industry with expertise in representation, distribution, finance, production, content delivery, and new media.

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