Apples and Oranges

Here is another post on the importance of crafting assignments that explicitly correspond to desired learning outcomes:

ApplesOne of our interdisciplinary majors requires that students take a sophomore-level comparative politics course. I’m the person who teaches the course. The major specifies that the course should include the following learning outcomes:

  • Apply an interdisciplinary research methodology to understanding and addressing contemporary global issues.
  • Analyze multiple value-based approaches to solving contemporary global problems.
  • Formulate a response to contemporary global problems incorporating multiple value based perspectives.

In addition to redesigning the course’s architecture into four themes across five geographic regions, I’ve had to give some serious thought about how course assignments conform to these learning outcomes.

The four themes qualify as “contemporary global problems.” I created two  assignments worthy of being used for assessment, theme essays and reflections on political culture. Each student has to write two theme essays, but the essays have to be on geographic regions for which books are assigned in the student’s theme. For some regions and themes, I’ve assigned journal articles rather than books, and I was more concerned with students reading and writing about the books, because they are more complex.

The directions for the essays state that students should “analyze how the methods and arguments used by different authors can be used to explain a central problem” related to the theme under study. For example, for the revolution theme and the region of Latin America, a possible essay topic is “Why do revolutions occur in some Latin American societies and not others? How do different scholars construct an answer to this question?”

For the political culture reflections, students write about each of the five geographic regions. Directions for the reflections tell students to write on the following questions:

  • How does culture affect the development of personal identity and social relationships between individuals—within the same culture and/or across different cultures?
  • How does culture affect political institutions and forms of political participation in a particular location? Why do institutions and participation differ from place to place?

I’ve noticed that there are two problems with my instructions for these assignments. First, students get confused about being able to choose, to a limited degree, which regions they can write about for their theme essays. Second, and more importantly, I’ve found that students’ written work often doesn’t closely reflect the learning outcomes, which complicates assessment. The assignments aren’t producing the necessary kind of student work.

I’ve decided that when I teach the course next year, I’ll streamline things by simply requiring that students write essays on all five of the geographic regions instead of just two, and dispense with the separate reflection essays. The directions that I’ve fashioned now say that each new essay should explore two subjects:

  • How do the authors listed in the syllabus use evidence to explain a central problem related to your theme? For example, for the revolution theme, the problem might be “Why do revolutions occur in some societies and not others?” What is the evidence used by these authors? Where does it come from? Texts? Geography? Archaeological discoveries? Architecture? How was the evidence collected? How does the evidence and the way in which it was interpreted affect how the authors construct answers to your question?”
  • Given the evidence presented by these authors, how does culture affect relationships between individuals, in terms of the ways in which they participate in politics and in how political institutions operate? Does culture explain why these relationships – as demonstrated by the ways in which political participation and institutions  – vary from place to place? If so, how?

These directions, at least for me, are more clearly connected to the learning outcomes, though they are still very much a work in progress. I’m open to any suggestions. You might be wondering why I’m not inserting the learning outcomes verbatim into assignment directions.  As I describe in the link at the top of this post, students don’t have the vocabulary in many cases to understand precisely what the learning outcomes mean. Maybe that is a problem in itself, but I’m not going to try to solve it right now.

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