A couple of days ago I overheard a student asking another staff member if they could see an example of some work done by the previous year’s students, to help them with a current assignment. 

I think most lecturers get asked that fairly frequently, and I’m not quite sure what the best response is. On the face of it, giving an example of good work to a student should help them produce good work themselves – e.g. by understanding what it is about that example that makes it good.  Certainly, when I’ve done things like write a bid for the NZ Marsden Fund (for which, I should declare, I’ve never got beyond the first round – except as a low percentage associate investigator) I’ve tracked down as many successful bids as I can and tried to see what about them leaps out as attractive. (Obviously I’ve failed to spot the required things so far). And when writing an article for a journal I haven’t submitted to before, I have a look at that journal and see what kind of thing they seem to publish. That’s just common sense.

But there’s a drawback to providing example assignments to students.  One is obviously that, in a few students, it tempts plagiarism, which is a serious matter.  But it also discourages novel approaches. All you end up with is a set of assignments that look the same as the previous year’s (or, worse still,  years’). It also suggests that a student is unable to work out what you want to see in the assignment from the instructions you’ve given them – i.e. your instructions are not clear enough.  Confused students are not a good sign.

I’ve begun to look more carefully at the ‘learning outcomes’ for the papers I teach here at Waikato.  The learning outcomes are how we would spot a student who has successfully taken the paper (not a list of topics they were exposed to in lectures) and these should drive the assessments. As we all know, it is the assessments that actually drive what a student will learn. Get the assessments right, with clear, transparent instructions, and learning should happen.  Does giving an example of a completed assignment from a previous year really assist in doing this? – or is it a distraction for the student as he or she works through his or her own assignment?  I’m still not sure.