A former student of mine recently instant messaged me with news that she and a few of her classmates were sharing memories about my eighth grade class. My blood ran cold for a moment wondering about the various conversations that group of students could have had. I was relieved to learn they were reminiscing over the many assignments I gave them and all the reading they had done in my classroom. She ended her IM with a statement that my students often expressed: “I’ve been Marshall-ized.”
Being “Marshall-ized,” meant that students could find themselves exploring adolescent identity through a mix of readings from national newspapers and traditional literary short stories coupled with a viewing of Disney’s The Incredibles and a reading of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Or they could be studying the impact of school violence on the real estate market in their city as they developed an understanding of redlining through a reading of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin the Sun. Being Marshall-ized meant there was a thin line between the world of school and the world outside of school.
Unfortunately, my student’s middle school musings are a stark contrast to what our work at the Ed Trust revealed about many assignments that students typically encounter in classrooms across the U.S. In our analysis of nearly 5,000 assignments, we found just 10 percent offered students choice and only 12 percent were relevant to students’ lives or their interests.
In our recent report, Motivation and Engagement in Student Assignments: The Role of Choice and Relevancy, we outline key characteristics of what it means for assignments to offer choices and be relevant. Choice and relevancy are key levers in motivating and engaging assignments. Choice is the ability to take ownership of one’s work in one of three ways: content, product, or process. When students choose the content of their work, the product they develop to demonstrate their learning, or the process by which they learn, having that choice is critical in motivating students to stay engaged in their work.
Relevance is about learning that authentically connects to students’ lives and interests. It requires a deep knowledge of students that goes beyond racial and cultural stereotypes or simplistic means of bringing pop culture into the classroom. When students study topics related to their lives, research has proven they are more inclined to engage in completing tasks, even if the task is considered “hard.”
A recent report by TNTP echoed our work. They studied nearly 1,000 lessons and 5,000 assignments, with results telling a dim story of classroom life for many students. Of the students they interviewed, almost half rarely or never had an experience they believed was both engaging and worthwhile. Students in their study, like ours, rarely had choice and believed their assignments were not relevant nor worth their time.
Educators must think critically about their assignments to ensure students are getting opportunities to own their learning through meaningful choice and relevance. When considering the amount of time students spend in school, they deserve to walk away with memories of time spent studying what mattered to them, having grappled with thorny topics about the world, and equipped with the ability to make wise decisions about their learning and their lives.