Motivating Students through Active Learning and Staged Assignments
Robert Kenedy, Department of Sociology, Arts and Norman Bethune College
Volume 15 Number 1 (October 2005)

Motivating students to do well in their courses and on specific assignments is often challenging. With first year students, this is especially true as they often require more guidance with what could be their first assignment at university. I have found that creating assignments with multiple stages helps to promote active learning and effective thinking (Cameron, 1999). Staged assignments also offer a way for students to actively engage in the learning process through giving feedback and guidance (Browns and Collins, 1990, 1991). It is a means for both promoting critical skills and helping to instill confidence. Sometimes that may mean providing students with the valuable feedback they need in order to help them succeed when they have to complete a specific assignment.

I have been using multi-stage assignments for about ten years. This strategy provides students with a basic scaffolding (Browns and Collins, 1990, 1991) or framework that serves to support them throughout the process of completing tiered projects. It also helps promote active learning and develop critical thinking. Typically there could be three stages or more to an assignment and, in my essays and research assignments, the first stage often includes providing students with a detailed description and spending time explaining the assignment in class. Further, I also add in a stage of active learning by arranging to have a Librarian visit the class to talk about how to find resources such as journals and other materials. Bringing in experts such as Librarians from both Keele and Glendon campus, in combination with the multi-staged assignments has proven to help students considerably in the early stages of a research assignment.

For example, a three stage assignment I have used with much success is based on having students find a journalistic account in the popular media, such as a newspaper, that discusses breakthroughs in scientific or social science research and comparing it to the original research report. I have used this assignment in the Introduction to Sociology courses as well as a Critical Skills Science course. The first stage of this assignment involves having students locate a relevant newspaper article and prepare a two to three page report that outlines the main points of the article and addresses specific questions that are provided in an assignment sheet. This first part of the assignment is graded out of five percent and I provide detailed feedback so that students can make appropriate improvements, additions, or possible changes. In the second stage of the assignment, students are required to find the actual scientific study or sociological research studies in the academic journals that were referred to in the newspaper article. They then read the studies and compare them to the journalist's account based on specific criteria given to them in the assignment. Again, I evaluate the paper and provide feedback, worth ten percent of their final grade. In the final stage of this assignment I ask students to undertake a critical analysis of the differences between what what the media account describes. Critical evaluation is necessary in this final stage and students are graded on how well they evaluate, synthesize, analyze, or apply what they learned (Bloom, 1956). In this final stage, I require students to include a formal analytic thesis statement as well as clear supportive arguments, promoting various analytic skills evident in Bloom's taxonomy.

When considering staged assignments, it is important to think about learning outcomes and the many advantages as well as challenges that may be associated with staged assignments (see Tables One and Two). I found that clear overall assignment and proper library instruction helped motivate students to gradually improve their critical thinking and analytical skills throughout each stage. In an end of year evaluation of the course, most students anonymously reported learning valuable research and writing skills that they subsequently applied to assignments in other courses. Some first year students also found it less stressful to do, as they said, "a little at a time" and receive early feedback so that they could work to improve their skills. I have found staged assignments that are relevant and interesting can definitely help students learn many of the skills necessary to help them succeed throughout their university career.


Table One, Using multi-staged assignments: Advantages and challenges

Advantages and challenges



Students learn how to do research in the library and search for data bases Students sometimes miss this session
Students learn various writing skills Students with limited writing skills may not take the time to improve their skills
Students learn to do assignments in stages. This may be a strategy they use when doing other assignments Some students may still do this assignment the night before it is due
Feedback can be used to improve critical skills and basic writing skills If encouraging or positively worded feedback is not provided, students may be discouraged
Through consistent effort on the student's part, they will often improve with each stage Students who do not take the assignment seriously can also receive progressively poorer grades
The pedagogical strategy of learning from errors and being rewarded for improvements often motivates students Students may treat the stages with cynicism when making corrections and possibly not learn from the process
Most students commented at the end of the year that they found the assignment to be helpful in terms of learning research and writing skills Students may not be used to doing staged assignments and may find it more work than they are used to
If using clear marking criteria with the proper guidance, assignments can be evaluated quickly with proper marking grids Can be labour intensive for untrained graders


Table Two, Using multi-staged assignments: Learning outcomes

  1. Learning how to complete assignments in stages and understanding that writing is a "process"
  2. Understanding the research process from libraries to writing
  3. Basic skills regarding how to use the library and how to do online searches
  4. Understanding how to do specific library searches using particular media articles as well as scientific or social science databases for finding various types of articles
  5. Learning the difference between media accounts as well as academic journal accounts and the difference between non-refereed and refereed journals
  6. Learning how to write a thesis statement
  7. Comprehending how to write a formal essay with all the essential components
  8. Critical and analytical thinking



Bloom, B.S. (Ed.) (1956) Taxonomy of educational objectives: The classification of educational goals: Handbook I, cognitive domain. New York; Toronto: Longmans, Green.

Cameron, B. (1999) Active Learning. Halifax: Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education.

Collins, A., Brown, J. S., & Holum, A. (1991). "Cognitive apprenticeship: Making thinking visible". American Educator, 6-46.

Collins, A., Brown, J. S., & Newman, S. E. (1990). "Cognitive apprenticeship: Teaching the crafts of reading, writing, and mathematics". In L. B. Resnick (Ed.), Knowing, learning, and instruction: Essays in honor of Robert Glaser (453-494). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.