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The Skills Agenda

Considering non-disposable assignments for your teaching

This is an opportunity to create value beyond an individual student’s learning.


University students spend a lot of time writing or completing assignments and instructors spend a lot of time grading these same assignments. And after all this effort, many assignments end up in the physical or computer trash, rarely thought of again.

That’s because many assignments are disposable.

Disposable assignments are those that, in David Wiley’s words, “add no value to the world – after a student spends three hours creating it, a teacher spends 30 minutes grading it, and then the student throws it away.” If this sounds familiar and you are interested in something different, you might want to consider adding non-disposable assignments to future classes.

What are non-disposable assignments?

Dr. Wiley and John Levy Hilton argue that assignments fall into four categories, three of which are non-disposable:

  • Disposable: the student creates an artifact.
  • Authentic: the student creates an artifact that has value beyond the student’s learning.
  • Constructionist: the student creates an artifact that has value beyond the student’s learning and is made public.
  • Renewable: the student creates an artifact that has value beyond the student’s learning, is made public, and is openly licensed.

In broad terms, then, non-disposable assignments (NDAs) are designed to add value beyond the student’s individual learning, with some NDAs making this value public and openly accessible.

As Sally Seraphin and her co-authors note, NDAs can take several forms. For example, some NDAs have students take their learning beyond the classroom setting: students may make presentations to a community group, publish an op-ed, or contribute to social media discussions. Other NDAs may involve information sharing that goes beyond the course time frame, such as through the creation of a class-based or open-source repository, or the development of online resources that remain available after the course is completed.

What are the benefits of non-disposable assignments?

The primary benefit of NDAs is that they create something of benefit beyond the individual student’s learning. Indeed, Dr. Wiley’s original critique of disposable assignments was not based on their pedagogical value, but rather on the lost opportunity of these assignments. As he and Dr. Hilton summarize, “millions of hours of work are done, graded, and thrown away each year,” while it is possible to design “assignments which both support an individual student’s learning and result in new or improved open educational resources that provide a lasting benefit to the broader community of learners.”

There can, of course, be additional benefits to NDAs. NDAs can be attractive to instructors and students alike because they are believed to allow students to tap into intrinsic motivation and creativity in the formal assessment process. NDAs can foster skills development, such as communication skills and digital literacy skills. In many cases, NDAs can provide students with a tangible learning product to add to a personal e-portfolio and potentially show future employers.

As a relatively new teaching idea, there is limited scholarship on the effectiveness of NDAs. However, emergent research suggests promise: a study by Stephanie Kirchner Stancil found that graduate students reported increased motivation, increased confidence, and improved learning when using non-disposable assignments.

What should instructors consider when developing non-disposable assignments?

In some cases, it might be easy for instructors to change existing disposable assignments to create value beyond the individual student’s learning. For example, a traditional essay assignment could be paired with a peer-review process in which students learn from each other and help each other improve their work. See Peter Wallis’ discussion on converting assignments for questions to consider when adapting existing assignments.

If you are considering using a non-disposable assignment, here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Ensure students have information and resources on how to respect copyright. Your university librarians can be very helpful with this.
  • Use clear rubrics to clarify expectations and simplify grading.
  • If you are planning public-facing assignments, consider how you can create class-based opportunities for fact-checking and quality assurance.
  • Some students may balk at the idea of publicly sharing their learning and this must be accommodated. As Dr. Wallis writes, “students should not be required to publicly share and openly license their work. It is their work. We can ask, invite, encourage, and give reasons, but it is their choice.” For this reason, instructors should be prepared to provide a non-shared option if requested.
  • Be prepared to experiment and learn as an instructor. As Rajiv Jhangiani writes, “it takes a degree of courage to untether oneself from the security and predictability of the staid research essay.” Don’t expect things to be perfect at first.

Continuing the #SkillsAgenda conversation

Do you use non-disposable assignments in your teaching? If so, I would love to hear about it in the comments below. I also welcome opportunities to speak with universities about skills training. Please connect with me at [email protected], subject line, “The Skills Agenda.” Finally, for additional teaching, writing, and time management tips, please check out my Substack blog, Academia Made Easier.

I look forward to hearing from you. Until next time, stay well, my colleagues.

Loleen Berdahl
Loleen Berdahl is a 3M National Teaching Fellow, an award-winning university instructor, the executive director of the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy (Universities of Saskatchewan and Regina), and professor and former head of political studies at the University of Saskatchewan. Since 2016, Dr. Berdahl has spoken about student skills training and professional development at conferences and university campuses across Canada. Her research on these topics was funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Insight Grant program. Her most recent book is For the Public Good: Reimagining Arts Graduate Programs in Canadian Universities (with Jonathan Malloy and Lisa Young, University of Alberta Press 2024).
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