What You Say Is Not What They Hear

I was recently reminded that although we like to think we clearly communicate our intent to students, this is not always the case. My globalization class is reading One White Face by Hilary Corna, an autobiographical account of a young college graduate who travels to Singapore on a whim and stumbles into a job with Toyota. I assigned a written response to this question:

The author writes that in her quest for normalcy, she “had become more and more abnormal.” What was the most significant abnormal decision she made after arriving in Singapore? Why? Define what you mean by “significant.”

I asked the question to get students to think about the ways in which an unfamiliar environment forced the author to evaluate her thinking from a new, and therefore abnormal, perspective. However, students understood the question differently. Their responses focused on the word “decision” and for the most part ignored “abnormal.” Most of them wrote about decisions that would be typical of any recent U.S. college graduates instead of pressures to adapt to new cultural norms.

To make the purpose of the question more transparent — in case I use the same book next year — I revised it to:

The author writes that in her quest for normalcy, she “had become more and more abnormal.” What was the most abnormal decision she made after arriving in Singapore? Why? Define what you mean by “abnormal.”

The question now has fewer words and more clearly emphasizes that students should think about the ways in which the author had to get out of her comfort zone to succeed.

Past posts have discussed transparency in assignment instructions include Amanda’s series on specifications grading, faulty assumptions about students’ prior knowledge, and the confusion that arises from asking too many questions at once.

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