Renewable assignments can be a key way to motivate students and increase inclusiveness and diversity in the classroom.

What are renewable assignments–and how do they help students?

Renewable assignments can be a key way to motivate students and increase inclusiveness in the classroom

Key points:

  • Today’s college students come from diverse backgrounds and circumstances, and they all deserve a chance to succeed
  • Renewable assignments–assignments that live on after students move on–help increase student engagement and motivation for academic success
  • See related article: Equitable access can improve course completion and student success

Diversity in higher education has surged to the forefront of the national discourse: The U.S. Supreme Court recently struck down race-conscious college admissions programs, and several states have passed legislation to shut down diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives on college and university campuses. Yet there’s no denying that today’s college students represent diverse backgrounds and identities, and faculty and institutions have a responsibility to help these students succeed.

Against this backdrop, the New England Board for Higher Education, along with other regional higher education consortia, have been exploring ways to ensure that all higher education students—regardless of their background or identity—receive a high-quality education. One nascent way that some faculty are engaging a diverse range of students is through renewable assignments.

As opposed to traditional assignments, which are transactional in nature and “disposed” of at the end of the course, renewable assignments invite students to create work that can live on and continue to evolve after the course. Examples of renewable assignments include creating websites, editing and contributing to Wikipedia articles, co-creating syllabi with instructors, and creating ancillary material like test bank items. These products can also be openly licensed, making them into open educational resources that students, educators, and others can freely use, adapt, and expand upon. Renewable assignments are fueled by the idea that knowledge is meant to be shared and built upon.

Anecdotally, we heard from faculty that renewable assignments—especially those that lead to the creation of open educational resources—offered great potential for students’ motivation, engagement, and sense of their identity being represented in their course. We designed a study to explore these ideas.

For our study, we worked with eight faculty members from across the Northeast to implement renewable assignments in their courses. The faculty represented two-year and four-year colleges as well as public and private institutions, and three of them came from minority-serving institutions. They taught courses in a range of disciplines, including mathematics, biology, political science, and English literature. Their students were also diverse: Of those who shared demographic information, 42 percent were first-generation college students, 28 percent reported receiving Pell grants, and another 28 percent said they grew up in a household where a language other than English was spoken. 

We developed a survey that the faculty distributed to students at the end of the course to collect their thoughts on the renewable assignments. The students’ responses uncovered a number of benefits that renewable assignments can offer.

First, students reported higher levels of enjoyment, autonomy, pride, and motivation with renewable assignments, as compared to traditional assignments. They also reported lower levels of pressure on renewable assignments versus traditional ones. Importantly, students said that renewable assignments provided them more opportunities to share their stories and speak from their experiences than traditional assignments did.

We also found that students who felt they could express their identities well in the renewable assignment wanted to take advantage of an opportunity to more broadly amplify their experiences by publicly sharing their work. Students who chose to make their renewable assignments into open educational resources by publicly sharing them reported feeling more connected to their peers and more skilled in their work than did those who opted to not publicly share. Students who publicly shared their renewable assignments also perceived their existing course materials as being less diverse and inclusive—in fact, one student said that they chose to publicly share their work because there was a lack of diverse racial representation in existing resources on the subject.

These results suggest that faculty who want to help students from different backgrounds and identities share their knowledge and experience and feel represented in the classroom can consider integrating renewable assignments. They can also encourage students to openly license their work and publicly share it. Renewable assignments are one way to get us closer to a world where knowledge and education aren’t limited to people of a certain background or status—where, instead, everyone freely shares and contributes their unique knowledge.

With the end of affirmative action as we know it, let’s demand more from our elite universities

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