Simply Being Simpler: Simple Advice to Help Your Students Understand

Kyle Harley

Writing Center Tutor, Kaplan University

Over the course of the past decade, as a writing tutor, I still find myself struggling to understand how and why situations involving students’ frustration with writing assignments evolve into these complex matters we continually see with little to no resolution in sight. This incident popped into my mind after a recent tutoring session where a student voiced concerns over the way the instructor created an assignment. Having experience on both ends of the equation, I felt pangs of guilt begin to emanate from my gut as the student uncovered even deeper frustrations—the student did not find an issue with the assignment at all; instead, the assignment, as it may be, found an issue with the student. Before pen even met paper, the student already felt as if she had failed the assignment—one she was initially excited to begin, as well.

This all sounds a bit far-fetched, but seriously consider how assignments develop over time. At first, yes, they begin as a mere seedling—possibly a question that can be repurposed into a great writing prompt, or maybe you decide on a theme that a series of assignments can mimic over the course of an entire semester. Does this sound remotely similar to anything that we, as instructors of writing, continually preach to our students? Obviously the construction of these assignments comes with a host of issues to take into consideration, but the simple fact at the end of the day remains impossibly simple: sometimes we need to revise our own approach to our own assignments.

I say this partly out of frustration, but more accurately out of wonder. Should we side with the students, citing the instructor’s tyranny as the cause for the educational unrest? In sum, probably not—that seems to cause a bit more harm than good. Instead, I found myself looking at my own teaching methods, and I really took the time to trace my own pedagogy back to the very first class that I taught—talk about frustration. What I realized most about my own assignment construction aligned perfectly with this student’s frustration—I wrote this particularly complex assignment for myself and expected students to understand exactly what I meant. The language was overly elevated, and I even put information in the assignment regarding citation at a point in the semester when each of my students’ names remained a mystery. If I signed up for my own class, I may have dropped within the first few weeks—take that, ego.

Because of this punch in the academic-gut, I decided to dissect some of these student frustrations and offer a short, easy list of suitable solutions that have proven to work when expecting such great results from these students.

  • As an instructor, understand that the way you construct your assignment’s instructions can make or break the end product.

The title might be a bit preachy, but the reality behind the message could not be any more absolute. When we receive a paper that contains far too much information or the wording may be a bit lengthy, our first reaction includes suggesting the student pare down some of the information to create a leaner document. So why do we not apply this same ruling to our assignment construction? By no means am I suggesting that you lower the level of your academic assignments; instead, why not try using more direct language that addresses the exact requirements of the assignment? As an avid proponent of ‘fluff’ in any and all forms of writing, this pains me to say, but at times you just need to get to the point. If you construct assignments and students frequently come to you seeking clarity on what the assignment is asking them to accomplish, the issue at hand simply involves a quick revising session of the assignment’s language. There is no need to take this personally; instead, remember that you are the mentor here—you should want your students to succeed.

  • In an ‘age of technology,’ we still must remember that technology costs money—and quite a bit of it.

Branching off of the last suggestion, practically all assignments in the university setting require some form of technology to accomplish, which we must also remember comes with a price tag that many students simply cannot afford. Because of this, many teachers assume that students understand how to proficiently work technological applications we take for granted on a daily basis. I find myself a bit shocked when a student asks how to operate their e-mail account, but then I remember that I, too, needed this same guidance when I began my journey back at Kent State University before Facebook even had a face. The only way that students will learn to navigate the academic channels smoothly involves helping them along the way, and sometimes that may well take a simple lesson such as how to open an attachment in an e-mail or even get started typing their paper. This sounds simplest of all, but none of us learned to ride a bike before we crawled across the floor.

  • Still not convinced? Okay—send them to us!

It is understandable that many instructors may see these smaller activities as a waste of time—if you can’t take the heat, stay out of the kitchen, right? Wrong. That is where we come in. If you find that students are still struggling to understand your assignments, we can help! Sometimes students need someone else to break down the dense assignment instructions for them, and, luckily for students, tutors love to unpack assignments and get students started on the right path.

Many of these suggestions might seem rather obvious, but the fact of the matter remains that many students cannot access their assignments due to a pretty silly gatekeeping mechanism that need not be in place. By approaching our assignment construction differently, we, as educators and mentors, could possibly open an avenue to an impossibly bright mind by simply being simpler.

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2 responses to “Simply Being Simpler: Simple Advice to Help Your Students Understand

  1. Kyle, this is such a great reminder. As I embark on another course revision, I will keep your “simply being simpler” credo in mind!

  2. What I find very challenging about this advice is how often those who are responsible for assignment writing here at Kaplan are part of a more centralized effort in a smaller fishbowl as part of the for-profit, online sector. The reality is that there are tougher accreditation hoops to jump through as far as wording assignments so that they incorporate departmental and university-wide learning objectives (which are usually set by outside accrediting entities.) Does this mean that I disagree that we should try to keep things simple? Heavens no. I wholeheartedly agree that we should keep things as simple as possible for our often overburdened students, but I wonder whether we should acknowledge that assignments never start out as simple when the objectives are so complexly worded when they are handed to curriculum writers. (That’s another conversation for another day, though.) What seems prudent here is that, when we receive an assignment as a classroom instructor, we work hard with our colleagues to “translate” often lofty objectives into simple to-do lists, making it easier for students to understand and easier for instructors to grade. (Oh, and the Academic Support Center tutors will thank you, too!)

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