Effective Classroom Practice: Tasks/Assignments
There are many qualities of tasks that need to be considered by teachers to promote maximum student learning. The focus here is on qualities that are likely to affect students' beliefs about their competencies and their expectations for success.
- Make sure the task is clear. Children do not believe they have control over their learning or performance when the requirements of a task are unclear. Make sure students know what they are expected to do and where they can find the resources and materials they need to complete tasks. Let them know when they will have to work, and how much time they must devote to the task, and when the task need to be completed. To promote efficiency (and a sense of personal control), make sure materials are easily accessible and kept in the appropriate places. A void changing the rules midstream, Unless there is a good reason to do so.
- Give tasks that are challenging but achievable for all students. Easy tasks do not produce feelings of competence because no improvement in skill level or understanding is required to achieve success. Attempts to complete very difficult tasks usually do not result in success; when they do, the amount of effort required diminishes the value of the accomplishment. Tasks of intermediate difficulty, those that allow students to experience improvement in their skills, are most effective in producing feelings of competence.
a. Vary the difficulty of tasks among students according to their skill levels. A task that One student finds easy may be impossibly difficult for another. Thus, providing tasks that are appropriately challenging for every student in a group of students whose skills vary requires individualizing the complexity of the tasks. Teachers are sometimes reluctant to vary tasks because they are concerned that students will feel embarrassed about doing assignments that are easier than those completed by their peers. To the contrary, completing assignments and being able to take personal responsibility for success are far more likely to encourage self-confidence than repeatedly failing to do the more difficult tasks that classmates are given. Moreover, all students can take pride in their success if the teacher creates a climate in which hard work and success are rewarded at whatever level each student is working.
b. Give tasks that can be completed at different levels. Teachers can vary the difficulty of the task, in part, by providing tasks that can be completed at different levels and by conveying different expectations. The same assignment—to write a book report, a poem, or a story—can be made to be equally challenging for all students. What is important is for students to understand that they are expected to complete the task at a level that requires real effort and persistence and will thus help them develop their skills. Differential expectations can be conveyed by guiding students' choices (e.g., of the book selected to report on), and by making direct statements and evaluation ("This is technically correct, but you could have made a more compelling argument").
Different skill levels can often be accommodated in the same task. Consider a math assignment in which all children are asked to graph data based on a student poll. The teacher might ask questions, in either a whole class or a small group format, that require analysis at different levels. Some students might be asked to report differences in data sets (e.g., between boys' and girls' responses), requiring them only to interpret the graph; others might be asked questions that require manipulations of the information, such as translating frequencies into percentages. The task, in this case, looks the same for all students, but the actual level of mathematical problem-solving required is adjusted to each student's current mathematical skills.
The same math problem can also be approached in different ways by students who vary in skill level. For example, some students may be able to solve a problem with only one strategy; others will use several different strategies. Some students may analyze the symbolic meaning of a poem while other students describe the visual images created. Thus teachers can engage students at an appropriate level of challenge without having to creeate entirely different tasks for each student.
c. Make sure that the highest achievers are challenged. Teachers usually worry more about motivating the relatively low-achieving students than about challenging the high-achieving students. But a steady diet of success does not prepare students to deal with the difficulties they will inevitably encounter in future educational contexts and in life. Many high-achieving students who enter a new academic arena—by taking an unusually difficult course, by moving from the regular to the honors track in high school, or from advancing from high school to college or college to graduate school—are ill prepared for the challenges they face. Like Safe Sally, they have always succeeded, often without much effort, so their self-confidence is fragile and collapses easily.
- Organize assignments to provide frequent opportunities for students to see their skill level increase. In addition to being moderately challenging, tasks need to provide opportunities for regular feedback which indicates improvement in skill or understanding. Initial failures in developing a skill are inevitable, but a long period of engagement or a series of failures without this feedback undermines feelings of competency.
a. Order problems and assignments by difficulty level to provide students with a sense of increasing mastery.
b. Break down difficult tasks into subunits to make sure that students receive positive competence feedback before they become discouraged or concerned about the direction in which they are headed. Some children may need smaller units and more frequent positive feedback than others.
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