The problems to address:
Student writings contained too much summary and not enough analysis or critical thinking
The purposes behind the writing needed to be articulated
A coherent link needed to be established between class work and the writing assignment
A more clear cut prompt needed to be created
A more efficient means of assessment needed to be established
Purposes behind writing:
Through a few discussions, we articulated some of the main purposes behind giving the writing assignment. They are as follows:
- "To explode fixed knowledge.” That is, to have students read less passively. A reading assignment for students should lead them to weighing and considering the information presented rather than simply absorbing it. Writing helps in the weighing and considering. A well-constructed writing assignment affords students the opportunity to question the timeliness of the information presented, the efficacies of the studies presented, the controls undertaken in the study, the statistical significance of the date presented, etc.
- To articulate these ideas. One of the most difficult tasks in abstract thinking is taking those abstract thoughts and translating them into language that is understandable to others. A primary concept behind scientific thinking is that results are repeatable: any scientist could replicate an experiment and garner the same results. To facilitate this process, students need to better translate their abstract thoughts into words that can be shared with the scientific community.
- To actively engage with the information of the course. Writing forces students to not only read the information presented, but read it, think about it, and come to class prepared not only with thoughts for discussion but with a written prompt to foster discussion.
The syllabus provides an excellent writing prompt, though it is somewhat buried under the heading “Literature Articles.” It is helpful to directly address this prompt in class as it clarifies expectations for the assignment.
Students frequently lean too much on summary in short writing assignments that engage with any form of literature, in part because this is what they are trained to do in secondary school. Part of the goal in reconstructing this assignment is to move away from summary.
One problem we may be facing lies in the writing model presented to the students. This model is primarily summary. The first step would be to revise the model in a very structured way. Much of the first and last paragraphs of the model can be trimmed, and the second paragraph can suffice to summarize the article. Two new paragraphs could be written following the summary. The first new paragraph would tie the information in the article into ongoing class discussion. The second new paragraph would question some of the information in the article. Questions could be as open as an inquiry into the developments in the field since the article was written in 1996.
This revised model could establish a structure for all the writing assignments. This structure could be communicated to students as a three paragraph essay. The first paragraph summarizes the article. The second paragraph relates the information in the article to class discussions. The third paragraph provides critical analysis.
We also discussed the possibility of having more guided assignments for the first three or four writing assignments. For instance, students could be asked to question the timeliness of the information in one article, look for alternative interpretations in another article, examine the methodology in another article, etc. Hopefully, after a few assignments, the guidance would fade and students would feel empowered to think critically about the article on their own.
When I observed the class, I noticed two things that I want to address.
First, you spend time discussing reading techniques. This seems incredibly helpful to students. You provided them with a strategy to employ when reading difficult material. You also gave them a list of questions about the Edison article that outline basically the skills needed to read critically. This is the crucial first step in writing critically.
Second, I noticed how well students worked in groups. The students maintained a focused discussion for longer than I have seen students typically maintain focus. As group work developed, the students helped each other through the more difficult ideas in the article and seemed to gain the confidence necessary to critically question the article.
Noticing these two aspects, and keeping in mind that previous attempts at peer-editing have not yielded the desired results, I developed an idea for a new approach to this writing assignment.
Suggestions for the new assignment:
First, since the students work so well in groups, I suggest them engaging with the writing assignment in groups. Students could bring their writing assignment to class with them. In pairs or groups of three, those who have brought their writing could read the assignment aloud to the group. This could be used to spark discussion about both the article in question and the students’ responses to the article. The subsequent discussion could replace peer review by allowing the students to discuss their writing, clarify their thoughts, and make notes for revision.
After class, students would revise their assignment based upon the suggestions bred from group work. The revised assignments could then be posted in Discussion Board in Blackboard.
My understanding is that students are required to hand in a total of ten writing assignments over thirteen weeks. This means that, for three weeks students won’t have a writing assignment due. This affords some flexibility in group work, as every student won’t have a writing response every class. Nonetheless, I would suggest that writing assignments be due one week after the reading assignment. By “due,” I mean they must be posted in Blackboard one week after the class discusses the reading.
Once the assignment has been posted to Blackboard, one of the student’s classmates will be assigned to grade it. This assignment can be done randomly (everyone pulls a name out of a hat), or using the roster. The first student alphabetically grades the writing of the second student alphabetically, she grades the writing of the third, etc. Since the writer will not be allowed to revise after the assignment is posted, written comments are unnecessary. A simple letter grade should suffice.
A rubric would need to be developed, as well. You could write the rubric, or you could assign the students to grade a couple of assignments, and after they’ve had time to establish a grading criteria in their minds, you could spend five minutes of class time having the students establish the rubric.
Either way, having the students grade each other’s assignments will afford the students another opportunity of reviewing the information and thinking critically about it. It will also save the instructor a fair amount of grading time that could be better spent. Since the writing assignments total twenty percent of the grade (making each individual assignment about 2% of the grade), the grades students give each other isn’t too statistically significant.
You’re doing a great job. I think this writing assignment is important in helping students develop critical reading and writing strategies that are essential to being a critical thinker and effective scholar in the sciences. Based on the way you set up the class, I assume that the students ability to engage with information in their field will improve a great deal over the course of the semester.