The Syllabus:

Grades in this class are divided equally among five areas: exams, a major paper, participation, attendance, and quizzes. Virgil is interested in strengthening students’ performance on the paper. The purpose of the paper is to “demonstrate the ability to write utilizing the standards of the discipline.” It is listed as a mid-range (4-5 page) paper, though in practice it typically runs about 7 pages. The assignment is to write a review of the literature on a topic of the student’s choosing, within a range that relates to the history of psychology.

The following “checkpoints” are already included in the syllabus:

  1. A library literacy session in week 2 of class.
  2. A one page proposal due week 5 in class.
  3. A second library session is scheduled approximately week 6.
  4. Students may turn the paper in to the professor early (up to week 12) for feedback.
  5. Papers due week 15 in class.

The syllabus notes that reading is extensive in this class and recommends that students use a formal reading method such as SQ3R (Survey, question, Read, Recite, Review). A helpful handout at the end of the syllabus walks students through this process.

Virgil’s assessment of writing in his class:

The paper is designed to fit specific needs in the psychology program: to teach students how to write a literature review using APA format. This is a necessary skill for many upper division classes as well as graduate school.

To reduce students’ overdependence on paraphrase and unintentional plagiarism of sources, Virgil requires a citation for every sentence other than topic sentences or conclusions. He allows students to use each citation a maximum of three times and disallows any source used more than twice in a row.

The class has a wide range of students enrolled; they exhibit the full gamut of skills ranging from those who can read, analyze and write independently to those who do not know what a literature review is or how to go about writing one. Procrastination is a problem; the addition of a second library session has helped. Another significant problem includes students’ unfamiliarity with APA format (some students apply MLA instead, or misunderstand how in-text citations work, or confuse formatting issues).

Virgil uses a rubric that he gives to students ahead of time; however, he says few students appear to use the rubric to guide their papers.


Virgil’s approach to the paper is strong and positive—he is guided by a focused objective that is closely tied to the course objectives and needs in the program. He has responded to previous problems by adding a second library session after the proposal is completed, which librarians tell him has cut down on the number of students who wait until the last minute to locate and read their sources. He has already been considering other ways to improve the results, including collaborative exercises. This is commendable particularly with the large numbers in the classes he teaches (60 and 30).

I am excited to see writing happening in this course. My sense from talking with Virgil and from prior experience teaching students how to write literature reviews is that students likely need support in the following 4 areas:

  1. Understanding the concept of a literature review—what it is, why it’s used, how it is constructed, what will be assessed in their assignment.
  2. Identifying what is different about APA compared to MLA.
  3. Keeping up with sources over time and identifying emerging trends in the readings.
  4. Guidance on the developing paper—a chance to check understandings and get feedback on a work in progress.

Suggestions follow for each, though not all may be a good fit for Virgil’s course or his teaching style. We can work together to select and adapt strategies for this course. I’m going to address this section to you specifically to make it more user-friendly.

1. Understanding the concept of a literature review

  • Give students a conceptual overview of a literature review. I suggest they listen to the presentation at this website: Ideally you can view this in class and then stop it periodically to discuss it. However, if it takes too much class time, students can watch it for homework and then you can discuss highlights in class.
  • Model a literature review for them. Assign the students to read an article that relates to your topic for the week (somewhere in weeks 1-5 would be good). After you discuss the content, project the article on your screen (or ideally on a white board) and with their help, circle, underline, or point to the parts of the lit review. Ask them to identify the in-text citations (in varied forms), the subheadings, the citations after nearly every sentence, the structure, etc.  This kind of explicit attention to form and structure can be very helpful to students unfamiliar with the genre. In a less effective way, the APA guide does this kind of structural analysis with the student models.
  • Provide the students with a copy of the rubric that’s a full page, including a description or set of questions after each category, so they know exactly what you’re looking for. Ideally they can apply this rubric to the lit review you look at in class. When a draft is due, have them use the rubric to assess their own progress.

2. Identifying what is different about APA compared to MLA

  • Talk with students about the meaning behind the APA format. For example, why provide an abstract? What does that do? Why cite articles in-text by author and date rather than by title? The values that these formats reveal (such as a priority on currency of the article) help students to understand the discipline better and remember the format.
  • Provide students with a handout that shows them the relationship between the format they learned in high school (MLA, in most cases) and the one you’re teaching (APA). A side-by-side comparison is available in the resources section of this site.
  • Toward the end of the semester, ask students to bring in their drafts complete with reference lists. Pair them up and ask them to trade papers and take 10 minutes to read them only for formatting. (It will help if they bring their APA manual with them or if you review key points just prior to this activity). This is where I see the most “Aha” moments happen.

3. Keeping up with sources over time and identifying emerging trends in the readings

  • Your decision to have students write annotated bibliographies of their readings biweekly—and bring them to class to share before the lecture—was very effective in helping students keep up with their reading.
  • Providing a model or two of the annotated bibliography is helpful, as it turns out that many students do not know how to write one.
  • Having students meet with the same group each time helps them to become familiar with their partners’ topics and thus become better responders over time.

4. Guidance on the developing paper—a chance to check understandings and get feedback on a work in progress

  • The transition from annotated bibliographies on individual articles to a literature review is daunting for many students, so any help they can get on the process is positive. Discussing how you write a lit review is a helpful model—especially if you still have notes from college or sample organizers or drafts that you used in writing one—so they can see the process.
  • In the resources section on this website there is a handout with instructions for students that walks them explicitly through the process.
  • Scaffolding the due dates so that students have pieces of the project due over time (such as a full draft due two class sessions prior to the final due date) helps foil procrastination.
  • Even including a “questions on the paper” item on your agendas weekly will keep this top of mind and allow for constant, though brief conversation.
  • Consider revising the rubric for the paper to make it even more student-friendly, putting descriptions next to each item so that students know what you are assessing, for example, under “abstract.” The rubric can be used by the student during one of the check points as a self-assessment.
  • Posting a solid student example or two can be beneficial for students who need that kind of modeling. Even better if you can reference it in class to emphasize what it does well.

Thank you, Virgil, for opening your class and curriculum to me. I learned a great deal and have much to share with others as a result.