Mascot for #DevilDiss

Mascot for #DevilDiss
Mascot for #DevilDiss

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Rethinking Student Papers and Projects

This past fall I taught an Early English Survey course. I made two key decisions with the course design. The first was that the course was designed thematically around the concept of monsters--- what defined them, how different time periods characterized people and places as monstrous, and what this revealed about the historical and cultural moment. I also allowed my students to choose to do a final project rather than a final paper. They had to come up with detailed criteria and describe it to me, but many chose this rather than a paper. Surprisingly those that wrote papers mentioned in their cover letters that they wanted to do a project but the paper was "easier."

I gave the same option in my Online Early Shakespeare class this spring, and again in my Online Shakespeare and Film Adaptation class this summer.

But Kevin Gannon's post about his Great Student Blogging experiment got me thinking about taking this a step further.

When we design our courses we all see the final paper or project as the culmination of a semester's worth of work. But I wonder, do our students? I stress in my low-stakes assignments that they are practice for larger papers but while we may see a throughline from one assignment to the next I don't know if our students do. This past semester I had a student tell me in the end of semester evaluation that the discussion boards were a waste of time. Others said those discussions helped them the most.

In the past I've also encouraged my students to choose a single topic or theme based on their interests or major to write on. They aren't tied to it, if they hate it after one paper, they can change it. But I think choice is really important to their engagement and the quality of their work.

But Kevin's post got me thinking. What would happen if I not only designed my course with a throughline from one assignment to the next but designed how they presented those assignments so that the throughline was clear? That they could "see" how each assignment built on the next?
If I take the same assignments I gave to my Online Early Shakespeare course and just shift how I present them and what products I would assess them on, how would this change my students' understanding?

Would they see how these build on each assignment that came before? Would writing to different genre conventions help them to internalize the skills and content?

In my classes I assign Critical Reading Responses. I provide supplementary scholarly readings each week. They have to do five. I encourage them to choose ones that will help them with their papers or are on topics they are interested in. I do this to expose them to scholarly conversations in the field but also as a low-stakes way of getting them to interact with and evaluate secondary sources.
I noticed this past semester though that because they followed the rhetorical precis model for the first paragraph they were journalistically and not parenthetically citing in their papers. This resulted in their argument getting buried or lost in a lot of cases. So I changed some language to the assignment now and we'll see how that works.

But what if instead of assigning or offering works they had to do one of these for a source used in their presentation? Two for their thematic paper? Two for their final? What if I present these assignments not as alone but as part and prep for these other assignments?

The more I think about it the more I really like this idea.

I think I'd like their first post to be a sort of K-W-L on their topic or theme. Why they are interested in it. What they already know about it. What preconceived ideas they have about it. What questions they had about it. This then becomes the research and exploratory platform for the rest of the semester.

Now, I have two initial questions I posed to Kevin. The first was I don't use WordPress so I am nervous about having students use a platform I don't. But I think I could easily transfer the tech skills if I asked them to use Blogger, which would dovetail nicely with my GoogleDoc obsessed world anyway. They can still play with embedding, and formatting, and some coding if they want but the tech wouldn't be prohibitive.
The other question I had was about students who may not feel comfortable publishing work online. And his answer was right on--- students can anonymously name a blog as long as I know who belongs to what. Also, because this has its basis in a more traditional course design I can always have leery students submit papers through our LMS. And I do still envision using my LMS for delivering content and the discussion boards.

So those are my initial thoughts, I'm sure I'll revisit them and reframe them. The one thing that jumps out is how to reframe the assignments in the course so that this pattern and design is clear to the students.
Would love to hear from others who have experimented with these types of changes either public scholarship for students, blogging, or moving to more project-based options.

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