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The Skills Agenda

Putting non-disposable assignments to work

The Pay It Forward Assignment allows students to share their learning to help current and future students.


Have you ever mastered a topic and immediately wanted to share what you learned with others? Whenever I figure out something challenging, I want to tell someone else what I have learned. Sharing my new knowledge with another person helps me better understand the material myself, and I like the idea that someone else will be able to enjoy the fruits of my mental labours.

I believe that many of us, including our students, have this same motivation to share new knowledge. And this motivation can be directed to create student resources.

In my last Skills Agenda column, I wrote about the idea of non-disposable assignments. These assignments are intended to add value beyond the students’ individual learning. In this column, I share a non-disposable assignment I used in one of my own classes. I call it the Pay It Forward Assignment.

What is a Pay It Forward Assignment?

Inspired by emerging ideas about non-disposable assignments, the Pay It Forward Assignment (PIFA) requires students to create something that will help current and future students in the same class. The pedagogical purpose of the PIFA is to inspire students to approach the material with creativity and to draw upon their own interests and personal strengths while engaging with the class material. The PIFA allows students to demonstrate their mastery of a topic in a creative manner, rather than the usual essay/exam/class presentation format. Further, the PIFA can create a library of resources for future classes that can continue to grow over time.

Here is how it works:

  • The student chooses an assignment topic that is central to the course. The specific topic can either be selected by the student from an instructor-developed list or selected by the student, without a list, such as a topic that the student initially found difficult in the course content.
  • The student chooses the assignment format (see list below for examples). Students are encouraged to draw upon their own creativity and learning style in selecting the format.
  • The student creates a learning object to share with both their current classmates and future students in the same course. In this learning object, the student explains, summarizes, connects, and/or applies course material for an audience of current and future students.
  • Learning objects can then be shared (with each individual student’s permission) with the current class and future classes. Current and future students can review the learning objects to improve their understanding of the course material.

To share the learning objects among the current class, the instructor can use class presentations in a face-to-face class, the course learning management system in an online or face-to-face class, or some other specified mechanism. The “pay it forward” aspect of the PIFA is of particular note, as students are encouraged to make their work accessible to future classes. This requires a clear mechanism for students to provide explicit consent to the instructor to share their learning object with future students.

Possible Pay It Forward Assignment learning objects


YouTube video – Student creates a short video tutorial on a key idea.

Podcast – Student creates a short podcast that connects a key idea to a current issue in public debate.

Social media – Student creates a TikTok video, Instagram story, or Twitter tweet-thread explaining a core concept.

Social media critique – Student identifies a publicly accessible social media post and applies course material (such as a key idea) to critique the post. Information can be presented in text, audio, or video format.

Citizen guide – Student authors a guide for the general public that applies a key idea to a common social issue.

Wiki page – Student authors a Wikipedia page entry about a core concept, with clear endnotes.

Graphic novella – Student creates a graphic short story that explains a key idea or that connects a key idea to a current issue in public debate.

Photo essay – Student provides a series of photos to illustrate a key idea in a module, with accompanying brief text to explain how the photos illustrate the idea.

Infographic poster – Student designs a visual display explaining an idea using graphics and images with minimal text. (Note: instructors may wish to provide students with links to free online software.)

Mind-map – Student constructs a concept linking map for a specific topic or a core idea. (Note: instructors may wish to provide students with links to free online software.)

Slide deck – Student develops a short series of slides, with or without audio narration, that teaches a core idea.

Learning activity – Student develops an active learning activity for online or classroom use to teach a core idea.

Checklist – Student creates a checklist for applying a core idea and applies the checklist to a research or news story to demonstrate how it works.

Summary table – Student/team constructs a summary table of the key points and terms from a specific textbook chapter, lecture, or online module.

Relating course topics – Student explains how the material in a particular chapter, lecture, or module relates to the chapter, lecture, or module that came immediately before it.

Linking course material – Student explains how something from the course (e.g., Political science research methods) relates to something learned in another class (e.g., International politics).

Study guide – Student develops a set of study materials on a specific course topic.

Exam – Student develops a set of study materials on a specific course topic.

Pay It Forward Assignment in practice

I used the Pay It Forward Assignment in my online political science research methods class, a second-year undergraduate class with approximately 30 students. In my syllabus, I introduced the assignment as follows: “Have you ever spent a tremendous amount of time on a class assignment and been disappointed to know that the only person who would read it was your professor (and possibly your mom)? If so, the Pay It Forward Assignment is going to be a fun and interesting activity for you.” Students were provided with examples of possible learning object formats and allowed to select the topic from any of the course content.

The assignment was an individual assignment worth 15 per cent of the final grade. Students were provided with guidelines (for example: use terminology correctly; make sure that you are presenting information accurately; use sources ethically) and were given the grading rubric with the assignment overview (see the table below). When submitting their learning objects for grading, students were required to include a 250-word self-reflection explaining what they learned while completing the assignment and were asked to specify if they wished to share their work with future classes.

PIFA Grading Rubric

Unacceptable Acceptable Exceptional
Comprehension Demonstrated
  • Terminology is used incorrectly at times.
  • Learning Object prioritizes less important details over more important details.
  • It is not clear that the readings and lectures are completed based on the Learning Object.
  • Terminology is clearly defined and consistently used correctly.
  • Learning Object clearly distinguishes important details over less important details.
  • Learning Object shows readings and lectures are completed, building upon the materials.
  • Terminology is clearly defined and consistently used correctly.
  • Learning Object clearly distinguishes important details over less important details.
  • Learning Object shows readings and lectures are completed, building upon the materials.
Depth of Learning Demonstrated in Reflection Response
  • Reflection is superficial (e.g., only provides a description of the learning experience). Examples/ details are either not provided or not relevant.
  • Reflection describes the learning experience and discusses its meaning to personal learning.
  • Response demonstrates an in-depth reflection on the learning experience and its meaning to personal learning. Clear, detailed examples are provided, as applicable.
Clarity and Communication Across Full Submission
  • Ideas are confusing.
  • Learning Object does not communicate information clearly (e.g., fuzzy visuals, muffled/ inaudible sound, lack of connecting ideas of mindmaps).
  • Learning Object prioritizes communication format/ style over content; learning value is minimal.
  • Number and types of spelling and grammar errors confuse the reader.
  • Ideas are clearly stated.
  • Learning Object makes effective use of its communication format to teach the content.
  • There are rare spelling and grammar errors, and ideas are not impacted.
  • Writing is crafted to illustrate main points easily and effectively.
  • Learning Object draws upon the strengths of the communication format to explain the topic in an interesting manner.
  • Submission is polished and there are no significant errors.

The students were very positive about the assignment. The most frequent assignment submission formats were mind maps (32 per cent) and presentation slide decks (24 per cent), with other students submitting a range of formats, including learning activities or exam questions, podcasts, infographics, guides, and applied demonstrations of core content. From an instructional perspective, the work was interesting and enjoyable to grade; while many students made safe choices, some used the PIFA as an opportunity to demonstrate creativity and a degree of bravery.

One area I will improve for next time is the explicit statement of willingness to share their learning object with future classes. While the assignment overview clearly requested statements of consent or non-consent, only a third of the students included the requested statements. Among those who did not include the statement, however, some clearly had an expectation that the work would be shared with future classes, as their reflection comments included implicit consent (e.g., “this should help future students…”). In retrospect, the use of a clear form with the consent statements would have been more effective.

Reflections on the Pay It Forward Assignment

I found the Pay It Forward Assignment to be a useful innovation to add to my assessment repertoire. The students were motivated, and the learning objects were interesting. While I have not had the opportunity to teach the course again yet, several of the learning object submissions were of sufficient quality that I would be happy to share them with future classes. The transition from a single class assignment to an ongoing course resource would be quite easy to achieve.

I invite other instructors to consider using the Pay It Forward Assignments in their classes and welcome your feedback on the experience. For instructors wishing to experiment with PIFAs in their own classes, I encourage the collection of student data on perceptions of their experiences. While the inclusion of student reflection in the assignment structure provided me with a sense of their perceptions, a formal study would be valuable.

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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