By Degree of Difficulty—Carolyn Lieberg, Teaching Your First College Class
Lieberg, Carolyn. Teaching Your First College Class: A Practical Guide for New Faculty and Graduate Student Instructors. Stylus Publishing, May 2008.
"There is little doubt that the fall semester, more than any other I believe, begins with high hopes. Students examine their new books and resolve to do the readings in a timely fashion. They believe they will do all of their assignments neatly and thoroughly. They plan to attend every class and take good notes. Essentially, they begin by wanting to complete all assignments and earn excellent grades.
Faculty and GSIs (Graduate Students Instructors) begin the year with a lot of energy, too. The balance of research and studies and teaching seems manageable; others seem to do it successfully with no apparent complications. The challenge looks like a sturdy hike up a fairly friendly mountain, not the pitched and risky trek up a craggy alp that may fill some of the rumor mills.
If you have control over the assignments you give, take advantage of all the fall resolutions and optimism by “front loading”: the work. By this I mean, assign difficult readings and long papers in the first half of the course—the first third is even better. Make use of your students’ good intentions in every way you can and of your own discretionary time, too, while it is still available. Many instructors cannot see a way to do this. The most common reply is that they can’t assign a paper that will be due early in the term because the students don’t know enough about the topic to do the work.
Let’s consider the ramifications of this notion. On the surface, it seems logical. How grand it is to imagine that students will process the information in two-thirds of the course and bring their knowledge to bear on a complex topic that they will skillfully analyze and then use it to write a brilliant paper. It can happen, and it does. But the reality is that since this customary thinking propels the structure of many syllabus schedules, students end up with two, three, or four large projects of papers due in the final weeks of school. While students may possess the knowledge to do more comprehensive work by the end of the term, only the most mentally agile who need the least sleep, who don’t procrastinate, and who have virtually no life outside school might skillfully research and prepare that number of big projects in a two-to-three week period—and come out of it with a sense of gained knowledge or reflection on the subjects or the process. Some students may likely be preparing for examinations, too.
Therefore, develop creative assignments with unconventional due dates. These, too, can help students achieve course goals." (p. 49)