All educators want their students to produce high-quality work. Could we get any more "duh" up in here? But what are the best ways to ensure that they actually do? We've rounded up 6 tried-and-true techniques for helping your students put their best feet—and work—forward.
1. Make sure assignments are clear.
It's hard for students to complete high-quality work on anything if they're not sure what you're asking them to do. (Another "duh" for you there.) So, if you give them a broad list of topics and instruct them to "choose one and write a research paper," for instance, you're not giving them much to go on. Especially if they haven't written a research paper before, or if they haven't written one for you.
How long should it be? How many sources should they use? How should they cite their sources? 12-point font or can they get away with 70-point and one word per page? The clearer you are about the parameters of an assignment, the more able your students will be to produce the level of work you're expecting from them.
2. Use exemplars.
Yes, exemplars. On which note, let's go back to that research paper. One great way to be clear about what you're looking for is to show your students an example of what you consider to be a high quality research paper. If they can see what they're working toward, it will be that much easier for them to work toward it.
For some strange reason, somewhere along the line someone got the idea that providing examples like this was akin to cheating—giving students the answers instead of having them discover them through a process of trial and error (i.e., doing the work and then doing it again because it didn't come out well the first time). In case you couldn't tell, our eggs are in the that's-ridiculous basket.
True, in some situations (in a Process Oriented Guided Inquiry Lesson, for instance), the process of discovery is essential. But if you wanted someone to build you a birdhouse, you'd probably show them a few examples of what you're looking for first. A birdhouse for barn swallows would be vastly different from a birdhouse for say, an emu, so yeah—a picture or two could be helpful.
For the same reason, you should show your students who are writing a research paper what a good research paper looks like. Which doesn't mean it should be on the same topic (rookie mistake), or that you name the student who did so much better work than they're capable of. That's bound to boost a few inferiority complexes.
The goal is that after seeing these exemplars, a few of your students will produce exemplars you can use in future lessons. And the cycle goes on.
3. Rubrics and guidelines.
If your students submit a paragraph when they were supposed to complete a 5-page paper, or a poem about an experiment instead of a lab report, chances are they may not receive a favorable assessment. Knowing the guidelines for an assignment and the specific criteria on which they will be graded will help your students do work that meets your expectations. Though a poem about your chemical reactions lab does sound pretty sweet.
To this end, we recommend offering up guidelines and rubrics whenever possible. If students are giving presentations in class, let them know up front how they will be evaluated.
Will you be assessing the quality of their speech (how well they project, whether or not they are audible), the organization of the presentation, or how well they use props or make eye contact with the audience? Are visual aids required? What sort and how many? Do they have to memorize, or can they (pretty please) use notecards?
If you have a rubric that award points in various categories (spelling and grammar, overall content, sentence structure, minimum or maximum lengths or time frames, etc.), show those to the students in advance so they can be sure to focus their attention on racking up those points across the word. Like bingo, but with a bigger effect on GPA.
True, some people find rubrics limiting, but you can always add a final category (like "personal style" or "je ne sais quoi") to give you a little wiggle room in awarding the last five or so points.
If you're looking for some examples, check out these sample rubrics designed for Project Based Learning or the examples offered on this page from Carnegie Mellon. Or, you know, just go into any Shmoop Online Course.
4. Bring them in on the assessment process.
Want those rubrics and guidelines to be even more effective? Bring your students in on the assessment process by having them help create assignments and assessment tools. Take some time to talk with them about what exactly constitutes quality work and how they think it should be assessed.
Surprisingly, students are often harder on themselves and their peers than many teachers would be. Plus, if they help create guidelines and rubrics, students will have a more complete understanding of them and thus be more likely to meet the expectations they express.
As you consider ways to bring your students in on the assessment process, remember it doesn't always have to come in the form of setting guidelines or creating rubrics. Students can be involved in many aspects of assessment, including peer feedback, written evaluations of one another's work or level of participation, or Q&A sessions following presentations.
5. Send low-quality work back.
If your chicken were dangerously underdone, you'd send it back to the kitchen, right? After all, you'd be doing yourself a favor (saving yourself from getting sick or having an unpleasant dining experience because you choked down a barely dead cow), as well as the cook (correcting that error could prevent lawsuits, failed health inspections, or a decrease in business due to consistently undercooked food that no one ever complained about).
Get the metaphor? You should do your students the same favor. Though we'll cross our fingers their work isn't quite bad enough to give you salmonella.
So, when they turn in work that is sub-par, let them know and give them a chance to correct it. Telling a student, "This isn't your best work," or "I believe you're capable of more," and then giving them the opportunity to turn in a second draft or an improved product will send them two messages: (1) You believe in their ability to produce high-quality work, and (2) You won't accept anything less.
This may result in projects and assignments having to go through a few rounds of revision at first, but eventually students will understand that the only acceptable work is their best work. Which means they'll work harder to put in the effort on the front end in order to avoid having to redo (and redo, and redo) the work.
So even if it takes up some of your time to go over the extra drafts, in the end it'll help you both out. Do yourself a favor.
6. Incorporate presentations, exhibitions, bread, and circuses.
Well, at least the first two. After all, no one likes busy work, and no one wants to put a lot of effort into something that is going to ultimately fall prey to the G&G strategy (you know: glance & grade).
Why bother spending hours on a project or activity that is going to receive a quick once over by a teacher and, at the most, a check/check-plus/check-minus in a skinny column in someone's grade book?
On the other hand, we know you're busy. You're not going to spend as much time assessing each assignment as you'd like your students to spend producing it. So what's a busy teacher to do to let students know that the work they produce is important and will be appreciated?
Here's our answer: build in presentation and exhibition opportunities as often as possible.
When students know that their work will be viewed, or that they may even be required to present it, they are more likely to work hard to produce a polished final product. Oral presentations in front of the whole class are always an option, but it can be time consuming to allow every student in a class of 25 even five minutes to speak.
Thankfully, there are a lot of other options, like small group presentations, peer feedback, gallery walks, pair and shares, online posting of work with peer feedback required, science fair or education fair displays, or the posting of work on school or classroom walls—or even in community spaces—so that it will reach a wide audience.
However you decide to implement it, letting your students know from the get go that their work will be seen can go a long way toward showing them that what they produce matters. And knowing that it matters will encourage them to produce higher quality work than they would for a check mark.
Psst... You could also just use Shmoop to inspire them... we don't mind!