Educators: Do Compare/Contrast assignments flummox your students?

It’s a phenomena I’ve noticed everywhere I work. I’m sure at every school there are some students who nail these and most other assignments, but every one I’ve worked at seems to have the same students who are just completely flabbergasted by any compare/contrast assignments. It doesn’t even matter the topic of the assignment is “Compare/contrast the marketing strategies and segmentation of Lowe’s, Home Depot, and Office Depot” or “personality development theories of Horney, Jung, and Skinner” or “poems of Langston Hughes, Longfellow, and Frost”, unless I can find articles or books that specifically do just exactly that they seem lost. I can give them information all day long on “this is the marketing strategy and segmentation analysis for Lowes, and this is the same for the other two stores”, or sources on each one of the three poets or each psychologists, or two illness/treatments or two minerals, whatever, there are going to be several students who seem absolutely lost in how to mine the info and compare contrast it unless it is explicitly spelled out for them.

I’m a librarian, but I’ve talked to the professors about this and they confirmed that yes, they have a hard time explaining “I don’t want to hear that the presidency of George Washington and the presidency of Thomas Jefferson both lasted 8 years and then a bunch of random and unrelated facts about each one”, or “copper’s a metal and so is mercury kinda”. I was curious if this was just a problem in southern colleges or if it’s more national and if it’s because they don’t have these assignments in the high schools or if they’re just lazy or, what exactly.

I know in an examination setting that these type of questions are difficult to answer because they lack structure, and weaker students will be lost before they begin. When I was an undergraduate I sat finals papers that actually had questions like ‘compare and contrast the chemistry of zinc and cadmium’. I now teach undergrad chemistry and questions like this would not get past our examination boards. A lot of thought goes into the layering and structure of an exam question, particularly a finals level one, and something like a general compare / contrast doesn’t come close to meeting the requirements we have for a good question.

I generally bemoan the increasingly perscriptive education we are offering students at UK unviersities, were everything is compartmentalised and squared away into discrete, extremely well-defined chunks of learning. Almost like there is an inherent unfairness in asking students questions that they may not know the answer to, and we are being asked to right this injustice. However, dispensing with excessively broad questions like those in the OP is not part of the problem.
The compare / contrast idea is obviously fundamental to teaching and learning in general, but it is a poor way of formally examining students. Compare the chemistry of zinc and cadmium is an unfocussed, useless question to set on an undergrad examination that will produce wildly differing set of answers with no standardisation or quality control. It most probably reflects a lazy-arse lecturer who cannot be bothered thinking up a real question to set.

Since they’re going to the library, I’m guessing that these are report assignments rather than test questions. For a class that’s teaching the analysis of something (marketing strategies, poetry, whatever) it would be a fair report. That said, I can’t remember ever being given such an assignment. It’s been awhile, but the closest I can remember were engineering design group reports, where we had to develop three possible designs and then justify the one design chosen as the best one.

I’ll ask the few folks I know who are in college and get back to you.

Speaking from a former-student’s point of view (and I was a very good student), I absolutely despised those sorts of questions. It was less that they flummoxed me and more that they frustrated the hell out of me.

I can rationally see them as an attempt at getting students to do something other than simply regurgitating facts. However, to me, they most often felt like a trap. Most often, those loathsome compare/contrast questions felt like they were looking for a specific line of reasoning, but didn’t provide any clues as to what line of reasoning that might be.

I vividly recall getting questions like “Compare/contrast the philosophies and impact of the writings of Thomas Aquinas and Augustine of Hippo.”

And then you’d be sitting there thinking to yourself “compare and contrast them how, precisely?” It’d be pretty clear that the prof was looking for something in particular he or she wanted you to focus on, but the question itself would be so maddeningly vague that it was nearly impossible to be sure what that something might possibly be. Their varying impact on later thinkers? Their socio-economic situations and how that impacted their respective societies? The ways in which their thought shaped modern Christianity? You kind of wanted to scream at the paper “WHAT DO YOU WANT?!?”

Allow me to gently suggest an element of confirmation bias, as well. I’ve never needed a librarian’s help doing research, nor have I found these kinds of assignments particularly difficult. I bet there’s a pretty strong connection there.

I’ve never had problems with compare/contrast. I actually liked them because I could usually discuss whichever aspects of the two works I knew best. I majored in sociology, so it was usually comparing different studies. I figured as long as I argued my case properly in my writing, without more specifics from the prompt, I’m free to come to my conclusions.

Then why are they asking the student to compare them? If that wasn’t the type of similarity they wanted then they need to say something to that effect. My professors would usually add, “Be sure to address issues X, Y, and Z.”

I used to enjoy the compare and contrast questions - they were (relatively) easy to score in.

Besides, it was the only time a teacher every asked me to PEE in class…

yes you heard me right, PEE

(Point, evidence, explain)

Oh, the really smart ones are the ones who ask anyway. God, when I think of what I could have done if I’d asked a damned reference librarian a time or two…

But yes, I’ve noticed that my patrons, as well, are often completely lost when asked to do anything but regurgitate. Sure, the ones who ask me are mostly the dumb ones. (The smart ones start out with “I’ve already read this and this and this and this. I need primary sources, like, on microfilm? I don’t know how to find those.”) I also have massive, MASSIVE trouble helping patrons who come up and spit a lump of Assigned Topic in my face, which they clearly do not understand at all. I ask them what specifically they want to research and they look at me like I grew two extra heads and they say the same thing again. I ask them if there’s an aspect of whatever that they want to look into and I get the Magic Phrase a third time. They’re also completely incapable of thinking of other ways to search for topics - if the words the professor wrote don’t make anything come up in Ebsco it never occurs to them to try other ones.

Sorry, it’s just very frustrating. But yes, I see a disproportionate number of students of all levels struggling with compare and contrast assignments, and I think it’s because they have no idea how to actually think. I’m sure they have smarter classmates, but I’m also sure that there’s a lot of them at sea on the “thinking for yourself” front. I blame television and teaching to the test.