Directory Assistance

Switchboard-operatorBack in October, I wrote about the importance of creating assignment directions that conform to learning outcomes. In one of my courses, directions for an assignment didn’t closely mirror an important learning outcome about methodology, which meant that students’ work could not be easily assessed.

Last year’s directions for the assignment:

  • How does the other author’s work fit with Abu-Lughod’s discussion of the eight regional subsystems (pages 33-38)?
  • Does the other author exhibit what Abu-Lughod refers to as “backward reasoning” (page 12)? Why?
  • Does the other author’s work reflect the problems of data or testimony discussed by Abu-Lughod? Why?

This year’s directions:

  • How does the other author’s argument and methods fit with Abu-Lughod’s discussion of the eight regional subsystems (pages 33-38)?
  • Do the other author’s methods exhibit what Abu-Lughod refers to as “backward reasoning” (page 12)? Why?
  • Do the other author’s methods or conclusions reflect the problems of data or testimony discussed by Abu-Lughod? Why?

I thought the altered wording was sufficient to connect the work students were doing for the assignment to the intended learning outcome, but as an added safeguard, I invited to class two faculty members in other academic disciplines to talk about the particular methods that they use.

Students recently submitted their work for the above assignment and a second, related assignment, and imagine my surprise when I saw that again most students did not identify or analyze authors’ methods. It finally dawned on me that students simply don’t understand what methods are. Things just happen, and questions just get answered, magically. The concept that the answers one gets can be affected by the tools one uses is alien to how they think about the world they experience.

Next year the directions for the assignment will include the following:

  • What is the evidence used by each author and where does it come from? Texts? Geography? Archaeological discoveries? Architecture? How does each author evaluate his or her evidence?

I’m hoping that the above, with some additional explicit in-class prodding from me, will solve the problem.

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