During the first class I attended, every student was given the opportunity to discuss her writing project, her progress, and the obstacles she faced. You spoke to each student individually, but the discussion included the entire class. This struck me as an effective tactic. First, the problems that each student discussed were relevant to other students and to their own projects. The overlapping issues kept the entire class engaged. Not only did this exercise hold students accountable for their progress and efficiently deal with writing difficulties, it communicated the significance of the writing project to the students.
This is the type of thing I would like to help foster in the Capstone class. Perhaps the most important idea to communicate to science students faced with a writing assignment is the value of the assignment. If students do not see the value in the essay, it becomes just another obstacle to overcome. With that in mind, I've developed suggestions to invite more of a culture of writing into the course without adding much work to you or without imposing on the other valuable assignments like the various presentations.
Ideas for revising the class:
First, I noticed that you already do an excellent job with the research aspect of the essay. Your student presentations reflected this. The strongest presentations I observed demonstrated how well-informed the students were. Keeping in mind how well you teach the research aspect of the project, my comments drift away from research and toward the process of writing the essay.
A good starting point for the students' research essay writing process would be a formal proposal addressing the topic of the capstone project. As academics (or anyone fishing for a grant) learn early in their career, proposals are useful rhetorical tools. Proposal writing is fairly formulaic and therefore easy for students to grasp. Students could write a two-to-three paragraph proposal that introduces the topic, provides a suitable amount of background information on the topic, elucidates the problem to be solved, and articulates the purpose of the study they seek to engage in.
This assignment would compel students to engage with the first few questions you list in your prompt for the term paper. Ideally, the proposal would serve as the rough draft for the introductory paragraphs of the term paper, as well. It may help to shift the responsibility for grading the proposals to your students. To do this, you simply provide the class with a rubric, collect the proposals, and redistribute them to students in another part of the classroom, and have the students assign the proposal a grade. This keeps the assignment from adding to your workload. It also allows students to confront the expectations of the term paper early in the semester.
Because there is such a focus on research and peer-reviewed articles, you could assign an annotated bibliography to students in which they collect somewhere between ten and twelve articles addressing their topics. They format the sources as one would a "Work Cited" page. Underneath each citation, they would write a fifteen-to-twenty-five word summary of the information the source provides and their reason for including it in their research.
Further, by allowing students to revise their proposals as the introduction to their term papers and by expecting them to use the sources in their annotated bibliography in the body of their work, the term paper becomes a process that they work through gradually over time (rather than, as is all-too-common, racing through it all in the course of a few days). The creation of the outline on top of this should take away some of the intimidation of writing a long essay. By the end of these three assignments, they no longer have to worry about how to get started or where. They've already gotten started.
I noticed that you gave students an extra week on their essays. This flexibility on deadlines gave me an idea. Perhaps, instead of giving an extra week before students hand in their essays, you require them to hand them in on the original due date. On that day, you engage in guided peer editing. During the peer editing, students will be assigned a partner (I suggest pairing students with classmates who are not necessarily their friends because we tend to feel less comfortable critiquing our friends than we do critiquing those whom we don't know as well). Each student will read her partner's essay. She will make various notes and markings on the essay. When she and her partner are finished reading and marking on each other's essays, they will discuss their comments with each other. Much more can be communicated verbally than in writing, so this discussion should be taken seriously. Depending on how much class time you have for this type of peer editing, students could seek a second opinion. If you'd like them to seek a second opinion, but do not have enough class time to do so, you could assign it as homework. Students would then have the extra week to revise their essays. Of course, they should be required to revise. You can ensure they do by requiring students to hand in both drafts.
By having peer editing rather than simply pushing the deadline back a week, students would still have an extra week to work on their essays, but they would be forced to work both weeks to write the essay, rather than have a week furlough during which they probably will not focus much on the term paper. I suggest not telling students that you will be engaging in peer editing. If they know that only their classmate will read their work, they tend to think of it as a rough draft. Peer editing works much better when they edit complete essays. It also largely mirrors the academic process of getting articles published (because, in most cases, scholars find at least one peer to work on an article prior to publication).
Below, I've written guidelines and activities that you can provide your students during the peer editing process.
Instructions: Answer the following questions and engage in the following activities.
- Does the essay meet the minimum length, formatting, and stylistic requirements of the assignment?
- Evaluate the introduction. Does it clearly state the purpose of the essay, identify the main points of the essay, and help the reader focus on the topic?
- Circle the one sentence that articulates the main point of the essay.
- Is there a smooth transition between paragraphs? Place a start between paragraphs that have a smooth, clear transition. Place a question make between paragraphs that have a poor, confusing or abrupt transition.
- Bracket any sentences that are hard to read or comprehend.
- In the margin beside each paragraph, identify the topic and purpose of each paragraph. (This can be just a word or two in the margins.)
- Identify the sources. Does the information come from peer-reviewed articles?
- Is it clear how each citation contributes to the text?
- By the end of the paper, do you think the relationship of each paragraph to the thesis statement and purpose of the essay has been logically developed and clearly explained?
- Does the paper end with a clearly stated and justified conclusion?