How Providing Choice in Assignments Challenged my Assumptions About Students and Led to Meaningful Learning

By Cory Jubinville

In my first few semesters as a Teaching Assistant, I came out of the gate hot. I was lively, engaging, and I led my class discussions with a certain level of fire that I was sure was going to ignite the same passion for genetics in my students that I had for it myself. I was going to inspire the next generation of doctors, scientists, and healthcare workers.

photo of author
Cory Jubinville is an award-winning TA with over 5 years of experience teaching Biology and Genetics in the Molecular and Cell Biology Department at UConn. His PhD research focuses on muscle stem cells and how they decide what type of cell they’ll become during injury repair. You can find him communicating science research to the public @cjubss on Instagram when he’s not posting pictures of his dog.

Yet, without fail, every semester there would always be a proportion of students who consistently performed poorly due to what seemed to me like pure laziness. Poorly done homework assignments would be turned in late, if at all. Easy quiz questions that rehashed the topic we just covered would be missed. Even ‘bargain’ assignments where full credit would be given for just completing it would often be ignored. Why didn’t these students care? Why weren’t they willing to put the effort in?

I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a little offended by their lack of interest. It made no sense to me. I put forth my best effort to maintain an engaging and enthusiastic classroom, yet to these students it didn’t matter. At times, I took it as a poor reflection on my ability to teach and reach these students–I wasn’t doing a good enough job.

My perspective on the issue changed when we developed a new homework assignment designed to give students experience with some of the publicly available clinical databases online. Their task was to pick a genetics-associated disorder of their choice, research it, and report out the genes responsible for this disorder including its causes and the ongoing clinical trials being carried out to study the disorder.

One freebie question that we put on our rubric for students was: “Why did you pick this disorder?”. Unexpectedly, what resulted was extremely personal and gut-wrenching stories of how many of these students we deemed ‘lazy’ or ‘uninterested’ were actually dealing with parents’, loved ones’, and sometimes even their own devastating conditions, such as cancer, Alzheimer’s, multiple sclerosis, and others—many of which with no cure.

student description of her family's battles with cancer
“Skin cancer has recently become an imminent threat in my life. It seemed appropriate, as I approach the near indefensible outcome of acquiring such a disorder, to understand everything I can about its origins, treatments, and progression. My father was diagnosed with Melanoma only months ago, and suffered from basal cell carcinoma regularly throughout his life… My mother too, has had various basal cell carcinomas removed from her face, the latest of them left a scar large enough to change her appearance… I always wear sunscreen and assumed my parent’s precautions eliminated any chance of having issues with the cancer myself, but I was wrong. Within my lifetime, I have had a total of five surgeries to remove large portions of skin from my head and back and far too many biopsies to count. I seemed to have a genetic predisposition for the cancer… A disposition worrying enough that dermatologists took off parts of my skin that were not even considered cancerous yet, just to be cautious. I chose skin cancer to research, because I need to understand it, not just because I want to.” – student in Cory Jubinville’s course (illustration from Luke Best)

We’re all familiar the ‘deer in headlights’ expression on students face when they see us anywhere else on campus and realize that we’re not just teaching robots who exist only within the classroom. What I found with this assignment was that whether you realize it or not, we often look at our students through that exact same lens. We see them as learning robots with all the time in the world to focus our assignments without jobs and other exams. We may act as though our course is the only important one they’re taking and fail to account for what may be going on in their personal lives. Of course, we know that none of these assumptions are true, but then why do we inadvertently return to them when we attribute a student’s poor performance in our class to just laziness or disinterest?

One of the best ways to reach these types of students (and to gain some humbling perspective on your own assumptions) is to implement the aspect of choice in your assignments.

With choice, students are inherently more invested in the assignment. It gives them the option to explore what they are interested in. Choice allows students to connect their world with concepts in the classroom that they wouldn’t typically link on their own.

In turn, this results in a more significant learning experience, and it also provides an outlet for students who are struggling with personal issues.

Leave your assignments open, but not too open

Think about the goal you want to achieve with your assignment. Do you want students to gain hands on experience with some type of resource? Do you want them to practice thinking critically and analyzing research? How about developing their opinion on some sort of aspect of society? A completely open ‘write something about anything you want’ type of assignment may result in messiness for all involved and fail to provide value to your students. Define a goal and allow students to choose their topic within the confines of that goal. Your students will appreciate both the lack of ambiguity of your assignment and the option of choice.

Attain sustained learning by allowing room to explore

Is there an important database or other resource in your field that you want students to gain experience with? As most of our students are interested in pursuing careers in the healthcare field, the initial goal of this assignment was to get students familiar with the OMIM (Online Mendelian Inheritance in Man) database–a public resource that aggregates clinical and scientific information on traits and conditions that have some sort of genetic influence. We could have made it easier for us by picking a few genetic conditions and provided students with a checklist of tasks to tick off on the site, but I would wager that the majority of students would have done just that: check off the boxes on the rubric and call it a day. With choice, students will be more inclined to tinker with the resource you want them to learn, leading to a longer-lasting familiarity with that resource.

Have students explain the personal significance of their choice, but don’t force it

I think the eye-opening value of this assignment came primarily from the question “Why did you pick this disorder?”. It made students think more introspectively about the assignment and choose a topic that held more significance to them as opposed to a topic that just seemed interesting to write about. It also invited students to bring some perspective to the struggles they’re facing in their daily lives that they may be willing to share. However, that’s the key word here: ‘willing’. Our assignment could have been poorly worded as “Choose a condition that is relevant to your daily life”, but not every student in our class might be facing these types of struggles. More importantly, it’s none of our business what issues students might have in their personal lives if they are not willing to share! A question like “Why did you make your choice?” vs “Chose something for this assignment that is personal to you.” provides an out for students who are not willing to share their personal lives but still want to investigate something they’re interested in.

Provide thoughtful feedback

Don’t give students an assignment centered around choice if you’re not willing to give the thoughtful feedback needed when grading it. There’s no better way to stifle the interest your assignment generated than to give a simple check plus after their hard work delving into their topic.

This lack of feedback is even worse if they chose and shared a topic with you that’s linked closely to their personal lives. In an assignment with choice, students are opening themselves to you by showing their personality and interests. Don’t miss the opportunity to break the stereotype that you’re just the talking head that only exists within the confines of your classroom by leaving insubstantial feedback. Don’t be a teaching robot–provide feedback that is thoughtful and valuable!

As instructors, we need to be aware of and keep in check the assumptions we make about students and their performance. Our students are human beings, some of which are persevering through very real issues in their lives. Implementing assignments centered around choice can help to motivate and provide these students with an outlet to vent their issues as well as provide you insight as to why some students may be struggling in your course.

Interested in other ways to implement choice and student-centered learning in your course? Check out some of the resources below:

Student-Centered Teaching: A Look at Student Choice in the Classroom

Implementing Choice Menus for Assignments

Don’t Provide False Choice by Letting your Students Pick Between a Snake, an Eel, or a Worm