I tried something a little different in a recent session in my senior-level seminar in Neurobiology. The class is based completely on the primary and secondary literature in the field. We read three to four articles each week and come together to discuss them in class. I’ve used a variety of group and whole class discussion techniques to keep things fresh and interesting. Some of my approaches are almost classic standards now, like the “jigsaw” technique. You can vary how you approach the “jigsaw”, but one common set-up is to form four groups of four students (or five groups of five, etc). In the first “formation” each group discusses one of the readings, sometimes guided by questions, sometimes bringing their own questions. Then, the groups dissolve into new groups of four, with one representative from each of the previous groups. Each individual reports on their group’s discussion and essentially teaches the new group members the important lessons from the reading.
In class recently, I tried something a little different. I had asked them to bring their laptops or iPads with them. Then, I formed small groups and asked each group to develop a power point slide that was a diagram of the main interactions among the assigned readings. The outcomes were like concept maps of sorts. In making their diagrams, they needed to go onto the library database and find a supporting additional article and integrate those findings into the map. Then, we viewed each slide and talked about the similarities and differences among the diagrams, as well as the new evidence each group found.
image from: https://www.sc.edu/about/offices_and_divisions/cte/teaching_resources/images/powerpoint_2013_logo.png
During the activity, the groups were animated and very focused on their maps. Each powerpoint slide was different from the next, but had some wonderful common themes.
One of the group’s slides!
Each week the students write a short “Commentary Paper” that reflects on the week’s discussion and the papers we read. The Commentaries help me assess the degree to which the students understand the work we did that week and how well they synthesize across weeks. This week those papers were focused, integrative and incorporated the new evidence each group found.
It was a fantastic class activity that I recommend you try out! If you’d like more info, feel free to comment on the blog site.
Instructors who are frustrated by student papers may find it helpful to take a fresh look at the assignments that prompted those papers. There are many strategies to help faculty develop assignment instructions in a way that facilitates good student response, and spending a little more time designing a writing assignment can pay dividends in terms of students meeting your expectations.
When creating writing assignments, or prompts, it is a good idea to start the process with the end goal in mind:
- What is it that you want students to demonstrate in a particular writing task?
- What will a successful student text look like?
- How is this writing assignment related to the course goals?
- How will you evaluate students’ work?
By answering these questions, you will be able to situate the writing task in a particular context for a particular purpose with a clear end goal in mind.
Once you have established what the writing task needs to accomplish, you can begin to think about what form the assignment may take:
- What kind of writing will students need to do to reach your goals? A traditional research paper? A series of journals? On-line discussions?
Decisions about the kind of writing then lead to questions about time and process:
- How many drafts will you allow? Will you comment on them all? Will there be peer review?
- What is a reasonable time frame from the moment students get the assignment to when they turn in a draft to be graded?
- Does the assignment require any work that may require extra time like going to the library or conducting an experiment?
When you are clear about what you want students to do and how long it will take them to do it, you are ready to write-up your instructions (the prompt).
It is always a good idea to give students a short description of what you are expecting for each writing assignment. Prompts, however, do not need to be complicated and lengthy. In fact, the most effective prompts are those that provide the necessary information without overwhelming students with details.
Effective prompts include:
- A specific description of what students are being asked to do. If you want students to write a research paper with an argumentative thesis, you need to tell them that is what you are looking for. Likewise, if you want students to report on some experimental findings without any editorializing, you should spell that out for them.
- A statement about citation system. If you want students to use a specific citation style (MLA, APA, CBE, etc., tell them at the beginning.
- Final length of project. If there are page requirements, state these clearly in the prompt.
- Any miscellany that will affect their grade. If you are a teacher who deducts a certain amount of points for comma splices, students need to be made aware of that up front. If you don’t want students to write in first person, make that clear.
Finally, spend some class time reviewing the prompt and answering questions.
Melissa Nicolas, 2011.
What do I want my students to learn, why, and how?
As you develop a write-to-learn assignment, consider the following questions:
1) Why do I want students to complete this assignment?
- What will students learn from this writing activity?
- What will I learn from their writing?
2) Why do I want students to complete this assignment at this point in the class?
- How will this assignment build on what I have already done in the class?
- How will it prepare students for future writing activities in the class?
- How might it prepare students for future writing assignments in or outside of/beyond college?
3) What have I done/do I need to do to prepare students for this assignment?
- Do students understand why I have assigned this writing activity?
- Does the assignment specify an audience?
- Have I allotted sufficient class time for discussion of this assignment?
- Has class discussion reflected the ambition and complexity of learning that the assignment requires?
- Do students have enough information to make effective choices as they write?
- Will it be useful and appropriate for students to see good examples of this assignment?
4) How do I want students to complete this assignment?
- Do I want students to work alone or in pairs/groups? (How does this decision fit with 1, 2, & 3 above?)
- Will they hand it to me, post it on Moodle, read in class, etc?
- Do I want other students to read this before class? If so, have I made the deadlines and guidelines clear?
- Have I allowed sufficient time for student to complete this assignment?
5) How will I incorporate this writing into the class to avoid the feel of “busy work”?
- See over for some suggestions, but there are many more!
- Be sure to vary the assignments and answer 1, 2, 3, and 4 above each time.
- Students learn by repetition, but two or three times is generally enough before the writing seems rote
6) What will I do with this completed assignment?
- Will I grade this piece of writing? If so, have I made my grading criteria clear to students?
- What kind of feedback will I give and how will it connect with 1, 2, & 3 above?
7) How/will this assignment contribute to the grade for the class?
- WTL assignments tend to be ungraded or “low stakes” assignments that feed into class discussion and help accomplish broader learning goals. Not all WTL assignments have to be ungraded, but the advantage of assigning at least some ungraded writing is, to quote the Penn State WAC program, that informal writing can “relieve obsession with surface correctness . . . [allowing students to] begin to see writing as a tool they can use, rather than as just an occasion for numerous small failures.” (Penn State Writing Across the Curriculum Program, “informal Writing”).One of our goals for the seminar.
Letter or Check-Plus, Check, Check -Minus Grades
- Some of you may prefer to grade some WTL assignments, in which case think about which ones it is most appropriate to grade and how you might explain to students what you expect. The benefit of √+, √, and √– “grades” is that they give the student a sense of improvement (or not) without carrying as much stress as letter grades. A student can be graded on the progress from √- to √+ (or the extent to which he or she tried to learn from previous assignments).
- Others may prefer to use “contract grades” where students receive a grade for the number of assignments completed with or without regard to quality (10 =A; 9 = A-; 8 = B+; 7 = B, etc)
- The principle of the portfolio is “collect, select, reflect.” A learning portfolio invites students to revisit the paragraphs and questions they wrote for a unit of the course and use selected examples to support an extended reflection on what and how the student learned. This can take the form of a narrative (see G-3 above) or a reflection where they summarize or describe (and quote from) a WTL assignment and then reflect on what it taught them, why they were pleased with that particular piece, how they might incorporate that strategy into their learning in the future, and so on.