Pedagogical Defense: Avoiding Soul Crushing Writing Assignments

Recently I’ve been working on decoupling/narrowing what I expect in my writing assignments. For those of us who teach 70+ students at a shot and do not have TAs , the prospect of grading their papers is not only daunting…it is SOUL CRUSHING.

Even if their work is well-intentioned with good editing and citation, most undergraduate student work is still under development in nearly every area: structure, readability, sophistication of hypotheses, strength of argument, etc etc etc…

In prior courses I’ve laid out complex rubrics with several categories, points, and lots of very specific feedback. The net result was not only that I hated reading blah papers, but now I had tons of blah feedback to provide which tended to overwhelm and demoralize my students more than help.

This semester I’m trying a different tack with my first-year students: Two developmental criteria per paper ONLY, plus an invitation for creativity. The first criteria is to advance the some aspect of their writing’s quality of thought, the second, to advance one aspect of formatting, the third is to save my soul.

Example: My most recent assignment is an early attempt at synthesizing and discussing the work of more than one author. (Preparatory work for eventual literature reviews) PLUS…and remember this part…I don’t want to have my soul crushed trying to read them all. Note the areas where I’m trying to stop them from killing my soul.

Author Synthesis Assignment (see what I did there?)
Cocktail Party Script: (Soul Crush Avoidance Technique)

Imagine you’re at a cocktail party with three prominent scholars who have published research related to your question. (**Questions and sources were developed and vetted these in a prior class.) Write a script that details the conversation you would have with these authors.

Content: Your script must include…
1. Your question and why it is important
2. Each author’s research and insights and how they pertain to your question. NOTE: Accuracy and specificity get higher grades, vagueness and misinterpretation get lower values.
(Writing Development Emphasis)
3. Potential disagreements and agreements between each member in the party—including yourself.
4. Humor or Drama of some kind. (Soul Crush Avoidance Technique)

Formatting: Your script must focus on …
1. Careful attention to citation frequency, format, and accuracy. (choose any style you like but be consistent) (**Format Development Emphasis)

Dazzle me with your concision and creativity! No more than 6 pages. Focus on citation and accuracy. If you’re all freaked out about margins and font size you’re missing the point. 

I’ll post results next week. Wish me LUCK!

Where Did Your Stuff Come From?

Most American students are challenged to understand the extent to which international trade affects their lives, and the way that the US trades with the world. I can (and have) shown statistics about trade and economics in very graphic and immediate form, but numbers in the scale of trillions are hard to conceptualize.

To combat that, I asked students in an introductory international politics class to go on a scavenger hunt. They were tasked to find one item from each of 5 world regions – Europe, Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa, Middle East & North Africa, and Asia & the Pacific. They had to take a picture of the ‘made in’ indicator (and part of their student ID, to ensure that they didn’t just go grabbing stock photography or Instagram stuff) and post it to the class learning management system’s discussion board. To sweeten the pot, I offered 2 bonus points for unique entries, where no one else posted something from that country. Specialty foods and beverages were excluded (no taking a picture of a bottle of Stella for Belgium).

Students went crazy hunting for stuff. The two bonus points were apparently a huge incentive, with students finding and posting additional items when someone else duplicated “their” country.

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The Power of Unpublished Research: You Be the Reviewer

We want our students to learn to read critically and to interrogate and evaluate what they read. Does the author have the right data? Do the conclusions actually follow from the data? Are other explanations missing from the argument? That’s what we want them to ask themselves. A quick look at students’ notes from reading – if they even took any – reveal a totally different set of information, usually focused on the literature review and sometimes the theory. After all, this is the main textually-based body of an empirical paper, so it’s easiest for them to read.

Beyond steps we can take to teach students to read articles effectively (see my previous post on R&U and the Article Sort activity), I like to engage my intermediate and upper-level courses in an activity we call “You Be the Reviewer.” Students in all of my classes have already done the R&U activity and read (briefly) about the process papers go through to get published. So at some point in the term, I assign an unpublished article manuscript – often from a colleague or a conference paper pulled from the conference archives with author permission – and ask students to write a journal-style review, including a decision of whether the item should be published.

As support for this assignment, I distribute a handout like the one available here. It suggests some questions for students to consider, reminds them to check R&U for more guidance, and gives them a framework for writing a review. Typically, they are asked to post their reviews to the course learning management site and to bring a hard copy to class for reference. The resulting conversations have been far more in-depth and wide-ranging than anything else I’ve tried. At the end of the discussion, we collectively decide on the disposition of the article. Several classes – including a freshman-level intro course – have voted to reject manuscripts, though, as in the real world, R&Rs are the most common response.

While this activity obviously works better with upper-division classes, even lower-level students have enjoyed it and given very piercing feedback. For lower-level classes, qualitative research or very simple quantitative analysis works best. I normally compile the students’ feedback (copying particularly relevant bits from the CMS and pasting into a document) and send it to the author as thanks for sharing the manuscript. In an undergraduate methods class, I once was able to have the author come and give a (previously prepared) conference style presentation to the class on the manuscript they had reviewed. The author also took questions, so that the class had a model presentation to use in preparing their own as well as a chance to ask the author about research design decisions and practice giving useful feedback on research-in-progress before their own peer review process.

I’ve found that using a manuscript – an honest to goodness pre-publication, looks-like-it-was-written-in-Word-then-PDF’d manuscript – gets a far better reaction than published research. Students are reluctant to question or challenge work by ‘experts’ that’s already been vetted and published, but papers are a different matter.

Have you used unpublished research (other than your own) with your students? What was their reaction?

Binary Failure

kitten-fightAn example of the kind of assignment design that I mentioned in my last post about feature creep:

I have assigned three iterations of policy memos in this year’s iteration of my first-year seminar. Directions for the first memo are here. The memos are intended to function as authentic writing exercises — each has a specified purpose, audience, and format. The authenticity is supposed serve as a vehicle for stimulating students’ interest in the topic.

The memos require a small amount of creative problem-solving. First, each student chooses a policy recommendation that he or she prefers. Limited choice is always good because it generates mental investment in the outcome. Second, each student selects from information that I’ve provided to create a rationale for the policy recommendation, but this has to be done within the constraints of the memo’s format. There is a puzzle to solve. Continue reading

Teammate Evaluations, Revisited

Students in my courses do a lot of team-based projects. In an attempt to prevent free riders, I have teammates evaluate each other. This semester I have again modified the evaluation system a bit, with an unexpected result.fusball-table

For the past three semesters I’ve been using Google Forms to distribute and tabulate anonymous surveys in which students rank themselves and their teammates. The instructions on this survey:

Evaluate the performance of everyone on your team, including yourself, by ranking all members of your team with a different number. Each number can be used only once, otherwise your responses will be discarded. Assign the number 1 to the person who made the most valuable contribution to the project, the number 2 to the person who made the second most valuable contribution, etc. Only enter information for your team. Leave questions for other teams blank.

My explanation to students of how rankings translated into points — in this case, up to 40: Continue reading

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: Continue reading

What we tell our dissertation students

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via scienceblogs.com

We don’t usually write about dissertations on this site, partly because it’s not obviously an area ripe for discussions of active learning, and partly because we’re doing so many other things.

However, a capstone dissertation is often the single most important piece of work that a student undertakes: an opportunity to explore the subject as they see best, producing something (hopefully) akin to a research output.

Put like that, it’s obviously an instance of active learning, because they drive the entire process, with us taking a ‘supervisory’ role.

Now that I’m back in the ranks after my stint as Associate Dean, I’m getting to do more of this supervision, and it’s been a good refresher of what the most useful advice I can give might be.

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