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.

The results of the first memo are evidence of two educational fails, one mine, one the students’. My failure was assuming that students understood the difference between a U.S. military intervention — establishing physical control of territory through armed force — and supplying aid to a government from afar, with no boots on the ground. Eighteen-year-olds from a country that’s been at war for nearly their entire lives are sadly not familiar with this distinction.

The students’ failure involved something that’s a bit more distressing, because it reflects an inability to evaluate how one is using information rather than an absence of information. The guidelines for the memo specify that each subsection should lead with a sentence that lays out that subsection’s most important point. Many students instead put a collection of descriptive sentences in each subsection, with the lede either buried or entirely absent. Since writing is a way of thinking, this indicates to me that students don’t know what kind of information is most relevant to their arguments.