Notes from the VisCom Classroom: Crafting Course Assignments

One of the most challenging things about teaching is crafting course assignments. A good assignment must meet several requirements. First, it must engage the students and give them something interesting to do. Second, it must build on previous assignments and lay the groundwork for future ones. Third, it must produce a result that can be evaluated. And fourth, it must further the course’s learning objectives.

When I taught photography and other courses in the past, I usually came up with assignments based on the textbook or on what I thought the students should be required to learn. In other words, if I was teaching a beginning photography course, I would include an assignment to familiarize the students with their camera, an assignment devoted to composition, another on photographing people, and so forth. Although there is nothing wrong with this approach per se, I am in the process of retooling my assignments to see if I can make them more effective.

Learning Outcomes

Here at the University of South Carolina’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication, we recently adopted a set of school-wide learning outcomes that apply to all of our courses. These learning outcomes are reflected in the following suggested language to be included in our syllabi:

  • Demonstrate the ability to conduct research, gather information, write clearly and correctly, and present relevant news or persuasive information at a professional level.
  • Think critically, creatively, and independently; evaluate their own work and the work of others for accuracy, fairness, clarity, style, and correctness.
  • Understand the history of journalism and mass communications, the diversity of groups in a global society in relationship to communications, and the role of journalism and mass communications in society.
  • Understand the ethical concepts, legal implications, considerations, and practices that guide the mass media professions.
  • Demonstrate the ability to apply tools and technologies appropriate for the production, editing and presentation of visual, aural, textual, or other media content.
  • Apply basic numerical and statistical concepts and methods appropriate for the communications professions.

For my Advanced Photovisual Communications course, I chose to incorporate the appropriate school-wide learning outcomes while also adding course-specific outcomes that I developed in consultation with other faculty in the Visual Communications sequence:

  • Create portfolio-quality photographs and audio slide shows that demonstrate technical and artistic mastery of the medium.
  • Control all aspects of photography, including image capture, lighting, composition, subject matter, and presentation/usage.
  • Become proficient in using the storytelling power of photographs, specifically in environmental portraits, journalistic photographs, photo essays, and audio slide shows.
  • Understand the various ways visual-communication professionals analyze, evaluate, and critique photographs.

Narrowing the Range of Assignments

Having these learning outcomes helped me narrow down the range of all possible assignments to those that will most effectively help my students succeed in meeting our course goals. The process is one of brainstorming: get a lot of ideas on the table, and then pick the ones that will be both effective and feasible.

For example, I believe that learning about light and lighting is essential for any photographer who wants to create portfolio-quality images and elevate their skills to a higher level. It follows, therefore, that early in the semester we should have several assignments whose goal is to teach the students about light and lighting. Following the lead of one of my colleagues, Dr. Keith Kenney, who also teaches this course, I have made the first two assignments about light and lighting: the first is a natural-light portrait, and the second is an artificial light portrait.

Once the students have tried their hand at different types of lighting, we introduce the storytelling aspect of photography in the form of an environmental portrait: can you tell me the essential details or characteristics of a person in a single shot? If brevity is the soul of wit, how witty can you be?

Of course, the students must use what they learned in the previous two assignments, so their environmental portrait must be lit to enhance the nature of the story they are trying to tell. No assignment stands alone; each builds on the next. Along the way, we are spending time critiquing the work, so students are developing visual literacy—the art of communicating in the language of visual images.

After the environmental portrait comes the photo essay — telling a story with multiple images. Dr. Kenney has had good luck assigning his students to shadow their subject for no less than three hours, which seems to me a great idea — so I am anxious to see how it works with my students.

There are several benefits to this mini-day-in-the-life approach. First, it should encourage the students to make lots and lots of images, something that, for some reason, they are often reluctant to do. Second, it may help my students understand the difference between being a snapshooter and being a professional photographer (although I rarely got three hours with any of my subjects, except when I photographed sports). And third, they may come up with the kind of intimate pictures often prized by photo editors.

Portfolio Plays a Role

Because one of the learning outcomes is to produce a variety of high-quality images that the students can use in their senior portfolios, we include a sports assignment and a product shot or photo-illustration during the semester.

Shooting sports — and they needn’t be the traditional “round-ball” sports — is valuable for many reasons: you must be proficient with your equipment, including long lenses; you need to be aware of both action and reaction; you must learn to accept not being in control of either the shooting environment or your subjects; and you need to work cooperatively with other members of the mass media.

Product photography or photo-illustration is nearly the mirror opposite of sports: you control everything, down to the smallest detail; you need to plan carefully and work slowly and methodically; and you need to be the art director as well as the photographer, which means bringing to bear the design skills learned in other courses.

Final Project, Final Cut

The final project for our course is an audio slide show, combining images and sound to tell a story. The students will come up with a concept, create a script and/or storyboard, shoot the images, record the audio (with a prohibition against using copyrighted music), and edit the project using Final Cut Pro. This final project will draw on all the skills and techniques the students have learned throughout the semester, and also pave the way for those who want to take our Videography for Mass Communications course, which uses Final Cut Pro as the video-editing software.

If video and multimedia are indeed the way of the future, I want my students to get a leg up on the competition when it comes time to demonstrate their visual literacy and their mastery of visual communications — in a job interview, for example. Tying our assignments to the course learning outcomes seems to be an effective way to help my students succeed and goes to the heart of what we are trying to teach in our school.

I plan to write a future column on how I evaluate these assignments once they come due. And as always, I look forward to your comments and suggestions!

3 Responses to “Notes from the VisCom Classroom: Crafting Course Assignments”

  1. David, what is the "best" book on visual communication you recommend? Frank Baker, media educator, Columbia SC

  2. Hi Frank! Thanks for your reply to my Black Star Rising Column. In Intro to Visual Communications, we use “Graphic Communications Today,” by Wm. Ryan and Theodore Conover. For Advanced Photovisual Communications, I’m using Ken Kobre’s “Photojournalism: The Professionals’ Approach.” Both are beautiful books, lavishly illustrated and superbly designed.

  3. You may want to consider "After Photography" by Fred Ritchin.

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