The Assignment Sheet

Nancy Snow


Over the years I have had more than a few students claim that they don’t read the assignment sheets provided in their classes. I have begun to wonder if some say this because they don’t want to admit they don’t understand what is being asked of them. Like somehow it is better to seem apathetic rather than to admit a perceived deficiency. I use the word perceived purposefully here, as a lack of understanding is not a deficiency but a state of being a student. Thus I would like to take a moment to offer some of my perspectives on what it means to read an assignment sheet.

First, I would like to propose that the assignment sheet is not a self-contained object; It lives in context to course learning objectives and content, the program, and the instructors’ worldview. Consequently, its language use, opportunities, and limitations are not arbitrary nor are they grounded in the colloquial; they are referential to the discipline and practices of design.

So…where and how does a student begin understanding the context of the discipline?

While there is no map to help you navigate the uncertainty you will feel as you start out on your journey, we in graphic design, for example, offer you a basis for making in our core vocabulary list of elements, principles, actions, and practices. Given one of the focuses of first year is craft-skill acquisition and development the list at its essence a kind of mapping for the language of compositional organization. Thus each first-year student could refer to this list as a support to give language to their making, to directly inform the generation of numerous-making responses for studio-based assignments, for reflection on what an individual makes, to critique the work of peers, and to better understand the learning objectives the assignment sheet is addressing.

Often a not-so-obvious context is that of the individual as each student comes to the program with a variety of skills, goals, experiences, and worldviews. Thus it would be simplistic to think that everyone will experience things the same way, arrive to courses with similar types of experiences, or need the exact same experience to come to an understanding of a specified process. Consider for example this quote from John Dewey, an educator and philosopher, on the conditions of an experience:



“… every experience is the result of interaction between a live creature and some aspect of the world in which he lives. A man does something; he lifts, let us say, a stone. In consequence he undergoes, suffers, something: the weight, strain texture of the surface of the thing lifted. The properties thus undergone determine further doing. The stone is too heavy or too angular, not solid enough; or else the properties undergone show it is for the use for which it is intended. The process continues until a mutual adaption of the self and the object emerges and that particular experience comes to a close.”1


Consequently, while the assignment sheet provides a space for the conditions of an experience it does not guarantee one. Each student will need to lift their own stone and while we have a tendency to think that the act of stone-picking-up is the point of an assignment, that is not necessarily the case; adaptation is key.

It is also important to understand that one student’s stone could be embedded in amongst other stones and they have to engage with multiple experiences before they can even access it. Others may have to pick up twenty stones before they can realize an experience. Others still, may continually pick up the stone and wonder what is the big deal, it is just a stone—and frankly, that is a whole other conversation.

All of these individual aspects contribute to the reading—and thus interpretation—of the assignment sheet. By establishing the assignment sheet into context(s) you can see that reading an assignment sheet is never just simply reading; it is an engagement on multiple levels.

Second, I contend that the assignment sheet is a framework versus a prescription. While the assignment sheet provides the fundamental supporting structure of the assignment it may not overtly contain aspects of design that are challenging to define such as individual will or ethics. Sure you can be guided as to how to make a gouache relief or instructed about the functions of the path­finder tool in Illustrator, but to be a designer is not only about skill in craft and technology but the ways in which you engage with a proj­ect and the making responses that you create based off of those engagements.

Now of course there are elements of the assignment sheet that are prescriptive as they have due dates, specify size, colour limita­tions, etc. and yes some assignment sheets are very specific in the ways in which they ask you to engage in a particular project which brings us back to the first point about context.

What I really want to emphasize here is that each assignment sheet offers an opportunity—no matter how prescriptive it may seem—for an individual to experience making and thinking through a variety of circumstances. Sometimes it could be about strengthening skills you already have. Other times you could introduce ways of thinking or doing that you may not have considered before. Thus in a way an assignment sheet contains only a portion of the learning objectives; the other portion comes from learning objectives as defined by the individ­ual student in relationship to their goals and specific areas of interest.

To conclude what I have made a case for here is a reframing of how to think about reading an assignment sheet, plus the role it plays in your learning experiences; the state of being a student is not that of a receiver of information but of active and purposeful engagement. Thus consider the assignment sheet as a starting point for exploration, orientation, and contextualization; it is after all one thing to be told about (or to do) something and an entirely different thing to experience it for yourself.

1. (Dewey, 2005, p. 45)