University assignments: why students rarely go ‘outside of the box’

Macquarie undergraduate student Aprill Miles took to the podium to deliver a keynote at the German Undergraduate Research Conference last month. For Aprill, the experience of working on her own research project has been truly transformational. It also opened her eyes on why many students rarely go ‘outside of the box’ in their university assignments. 

question markUndergraduate Research at Macquarie? 

Macquarie Undergraduate Research Internship (MURI) is a program that encourages undergraduates to come up with their own research proposal, and approach an academic to work with them. The program involves development sessions during the semester that build students’ research skills, for example how to use excel, how to write literature reviews, how to network. Students also communicate their projects via a ‘1 minute thesis’ presentation and a poster presentation.

Aprill was a 2nd year undergraduate student at that point, and she swears by the undergraduate research experience. Not only did it give her a huge confidence boost, but it also taught her valuable skills that she uses in her other assignments. She commented that ever since she did her research project, her overall grades improved, and that she’s been feeling a lot more in control of her studies.

Aprill presenting her research
Aprill (on the left) presenting her research

scales Assignments vs a major project

When we asked Aprill how doing her own research project compared to her usual assignments, she felt that there was a huge difference.

Having her own research project gave her a much stronger sense of ownership and pride of the project. A longer time-frame allowed her to really go deep with the topic.

Aprill noted that most assignments tend to lack authenticity, as only one (or two) tutors usually read them. Another problem is too many assignments. 

You are under time pressure and you have other assignments due at the same time, so you think “What is the easiest thing to do?” It’s like a production line. There is too much pressure to just tick boxes and go about an assignment conventionally to get the grade” – notes Aprill.

When I was doing my research project I felt like I needed to see everything about my topic, and my ideas really changed. When I started, I had one idea of what it was going to be, and by the end of it I completely changed my key statement. So it evolved and it grew. In a unit, you must have a straight idea and two weeks later have a paper finished. So you don’t usually go outside of the box”.   

Aprill has a point – university students tend to have too many competing assignments. As a result, they take shortcuts and the quality of their work suffers (this idea is supported by an increasing number of researchers*).

One way to improve this situation is to have fewer, but integrated assessments (see the new Assessment Policy). For example, instead of doing 2-3 small projects for different units, students could do one major project that would be assessed by several academics. Not only would it reduce competing priorities, but it would make assignments more meaningful, as students will not view them as fragmented pieces in university ‘assessment game’.

Some of the Programs at Macquarie are already using this ‘programmatic’ approach with a lot of success and find that a major assignment that assesses students on different units is much closer to real-life than many of ‘traditional’ assignments tend to be. Also, since such assignments are assessed by several markers, the marking process is more valid.

 Where to now? 

tick Talk to your Faculty Learning and Teaching team (or Learning Innovation Hub) if you are interested in programmatic assessment.

 tick For ideas how to use programmatic assessment see these blog posts.

Program-level design: 10 strategies for keeping it real

(almost) All you need to know about program-based design

tickAt the very least discuss students’ workload with your colleagues to avoid multiple assignments being due at the same time.


Race, P. (2014). Making learning happen: A guide for post-compulsory education. London: Sage.

Sambell, K., McDowell, L., & Montgomery, C. (2012). Assessment for learning in higher education. London: Routledge.

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