Drive-Thru Pedagogy Blog

Pick up something practical.

Rethinking Student Assignments | Part 3: Multimodal Assignments – Structure vs. Choice

October 11, 2021 • Mike Blum

In part 1 of this series, I discussed how I like to think about multimodal assignments as holistically integrated into the syllabus. It’s great when an assignment can be all planned out before that syllabus gets its first amendment, but sometimes (most of the time, maybe) it’s just gotta be a work in progress. For me, the key is keeping it flexible.

Websites, podcasts, videos, even the dreaded Powerpoint presentation, I’ve helped instructors develop assignments around all of these modes and more. When I first started, I admit that I didn’t quite know what I was doing. It wasn’t that I didn’t understand the theoretical principles involved in getting a particular multimodal assignment to work . It was that I’d never tried to implement specific methods in an actual class before. But, thanks to a few early adopter faculty members, I learned very quickly what worked, what didn’t work, and what had potential. 

In my early forays into multimodal assignments, there were two schools of thought from instructors: 

Let the Students Try Anything approach

I Want the Students to Use a Particular Tool approach

Let me briefly describe each of these approaches, along with some pros and cons. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach here, but understanding the strengths and challenges of each path may be helpful.

Let the Students Try Anything approach:

Step 1: Students are all interested in different ways to communicate, so let them do whatever they want–podcast, feature-length film, digital poster, puppet show, whatever. 

Step 2: Figure out how to grade them all later. 

I’ve seen some excellent work under these conditions, but there are too many students who flounder and need guidance to really make this approach practical. Inequities in exploration are also baked into a system like this. A student who is given the freedom to choose the mode of communication may tend toward safer choices, especially considering the price in time and grades for taking a failed risk. Finally, in the “try anything” approach, instructors lose the opportunity to explore a particular mode of communication more broadly in the class.

I Want the Students to Use a Particular Tool approach:

On the other side, I work on plenty of projects during which students use a particular application rather than selecting from a variety of possibilities. For example, I occasionally suggest a particular application, Timeline-JS, as a tool for history assignments. But learning Timeline-JS doesn’t necessarily help students conceptualize a timeline in innovative ways. It doesn’t teach students to explore what a timeline could be. The tool is more about how to use a spreadsheet than the aesthetics and power of your message.All this is fine, and it really just depends on what communication and technical skills you want to teach. 

Which muscles students will use when creating their projects and assignments will affect how they solve similar problems in the future, and will shape the tools they’ll begin to develop when telling their own stories as academics or in the workplace, so it’s a great opportunity for me to teach a tool like the Google Sites web development app because that’s a tool that has wider ramifications for learning far beyond the classroom.

A Middle Path:

Now here’s where I’m supposed to say that the middle path is best, but honestly, not always. But it’s often true. I’m not gonna lie. Here’s how I conceptualize this middle path and how I might deploy it in creating an assignment.

Decide on a Baseline and then let the students go beyond it:

Consider deciding on a baseline project, complete with the baseline technology and storytelling skills students will need to complete it, and model that baseline with your own sample project. Let students know they can develop that assignment using another tool they may already know, but having that baseline technology to fall back on is always an option. In effect, you’re giving students the opportunity to grow, but with a safety net when they get stuck. 

Interested in trying this approach out? Contact STLI for more info or a consultation.

Read more:

Rethinking Student Assignments | Part 1: A Study in Communication

Rethinking Student Assignments | Part 2: How to think about Technical Skills


© 2021 Michael Blum. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International License.

Meet the Author

Mike Blum
STLI Program Manager & Teaching Consultant

Mike’s favorite type of projects are ones that combine storytelling and technology. Helping faculty and students tell their stories through building media rich websites, maps, videos, you name it. He is passionate about sharing stories and helping others share them in compelling and innovative ways.