Some Tried and True Assignment Ideas

Some tried and true assignment ideas: Gloria Lalonde examines how a course that deals with promoting knowledge about social injustice can find space for the personal; Karen Ridd presents an experiential assignment that offers students a deeper understanding of class inequality.


Ensuring the personal does not get lost in our theoretical discussions

A project that I have assigned that has the potential to promote empathy involves having students conduct an interview with someone who has experienced some form of discrimination, writing a report on the interview, and presenting their report either to the whole class or within a small group in class.

 I have used this project in numerous courses.  Depending of the focus of the course, the types of discrimination that students could be looking for are those based on race, ethnicity, class, sexual orientation, gender, sex, age, or religion.

In the instructions for conducting an interview, students are encouraged to be sensitive to the person being interviewed, for example, by not forcing answers to questions, noting the respondent’s reactions and mood, and particularly watching for signs of discomfort.  This sensitivity is reinforced by requiring students to include a section in their written report where they describe their respondent’s reactions.  Students are also encouraged to be aware of their own reactions during the interview, and to write about these in their report.

I provide students with a preliminary set of possible questions to ask during the interview, but stress that a large part of the interview will probably consist of open-ended questions that will depend on the previous responses of the respondent.  This further encourages concentration on, and connection to, their respondent.

This project personalizes topics covered in the class for the students.  At the same time it gives an opportunity for students to relate the experiences, reactions, and opinions of their respondent to either theories, world views, and/or historical events covered in the course, and they are required to include a section of the written report where they make these connections.

Students are usually enthusiastic about this project, do it very well, and find it a positive experience.  They look forward to conducting the interview, take the writing of the report seriously, seeming to feel a responsibility to their respondent to be accurate and thorough, and they pay close attention to each other’s presentations.  The oral presentation provides yet another opportunity for students to be exposed to and reflect on others’ experiences with inequality.


Gloria Lalonde

Humanities, Dawson College

The Bag Exercise 


  • Give participants a quick experience of rank and privilege, especially economic class

TIME: 10 minutes explanation and play. De-brief can take up to an hour, depending on facilitation purposes.

SPECIAL MATERIALS: Brown paper lunch bags, enough for one for each participant. Packages of small multi-coloured candies (Skittles, M&Ms, Smarties, Goodies, JuJubes, Jelly Beans). 4 larger wrapped chocolates, or 4 mini chocolate bars). Mixed variety of prizes, enough for half the participants (big bag of Chips, large chocolate bar, T-Shirt from your drawer that you no longer use, can of dog food, book off your shelf that you no longer need, ugly knickknack that someone gave you years ago. It is important that the prizes should differ in relative value, so that later prize-winners have less choice and get “worse” prizes.

PREPARATION: Mark the outside of the bags. For a group of 20, give 2 bags a yellow star, 3 bags brown squares and the reminder a green triangle. These markings make it easier to fill the bags, and ensure that the facilitator knows who got which type of bag. Fill bags.
Brown Bags: Leave one bag empty. Put one small candy in the other bag, making sure that it unlike any other candy in the room.
Green Bags: Put 3 or 4 candies in each bag, varying in colour and type, but ensuring that there are other candies of same colour and type in the room.
Yellow Bags: Put the four chocolates in one bag

Put all the extra candies in the other bag, so that it is large and full.

Tell participants that the goal of this exercise is to get four candies of the same colour and type (for instance, 4 blue Smarties). They will be able to talk during this exercise. Once they have got the four identical candies, they are to come to the front of the room and choose a prize. Ostentatiously display the prizes and show off each one to the group. Ask if there are questions. Give out the bags, asking people not to look into them. I give out the bags randomly, with one exception: if there is someone who is really marginalized in the room, I ensure that they do not get one of the brown bags – that just increases their sense of victimization and isolation. Say “Go” – and people start to trade/cooperate/steal to get the required 4 identical candies. give out prizes as people come forward, being sure to call out their victory loudly (and so put pressure on others)

Possible de-brief questions:
* How are you feeling?
* What happened in the exercise?
* What gave some people more power than others in this game? What gives some people more power than others in life? (de-brief on rank and privilege)
* What links do you see to real life?

Trends to expect: people with brown bags often “opt out” of exercise. People with yellow bags get their first, and then may think about charity. People with less in their bags notice the disparity in bags, people with more in their bags don’t notice the disparity.

Karen Ridd.

Menno Simons College, University of Winnipeg


You will find Karen’s bag exercise, as well as many other examples of experiential pedagogy designed to promote social justice and nonviolence at

You will also find links to other useful website resources on our Inspiring Solutions/Best Practices page and curriculum ideas, many which focus on fostering empathy, throughout our Inspiring Solutions/Across the Disciplines pages.



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