Last week–the first full week of class this semester–my first-year writing students had an assignment that required them to create a document in a word processor and then email me that document as an attachment from their university email account. Not such a big deal, right? Right.
Well, except that there are a couple of important things that happened.
First, although the majority of the students were able to complete the assignment, a couple of them in each class ran into a roadblock of one kind or another. This is important because my technology policy requires students to work out their digital workflow such that they do not find themselves irrevocably stymied by some kind of snafu or another. Because these students are brand new to the university, they’ve not yet learned the ins and outs of how to use the campus network, how to use their campus email accounts, or (in some cases) how to use the word processor installed on all the campus computers. I assigned them this task–and assigned it in the first week of the semester–because I know that student inexperience will often cause a few stumbles the first few times an assignment like this is attempted. It’s better to get those stumbles out of the way early, before the busy-ness of the semester swamps us all. It’s also a good idea, in my opinion, to get students used to the idea that they should turn to the information technology services office on campus for help rather than to me. I tell students that if they want to come by during my office hours I’m happy to sit down with them one-on-one to try to solve their problem. However, the ITS office is open for many more hours than my office is, they have many more people in their office than will be found in mine, and they have been trained to solve whatever problems students might encounter while I have a much more casually-acquired expertise when it comes to campus technology.
Second, the grade for this particular assignment makes up a very small percentage of their total grade for the class. If they screw it up, it’s not really going to have much of an effect upon their course grade. However, students really work to get it right because it’s the very first assignment (maybe of their entire college career) and because there aren’t yet many other assignments on their agenda, competing for their attention. The basic skills this assignment requires–using a word processor, using email–are necessary for completing later, more substantial writing assignments. In those later assignments, I want students to focus on the content of their writing and not the successful mastery of these basic skills. I have found that giving them this sort of assignment early allows that to happen (or at least makes that more likely to happen).
The above is just one example among many possibilities. Any time I require students to accomplish some sort of task they’re likely to be unfamiliar with already–digital or otherwise, but certainly in the case of digital tools or skills–I find a way to introduce them to that task in a low-stakes assignment like this one.
How about you? Do you come up with easy first tasks like this one for students? If so, let us hear from you in the comments!