What to Do When an Assignment Flops: Four Steps to Get Back on Track
posted by: Melissa | October 12, 2017, 02:35 PM   

Imagine this scenario: as your students prepare to walk out of your class, you hand them instructions for an assignment. You briefly explain the directions and give them a due date. Then when the date for the assignment comes due, you flip through the papers and your heart sinks. At just a glance, you can tell that at least half the class didn’t finish, many not turning the assignment in. Of those that did turn them in, the work falls far short of what you were expecting.


Chances are that if you’ve been a teacher for even a little while, you have experienced this scenario. While the first instinct is to grumble at your students for their laziness, there is probably something more systemic at work here. Don’t despair! By taking a few steps, you can refocus your class and prevent similar issues in the future.


  1. Examine the directions. When all of the students in a class fail to properly complete an assignment, the most likely culprit is a lack of understanding about what was expected. Look through the assignment, checking for common mistakes. Were they a result of not understanding the directions? You can also ask a student you trust what they thought the assignment was supposed to be. Was there confusion among the students? As much as we’d like to think students would ask us for clarification when confused, many don’t. A problem with directions is easily corrected by clarifying them and giving students a chance to redo their work.
  2. Check the difficulty of the work. Another common reason that a class may fail to adequately complete in assignment is because of a mismatch between the difficulty of the assignment and the difficulty that students are prepared to do. Work that is too easy for the students may be viewed by them as “busy work” and they won’t put effort into it, while work that is too difficult may cause them to shut down. You may want to compare the tasks that the assignment asks students to complete with tasks that they’ve done in class before and during the assignment to see if there is a misalignment. If work is too difficult, you may be able to provide enough scaffolding so that students can eventually complete the assignment, either by themselves or in class.
  3. Look at the due date. Even if the work is at the right difficulty and the directions are clear, the students may struggle if the due date for the assignment makes it too difficult to complete. If an assignment takes a long time to complete, students will need adequate time to do their very best. If a due date is too far out from when the assignment is given, students may have forgotten about it. Again, check with the students to see if time was an issue in completing the assignment. Did they have enough time? How much time did it take them? Were there other factors competing for their time and keeping them from finishing? Consider providing the students more time to finish the assignment. If there was enough time provided, but students forgot about the assignment, consider revamping how you remind students of the work due or chunking the assignment into smaller pieces.
  4. Consider how you’ve responded in the past. As much as teachers hate to admit it, sometimes we are the problem. If you’re handing out a well-structured assignment and the majority of the class still isn’t doing your work that may be the case. Consider whether you’ve sent unconscious signals that completing assignments isn’t important in your class. Do you allow students to pass even when they do sloppy work? Do you hand out a lot of busy work assignments that students view as unimportant? How soon after an assignment is missed do you have contact with the student? Holding high standards when an entire class is doing poorly is hard, but if the assignment is reasonable, it’s necessary. The amount of time between an assignment and the next report card is too long for most students to connect their effort to their grades. Consider creating a procedure that allows for more immediate feedback to students about their work.

How do you respond when your class does poorly on an assignment?

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