On Assignments: Prescriptive vs. Descriptive

A red-painted wooden wall, likely the side of a barn. What's inside that gap?

While taking coursework for my current degree program, one particular class had a knack for annoying me more than I had expected. My classmates often chuckled at my frustrations, as I would get somewhat bent out of shape over the teaching style of a rather well-intentioned professor. Despite my ability to complain about the lecture style, the expectations, or the assignment design, I still acknowledged that the professor did only what he believed would most help us theorize, compose, and ultimately graduate. I could appreciate it, but that didn’t mean I had to like it.

What annoyed me most were his assignments. Quite the fan of Greg Ulmer, this professor used Ulmer’s Internet Invention — part textbook, part instructor’s guide, part theory — as one of our sources and as a project for his class. Both Ulmer and my professor provided instructions for assignments that included the kinds of thinking we should do, the kinds of preparatory work we should create, the kinds of questions we should ask ourselves, and the purpose of each of the exercises. What they never did was declared what the final project should look like. For one assignment, I felt like I could turn in a video, a website, or a paper scroll and have met the professor’s expectations for formatting. It was nerve-wracking, to say the least, and it flew in the face of how most professors in my program created assignments. In other classes, I was told exactly what I was to produce, and I was expected to find my own way there. To have this approach reversed in one class unsettled me and pretty much had me convinced that anything I thought to do would be wrong.

At some point while venting my frustration, I said something to the effect of, “I wish he would just tell us what he wanted, rather than making us guess!” I froze, hearing echoes of my former students in my own exasperation. While teaching ninth grade, I developed a reputation for giving assignments that were flexible — open to creativity — and therefore annoying to many students. To this day, I refuse to give my students word-count requirements, and when I told my students that I didn’t know how many paragraphs or essay should be, or I didn’t know whether their presentation required a visual aide, many of them refused to believe me, thinking I had some kind of super-secret answer tucked away in my head that I wouldn’t share with them. I denied it, of course. While I may have had ideas of what I thought would work best, I didn’t want to stand in the way of a student’s ability to come up with a more creative, more effective solution. So when I told my students for a particular presentation that they didn’t have to use a visual aid, but that I couldn’t quite imagine how their presentation be effective without one, I was being serious, not stubborn and snarky. They generally didn’t believe me.

So this flashback made me realize that, when I was at the receiving end of the very type of assignments I like to give, I was frustrated as anything. I started feeling pretty guilty.

I think the difference I’m recognizing in assignment types here is between descriptive and prescriptive approaches to assignments. Descriptive assignments explain the outcome. They describe what the finished product should look like, should do, or should be. By contrast, prescriptive assignments explain the procedure, but not the result. They tell students what steps to take, what they should think about, and how to arrive at their destination, but they avoid specific guidelines for the finished product, allowing more flexibility for individualized responses. This approach is very common for multimodal assignments, where the assignment expects students to define the end product’s ultimate design.

In truth, I think our students want a combination of the two: they want an assignment that tells them exactly what to create and exactly what to do to get there. Removing either of those two elements creates uncertainty, discomfort, and risk. Of course, it also creates the opportunity to learn. By making students reach their own decisions or find their own way through an assignment, we force them to rely on their own minds, rather than mindlessly following instructions. But we can’t remove too much guidance and say simply, “Do something, and figure out a way to do it.”

At the risk of talking myself out of my own position, I wonder which portion of an assignment is most effective to omit: the procedure or the outcome. I suspect that, if we tell our students what the outcome should look like or do but leave the method of getting there up to them, our students would feel comfortable knowing the end result toward which they are working, and they would be able to ask for help if they got lost on any of the procedure. This makes intuitive sense to me, but as I write this, I am thinking that my teaching experience is built around freshman. I feel a sense of obligation to introduce them to new ways of doing things and finishing assignments — I think teaching process can benefit freshmen.

I sympathize with Greg Ulmer’s belief that he knows where in the process someone will learn something new, and that if the student takes the proper steps, there is no way to avoid learning at that point. But what does a prescriptive assignment do to a student’s self-motivation for learning? If all a student does is follow step-by-step instructions to complete a predetermined goal, what does the student provide in the scenario? And if a student unenthusiastically progresses through each of the steps without meta-cognitively evaluating performance and learning, who is to blame when the student produces substandard work at the end? If the instructor says only, “take these steps, and show me what you end up with,” can the instructor then later say, “what you came up with is not good enough”?

Using descriptive assignments give students more confidence because they see what they will need to create, but allows more flexibility because students can explore various methods for achieving that goal. Besides, class time could always be used to demonstrate procedures that lead naturally to the desired outcome of the assignment.

My fall classes begin in seven days. I wonder how many of those will be spent re-inventing my assignments.