Tossing Out the “Disposable Assignment”

Let’s be honest. Nothing here is being “recycled”.

There I was. Sitting at a computer staring down my final hurdle to graduating with a college degree. The task at hand was to finish a semester long project on the “paternal behaviors of primate species”.

The Rhesus Macaque….. I had to google it to be sure.


Before I go on, let’s pause and ask a couple of questions:

Q: Am I interested in primates?

A: Nope (maybe the occasional zoo visit).

Q: Was I planning to publish my work?

A: Not at all.

Yet there I was. Typing away hours of my weekend about a topic I have no interest in for an assignment I would leave unopened on my computer until writing about it now.

This experience is not unique to any particular subject. I also remember spending countless hours coding away in the ‘dungeon’ of the computer science building for projects whose sole purpose was to run successfully once in front of a grader and never be opened again.

These experiences and others instilled a belief in me that was not fully realized until I read these words from David Wiley about what he terms “Disposable Assignments”.

“These are assignments that students complain about doing and faculty complain about grading. They’re assignments that add no value to the world — after a student spends three hours creating it, a teacher spends 30 minutes grading it, and then the student throws it away. Not only do these assignments add no value to the world, they actually suck value out of the world. Talk about an incredible waste of time and brain power (and a potentially huge source of cognitive surplus)!” — David Wiley

Disposable VS Useless

Before going any further, let me point out that the terms “disposable” and “useless” are not interchangeable. I recently disposed of an old pair of sneakers, but they certainly were not useless. Similarly, although I deleted those Computer Science projects, the practice they provided helped me develop my coding skills.

For these reasons, I am not calling for an immediate annihilation of disposable assignments. Rather, I am proposing a shift towards non-disposable student work.

Shifting Towards Value — Non-Disposable Assignments

“What if we changed these “disposable assignments” into activities which actually added value to the world? Then students and faculty might feel different about the time and effort they invested in them. I have seen time and again that they do feel different about the efforts they make under these circumstances.” — David Wiley

There are a number of ways in which teachers can design projects that generate real value.

  1. Share the Learning with Others— Create memes, blog posts and Youtube videos to share on social media or in private groups for younger students. Sharing work brings the added bonus that students will take thought to improve it.
  2. Focus on Authenticity- Employers want experience. So, build that into the curriculum! Provide your students portfolio and resume worthy projects.
  3. Provide Meaningful Contributions — Medical students at the University of California are given the task to edit Wikipedia articles on general medical issues. Instead of writing long papers that get thrown away, these students are generating meaningful information for millions of users!
  4. Give Students Freedom — Let students decide how to make the assignment valuable for themselves!

Even Better — Renewable Assignments

Perhaps the greatest way to prevent a project from ending in the trash is to make it renewable. This means licensing assignment materials under a Creative Commons license that enables others to share, reuse, and remix your work. Taking this simple step has the potential to magnify a single project’s impact exponentially.

For instructional designers out there interested in this idea, the Open Education group is currently accepting proposals for a grant involving the creation of renewable assignments. Learn more about it here.


Too much of students’ time is spent on projects and assignments that generate no real value. Let’s harness this power to bring real benefits to both students and the world.

To students: Find ways to make your assignments meaningful! Approach your teachers about how requirements could be adjusted to make the assignment more meaningful for your career.

To teachers: Start today by thinking of ways you can make your current assignments more valuable for students! Then consider how these projects can begin to have a greater impact on the world outside your classroom.

Have an idea for a non-disposable assignment? Share it below!