I don’t have many pleasant academic memories from my anxiety-ridden junior year of high school, but there are a few exceptions. Two of those include a presentation on a book about the relationship between former President John F. Kennedy and former First Lady Jackie Kennedy for English and a paper I wrote about the Golden Age of Hollywood for history. Three years later, I still remember what I learned when preparing for these two assignments – which is more than I can say for most projects or papers I completed during high school or even college thus far. The reason for this is simple: I got to choose the subject matter.
That doesn’t mean these assignments were complete free-for-alls. The book presentation had to be structured in a particular way, and the paper needed to demonstrate how the topic impacted American history. But still, students had the freedom to find a topic that interested them. In college, I haven’t had many of these opportunities. Even most of the research conducted about teachers offering assignments that give students more choices is predominantly focused on high school assignments instead of college assignments. And although we may have more course options than high school students, this doesn’t mean we have greater control over the content of our assignments. All professors should give students the opportunity – at least once during the semester – to choose the subject matter of an assignment, or at least provide options of course-relevant topics that students can choose from to make an assignment more individualized to their interests.
It will help professors achieve what should be their primary goal – to inspire genuine enthusiasm in students about the subject matter.
These assignments will look different depending on the department or major. It would be misleading to claim that assignments in a biology class will have as many opportunities for student choice and creativity as those in an English class. The supplementary materials professors use in many humanities courses naturally lend themselves to more assignments with student choice. For instance, in an American studies course I’m taking this semester, we have to write a research paper about an artifact from the GW Museum. My professor chose the artifacts, but we got to select our top five choices from his list of about 40 options. This gave students the opportunity to select a paper topic which corresponded to a part of history that sparked their individual interests. Unfortunately, this hasn’t typically been an option in my courses at GW. In a history class I took my freshman year, the three papers we had to write not only had pre-determined topics, but also defined lists of sources we could use for evidence. I understand that some assignments need to be structured, but these papers were less effective in strengthening my ability to write a research paper than they would have been if my professor had allowed for more student control over the content and sources.
With that said, I realize students who aren’t majoring in the humanities would be less likely to have an assignment like this. However, professors who teach courses in other departments, like psychology or even chemistry, should still consider this type of assignment in the form of a project where students focus on a specific interest within the course’s area of study. For instance, science professors could substitute one of their lab assignments with one that asks students to create their own lab idea. Even if it wouldn’t be realistic for the students to actually carry out all of their lab ideas, the assignment could consist of students writing detailed plans for a creative lab concept and what they’d want to prove by conducting it. Elizabeth Lasley, a professor in the Language, Literacy and Special Population Department at Sam Houston State University, argues that as long as student progress is monitored and the grading criteria is clear, students will be more committed to the project and will retain more information if they have a hand in choosing it.
Professors should love what they teach, and they should design their courses to help students feel the same.
All of this isn’t to say that there aren’t drawbacks to assignments that involve student choice. Papers or projects that vary in subject matter would likely take professors longer to grade, and ensuring that students choose topics that involve an equal amount of work could get complicated. Yet the challenges that come with student choice assignments do not outweigh the benefit of allowing students to explore their interests and passions in a way that contributes to their education. Professors also don’t need to make every assignment like this. Just giving one a semester, or working topic options – like my American studies professor did – into an assignment or two would be an attainable improvement.
Professors should consider adding these types of assignments to their syllabi because students will be more motivated to produce their best work, making the grading process less tedious. More importantly though, it will help professors achieve what should be their primary goal – to inspire genuine enthusiasm in students about the subject matter. Professors should love what they teach, and they should design their courses to help students feel the same.
Natalie Prieb, a sophomore majoring in English and creative writing, is a Hatchet columnist.
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