On Stating the Goals for Assigned Work

It is easy for students to misunderstand the purpose of assigned work. Since they don’t have the instructor’s knowledge or perspective on the material, they generally can’t tell where things are headed or why a particular assignment will get them there. If the instructor doesn’t make his goals for each assignment clear from the start, the students are likely to adopt instead their own default goal: obtaining the highest possible grades. Since society rewards high grades more than anything else that can be obtained through the educational system, students naturally equate the goals of their work with whatever activities produce the highest grades. Sadly, if turning in words plagiarized from encyclopedias or web sites yields high grades and no consequences, students learn to do exactly that. Merely telling the students not to plagiarize won’t help much because many students aren’t mature enough to act ethically when doing so is against their self-interest. If plagiarism is invariably rewarded rather than punished, some students will plagiarize.

If the rewards and consequences of student behavior aren’t aligned with the instructor’s academic goals, there will almost certainly be some amount of academic misconduct. But even when the alignment is good, it’s important that the students understand the goals underlying the assignments. I have taken to putting explicit goals on each of my assignments, so that there should be no misunderstanding about why I want the students to do what I have asked them to do. It the very least, it is good self-discipline for me and ensures that I’m not just assigning busy work. Nothing attracts misconduct like busy work or work that is perceived as busy work by the students. In the act of stating explicit goals for an assignment, an instructor must reconcile the assigned work with the goals and will tend to eliminate work that has little educational value. In the act of hearing or reading why they are being asked to complete an assignment, the students must overlay their default goal (i.e., getting high grades) with the stated goals. Hopefully, this communication of purpose will help to keep everyone on the same page.

One reason why conveying the instructor’s goals to the students is important is that their default goal, obtaining the highest possible grades, is usually associated with turning in the best possible finished work. For most students, the best possible finished work would be the work of someone else. Students who assemble their papers out of other people’s words often do so because they can’t improve on those words. The claim that “I couldn’t write it any better myself, so I just put it in my paper” is not only a common excuse, it is a compelling rationalization on the part of many students. They convince themselves that cutting and pasting in that fashion is OK because they assume that the instructor actually wants the best paper ever written on the topic. Therefore, I state as part of my term paper assignment that I don’t want the best paper ever written on the topic; I want the best paper that the student himself can write in his own words.

This essay was originally written on March 18, 2006. © Copyright 2001 by Louis Bloomfield. All rights reserved.

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