Friday, July 27, 2012

So many students, so little time (Part 3) 

It is nearing the end of the summer semester, the time when I typically realize that I have approximately 100 term papers awaiting grading, and no TA support. Usually my reaction is to put my head on my desk and think "Why did I do this to myself?". But not this semester, oh no! 

I have finally learned from my mistakes. Not only does having an end-of-term paper in my course open the gates to grading hell, it also means that students don't actually ever receive any feedback (although I leave them feedback, very few ever return to the course to read it, as I can tell from the usage reports from our LMS.) So instead, this semester, I tried something new. Students used to have to write a term paper with a number of components to it: a topic that relates to the course material but hasn't explicitly been covered, inclusion of citations from a number of research articles on the subject that they have found themselves, explicit connections to a specific set of concepts from the course, and recommendations to an audience of their choice (as it is an adolescent development course, the audience is typically parents, teachers, policy makers, or teens themselves). This results in a 6-8 paper per student. And, as you can imagine, not only is there a lot of grading, but a lot of repetition (why is it everyone wants to write about anorexia or teen suicide?).

Now, students still write all of these same sections, but they do them as part of a discussion with their classmates. Students were allowed to choose groups based on topics that interested them (which I generated from the past 3 years of term paper topics), and they remained with that group throughout the semester. On "even" weeks, students were assigned a role, and each wrote a post that was similar to one of the sections from the previous version of this assignment. So, for example, someone found an article about the topic and provided the citation and a summary. The online discussion forum also provided opportunities for students to provide other forms of information, such as videos and online news articles, or even websites devoted to the topic. On "odd" weeks, students were required to respond to at least two of their group mates' posts from the previous week. So this way, students got exposed to the same (and more!) information, provided one another with feedback throughout the semester, and I had much less grading to do (see Part 2 from this series). At the end of the semester, I will still have students submit a final report, but this will be a 1-2 page summary of what they learned from the group discussions, written in a format that could actually be of use to someone beyond the individual student . For example, one of my students is writing a letter to parents that could be sent home from the principal of the school where she works.

Of course, I didn't choose this approach simply to make grading easier (although it helps!). The new assignment also designed to be more engaging for students; they are exploring the same topic throughout the semester as they learn about adolescent development, and are doing so in a collaborative fashion where they have one another as models, resources, and sounding boards. Students are required to think critically not only about what they read and discover in academic journals and on the internet, but also about their classmates' posts, and have opportunities to provide feedback, a skill that will come in handy in the "real world". From my reading of the discussions, I can say that the depth of thought, particularly as the semester has progressed, surpasses what I was accustomed to reading in the final term papers. Win-win!

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