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Spracher Assignments For Students

Creating Assignments

Here are some general suggestions and questions to consider when creating assignments. There are also many other resources in print and on the web that provide examples of interesting, discipline-specific assignment ideas.

Consider your learning objectives.

What do you want students to learn in your course? What could they do that would show you that they have learned it? To determine assignments that truly serve your course objectives, it is useful to write out your objectives in this form: I want my students to be able to ____. Use active, measurable verbs as you complete that sentence (e.g., compare theories, discuss ramifications, recommend strategies), and your learning objectives will point you towards suitable assignments.

Design assignments that are interesting and challenging.

This is the fun side of assignment design. Consider how to focus students’ thinking in ways that are creative, challenging, and motivating. Think beyond the conventional assignment type! For example, one American historian requires students to write diary entries for a hypothetical Nebraska farmwoman in the 1890s. By specifying that students’ diary entries must demonstrate the breadth of their historical knowledge (e.g., gender, economics, technology, diet, family structure), the instructor gets students to exercise their imaginations while also accomplishing the learning objectives of the course (Walvoord & Anderson, 1989, p. 25).

Double-check alignment.

After creating your assignments, go back to your learning objectives and make sure there is still a good match between what you want students to learn and what you are asking them to do. If you find a mismatch, you will need to adjust either the assignments or the learning objectives. For instance, if your goal is for students to be able to analyze and evaluate texts, but your assignments only ask them to summarize texts, you would need to add an analytical and evaluative dimension to some assignments or rethink your learning objectives.

Name assignments accurately.

Students can be misled by assignments that are named inappropriately. For example, if you want students to analyze a product’s strengths and weaknesses but you call the assignment a “product description,” students may focus all their energies on the descriptive, not the critical, elements of the task. Thus, it is important to ensure that the titles of your assignments communicate their intention accurately to students.

Consider sequencing.

Think about how to order your assignments so that they build skills in a logical sequence. Ideally, assignments that require the most synthesis of skills and knowledge should come later in the semester, preceded by smaller assignments that build these skills incrementally. For example, if an instructor’s final assignment is a research project that requires students to evaluate a technological solution to an environmental problem, earlier assignments should reinforce component skills, including the ability to identify and discuss key environmental issues, apply evaluative criteria, and find appropriate research sources.

Think about scheduling.

Consider your intended assignments in relation to the academic calendar and decide how they can be reasonably spaced throughout the semester, taking into account holidays and key campus events. Consider how long it will take students to complete all parts of the assignment (e.g., planning, library research, reading, coordinating groups, writing, integrating the contributions of team members, developing a presentation), and be sure to allow sufficient time between assignments.

Check feasibility.

Is the workload you have in mind reasonable for your students? Is the grading burden manageable for you? Sometimes there are ways to reduce workload (whether for you or for students) without compromising learning objectives. For example, if a primary objective in assigning a project is for students to identify an interesting engineering problem and do some preliminary research on it, it might be reasonable to require students to submit a project proposal and annotated bibliography rather than a fully developed report. If your learning objectives are clear, you will see where corners can be cut without sacrificing educational quality.

Articulate the task description clearly.

If an assignment is vague, students may interpret it any number of ways – and not necessarily how you intended. Thus, it is critical to clearly and unambiguously identify the task students are to do (e.g., design a website to help high school students locate environmental resources, create an annotated bibliography of readings on apartheid). It can be helpful to differentiate the central task (what students are supposed to produce) from other advice and information you provide in your assignment description.

Establish clear performance criteria.

Different instructors apply different criteria when grading student work, so it’s important that you clearly articulate to students what your criteria are. To do so, think about the best student work you have seen on similar tasks and try to identify the specific characteristics that made it excellent, such as clarity of thought, originality, logical organization, or use of a wide range of sources. Then identify the characteristics of the worst student work you have seen, such as shaky evidence, weak organizational structure, or lack of focus. Identifying these characteristics can help you consciously articulate the criteria you already apply. It is important to communicate these criteria to students, whether in your assignment description or as a separate rubric or scoring guide. Clearly articulated performance criteria can prevent unnecessary confusion about your expectations while also setting a high standard for students to meet.

Specify the intended audience.

Students make assumptions about the audience they are addressing in papers and presentations, which influences how they pitch their message. For example, students may assume that, since the instructor is their primary audience, they do not need to define discipline-specific terms or concepts. These assumptions may not match the instructor’s expectations. Thus, it is important on assignments to specify the intended audience (e.g., undergraduates with no biology background, a potential funder who does not know engineering).

Specify the purpose of the assignment.

If students are unclear about the goals or purpose of the assignment, they may make unnecessary mistakes. For example, if students believe an assignment is focused on summarizing research as opposed to evaluating it, they may seriously miscalculate the task and put their energies in the wrong place. The same is true they think the goal of an economics problem set is to find the correct answer, rather than demonstrate a clear chain of economic reasoning. Consequently, it is important to make your objectives for the assignment clear to students.

Specify the parameters.

If you have specific parameters in mind for the assignment (e.g., length, size, formatting, citation conventions) you should be sure to specify them in your assignment description. Otherwise, students may misapply conventions and formats they learned in other courses that are not appropriate for yours.

A Checklist for Designing Assignments

Here is a set of questions you can ask yourself when creating an assignment.

Have I...

  • Provided a written description of the assignment (in the syllabus or in a separate document)?
  • Specified the purpose of the assignment?
  • Indicated the intended audience?
  • Articulated the instructions in precise and unambiguous language?
  • Provided information about the appropriate format and presentation (e.g., page length, typed, cover sheet, bibliography)?  
  • Indicated special instructions, such as a particular citation style or headings?  
  • Specified the due date and the consequences for missing it?
  • Articulated performance criteria clearly?
  • Indicated the assignment’s point value or percentage of the course grade?
  • Provided students (where appropriate) with models or samples?

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Assignments for Relationship Courses

The following are assignments used by course instructors teaching about close relationships:


Weekly Paper

Short Paper – Media Evaluations, Comparisons, & Applications

  • Popular Press vs. Research    
    • Description:Project comparing how popular press portrays research to how the journal article originally presented it.
    • Specific Topic: Any topic(s); Writing (Non-Academic); Application of Science
  • Media Report – Geoff MacDonald
    • Description: Identify a media story about a relationship article; find the article and comment upon coverage of it in the media  (Rubric provided)
    • Specific Topic:Any topic(s); Communication of Science
  • Relationship Science in Pop Culture – Molly Metz
    • Description:Comparing media or self-help presentation of relationship research with empirical articles, commenting on accuracy
    • Specific Topic:Any topic(s); Communication of Science
  • Applying Research Findings – Geoff MacDonald
    • Description: Students find and read an empirical article cited in the textook. They prvoide a summary of the research as well as one example that illustrates findings/implications and one example that does not.
    • Specific Topic:Any topic(s)
  • Critique or Application Paper – Susan Boon
    • Description:Choice: literature review/critique OR application of theories to movie, song, play, etc. Includes rubric.
    • Specific Topic:Any Topic(s); Application of Science
  • Primary Source Report – Geoff MacDonald
    • Description: Students find and read an empirical article cited in the textbook. They evaluate how the text covers the article and provide their own written summary, making comparisons.
    • Specific Topic:Any topic(s); Communication of Science
  • Report on Relationship Stories – Sue Sprecher
    • Description: Write brief summaries of 8 interesting stories on relationship science in the news:
    • Specific Topic:Any topic(s); Communication of Science
  • Application Mini-Paper (Media Analysis) – Lisa Hoplock
    • Description: Short reflection on how media relates to course concepts. Half page written description and analysis
    • Specific Topic:Any topic(s)
  • Relationship Claims – Daniel Perlman
    • Description: "Identify one claim or piece of advice about close relationships and analyzed it in light of empirical research." Includes rubric.
    • Specific Topic:Any Topic(s); Communication of Science

Short Paper – Application in a Variety of Contexts

  • How-To Guide
    • Description:Project where students create a synthesis of a research area in a user-friendly format
    • Specific Topic: Any topic(s); Writing (Non-Academic); Application of Science
  • Relationship How-To Guide – Molly Metz
    • Description: Synthesize relationship research findings to provide guidelines on how to deal with various relationship issues. Creative paper describing a process (such as a three-step process) to tackle a specific relationship problem.
    • Specific Topic: Any topic(s); Writing (Non-Academic); Application of Science
  • Ideal Romantic Day – Daniel Perlman
    • Description: Description of an ideal romantic day, based on science of relationships
    • Specific Topic:Any topic(s)
  • Music of Our Lives Soundtrack – Brian Ogolsky
    • Description: Students identify 10 songs that relate to "relationships across the lifespan;" accompanied by a paper that explains order, song choice, and application to course content. Students submit the collection of songs and paper explaining connection to course content.
    • Specific Topic:Any Topic(s); Application of Science
  • Infographic Fact Sheet – Brian Ogolsky
    • Description: Must contain at least 10 facts and 5 research citations.
    • Specific Topic: Any Topic(s); Appliction of Science

Short Paper – Application to Film & Video

Short Paper – Evaluation of and Application to Your Own Relationship/Experiences

Short Paper – Other

Long Paper

  • Self-Help Book Analysis - Gwen Seidman
    • Description: Critical analysis of a relationship self-help book and literature application to advice given in self-help book. 10-15 page evaluation paper integrating coverage in the self-help book and 10 journal articles; APA style
    • Specific Topic:Any topic(s)
  • Research Proposal - Ben Le
    • Description: Research proposal - literature review and theoretical rationale for hypotheses, methodology, anticipated results and implications; 12-15 page paper due end of term.
    • Specific Topic:Any topic(s)
  • Research Proposal – Rich Slatcher
    • Description: Standard 15 page research proposal
    • Specific Topic: Any topic(s)
  • Theory Paper - Ben Le 
    • Description: Students describe evolutionary, attachment, and interdependence perspectives, discuss similarities and differences among them, and integrate all into one theoretical framework. Minimum 15 page midterm paper. Minimum of 8 outside sources must be incorporated into the paper.
    • Specific Topics: Evolutionary, Attachment, and Interdependence Theories
  • Literature Review and Research Proposal          
    • Description: Standard literature review assignment, along with proposal of 3 possible directions for future reserach.
    • Specific Topic:Any topic(s)
  • Team Research Paper and Presentation – Daniel Canary
    • Description: "The purpose of the research paper is to have you explore a particular facet of interpersonal communication in addition to giving a presentation."
    • Specific Topics:Interpersonal Communication; Any topic(s); Group; Semester Long Project

Semester Long Project

  • Science of Relationships Teaching Guide
    • Description: A collection of writing assignments that use SofR articles as inspiration, each emphasizing the need to communicate science effectively to non-academic audiences
    • Specific Topic(s):Any topic(s); Writing (Non-Academic); Application of Science
  • Communication Consultant Project - Jessica Smith  
    • Description: Two fold: 1) Students create materials that a communication consultant could use to hep partners understand and solve a communication problem. 2) Students present materials and other work that was done throughout the semester.
    • Specific Topic:Resolving Interpersonal Communication (IPC) problems
  • Semester Project (Multi-Format/Options) – Paul Mongeau
    • Description: Semester long project with lots of different in-depth options for completion (Grad level). Includes criteria for evaluation papers.
    • Specific Topic(s): Any topic(s); Writing; Long Paper; Literature Review, Research Proposal; White Paper; Study, Journal Submission;  Graduate Level
  • Narrative Interview & Diversity – Benjamin Karney
    • Description: Interview with diverse individual or couple; audiotaped, transcribed, and analyzed for course content. Interviewing and writing; transcription and analysis
    • Specific Topics:Any topic(s); Diversity; Interview; Transcription

Group Project

  • Make Relationships Better – Gary Lewandowski
    • Description: Your job is to take (sometimes) complex scientific findings (you should use at least 15 articles and avoid using your class notes/textbook) and put them into a writing style/format that someone who does not know anything about research can use to benefit their own relationships. How you do this is completely wide open and up to your group.
    • Specific Topic: Any topic(s) 
  • Major Questions for Group Project – Ximena Arriaga
    • Description:A list of key topics and questions tht students can use for group projects
    • Specific Topic(s): Any topic(s) 
  • Group Presentation – Susan Boon
    • Description: Group of 4-5 give presentation in a variety of formats that incorpoarate research.
    • Specific Topic:Any topic(s); Presentation
  • Group Work (Relationships & Health) – Susan Boon
    • Description:Find and review an empirical journal article linking relationships to physical or mental health; Group discussion (ungraded - experiential learning)
    • Specific Topic: Relationships and health

Class Presentation

Class Discussion

  • Discussion Leadership - Jessica Smith  
    • Description: Pairs of students use the class period to teach selected topic through lecture, discussion, and related activity
    • Specific Topic(s): Any topic(s)
    • Other Info:Requires additional research beyond the readings completed by the rest of the class
  • Discussion Leader – Paul Mongeau
    • Description: Grad-level assignment for leading class discussion with guidelines and sample discussion questions
    • Specific Topic:Any topic(s)

Case Study

  • Case Study Creation - Jessica Smith 
    • Description: Students create a Case Study (story) that depicts specific IPC theories/concepts and reflection connecting story to case. No page length.
    • Specific Topic:Interpersonal Communication; Any topic(s)
  • Case Analysis– Daniel Perlman
    • Description: Describe and analyze a various elements of specific relationship it in light of course concepts
    • Specific Topics:Any topic(s); Initiation through Dissolution; Application of Science

Extra Credit

  • Extra Credit Journal - Jessica Smith  
    • Description: Students evaluate a relationship initiation situation gone bad, and offer “advice” based on knowledge gained in course
    • Specific Topic: Violation of self disclosure reciprocity norms


In Class Activities/Demonstrations

  • Couple Fight Skit - Cheryl Harasymchuk
    • Description: Students use the Specific Affect Coding Manual to develop a script for - and then act out - a couple fight (each partner displays an emotion, as indicated in the manual)
    • Specific Topics: Research methods; process; Operational definitions; Coding of constructs; Communication
    • Other Info: Specific Affect Coding Manual description chapter available online (Coan & Gottman, 2007) 
  • Desert Island Desire - Molly Metz
    • Description:In class exercise discussing desired attributes in a partner if stranded on a desert island - short term and long term
    • Specific Topics:attraction, mate selection, social motives, reinforcement theory, mating strategies
  • Lie Detection Game - Rody Miller
    • Description: PowerPoint slides to present a lie detection game.
    • Specific Topics:Self-presentation; lie detection
  • Lie Detection Activity - Rody Miller
    • Description: Student volunteers asked to tell the truth or lie; class makes judgments regarding if students are telling the truth or not
    • Specific Topics: Self-presentation; lie detection
  • Matching Game - Rody Miller 
    • Description: Article describing in-class activity where students receive mate value and have to find a match
    • Specific Topics:Assortative mating; matching; attraction
  • Overconfidence Demo - Rody Miller 
    • Description: Activity where stuents make guesses about questions (e.g., population of the US) 90% certainty
    • Specific Topic: overconfidence
  • Role-Playing Workshop - Silvia Donato
    • Description: Role playing activities for a couple, parents, and family
    • Specific Topic:Communication