When Less is More, More or Less

shopping-listIn 2015, I wrote about asking too many questions in instructions for assignments. What I as the information-craving professor sees as helpful detail, the student sees as a tangled and confusing mess.

I still notice occasions where I fall into this bad habit, most recently in an assignment in two of my online graduate courses, in which students analyze peer-reviewed journal articles. The old instructions said that analyses should answer the following questions:

  • What is the dependent variable? In other words, what is the puzzle that the author is trying to explain? How does it vary? Is the variation puzzling?
  • How is the dependent variable measured? Are there alternative measures available (does the author refer to other work that uses a different method)? Does the measurement of the dependent variable pose a problem?
  • What are the independent variables? In other words, which factors or variables are posited to have an effect on the dependent variable?
  • What is the theoretical argument that links the independent variables to the dependent variable? How compelling is this argument? Is there a causal link between variables? Did the author choose the correct or even most important independent variables?
  • How does the author test his/her argument? What methods are used to determine the relationship between the dependent variable and the independent variables? Are there alternative methods available?
  • Is there an existing literature on the author’s puzzle? Is it sufficiently cited? How does the author’s argument differ from the existing literature?
  • What can you conclude from the author’s argument? Do you find the author’s findings compelling and convincing? What additional research would you undertake to confirm or refute the author’s research?

Unfortunately these instructions too frequently led to listicle-like writing rather than careful explorations of the published literature. I decided to condense the instructions to these questions:

  • What is the theoretical argument that links the independent variables to the dependent variables? In other words, what is the puzzle that the author is trying to explain and how does the author try to explain it?
  • How compelling is the author’s argument? What are its flaws and strengths?
  • How does the author’s argument differ from the existing literature?
  • What additional research would you undertake to confirm or refute the author’s research?

Still a lot of information for students to consider, but many fewer questions than before.

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