Thoughts towards better paper assignments

Apollo ReliefLast semester, my Roman archaeology students wrote a paper about the relief to the right and how it fit within the larger Augustan sculptural and building program. I really enjoyed the paper assignment because the acts of agreeing or disagreeing with and of evaluating their analyses encouraged me to more carefully consider and appreciate this relief and its iconography. It reminded me of the idea in Parker Palmer’s The Courage to Teach (my reflection on it or a link to it on Amazon): that all of us in the classroom (and academia) are approaching the subject and continuously converse about our insights to gain better knowledge of the subject–in my case, some approximation of the “historical truth” or an understanding of “the past and past peoples.”

This semester, with my second Roman history paper, I tried to emphasize that we are in continual conversation about the past. When I assigned the paper–evaluate an article with the Res Gestae Divi Augusti–I framed it as a conversation about the past with the author of that article. I encouraged students to talk to me about their ideas or consult with the writing center (they earned 3% extra credit for going to the writing center). When I grade papers, I frame my comments as suggestions for how they can improve that particular paper (and encourage them to consider what strategies they can take away from my comments for other papers). After I returned their papers, I offered them the opportunity to revise the paper and I’d average their original score and the new score for their actual grade on the paper (essentially, test corrections for papers). So how did this idealistic, hopeful idea turn out in practice?

  • More students met with me to discuss their ideas for the paper or received comments on a rough draft of the paper, and more students went to the writing center for this paper than I’ve experienced before. I enjoyed my conversations with students. On the rough drafts, I felt more free to comment about grammatical rules by directing them to explanations on various websites. In our conversations, I was able to clear up some misconceptions, provide additional background information, and head off some less fruitful trains of thought that didn’t adhere to the directions. It was also just really good to talk to students about their ideas. Generally, I think these students’ papers improved because of these conversation, but the improvement was, in some ways, dependent on the degree to which they heeded my advice.
  • Only two students turned in a revised paper, and their papers improved but not as much as I had hoped. In these cases, it seemed like their improvement was much more constrained by the extent to which they heeded my advice or the extent to which they had read the directions in the first place.

So what do I take away from these experiences?

  • I still believe writing is an ideal way for students to explore ideas, develop critical thinking skills, and demonstrate their abilities; but I need to harness it more effectively depending on the class. In some classes, the papers can be designed to build skills. Last semester, I had students write 4 “exercises” (2-3 pages) that helped build their visual literacy in a Roman archaeology course. These were great for that purpose, although,I’ve wondered if shorter, weekly blog posts could achieve similar goals. This semester, I’ve tried a similar tactic with 3 brief papers (2-5 pages) in my Roman history course, and I have been less satisfied with the refinement of students’ ideas. Perhaps it’s related to my goals for the classes: to make them think like archaeologists or historians. To think like an archaeologist, you need visual literacy first (so I tried to develop that the most); to think like a historian, you need to read documents carefully, evaluate the documents, and synthesize your interpretations from the documents. The scaffolded, skills-building papers may not work as well for a history class
  • As I saw at the Stander Symposium, students are able to do some very cool things if they’re given the time and put in the effort. Perhaps these history papers need to be a much longer process than 1-2 weeks for an exercise–perhaps over the whole semester.
  • Students have a lot going on. I often forget that many of my students are in 3 or 4 other classes, not to mention clubs, sports, and a social life. Perhaps one larger research paper would work better for this reason too.
  • How we ensure that students are actually working on the paper throughout the semester? In graduate school, one professor required us to have chosen a topic by week 2-3, he also had us present updates on our paper in class, and another professor strongly us to meet with her to discuss the progress of our papers. These are good ideas. My only hesitation is that, when choosing a paper topic so early, we often chose topics based on the first few weeks of the class rather than a more informed idea of the entire class’s topic.
  • Alternatively, the first time I taught Roman history, I asked students to choose a topic in consultation with me, submit a rough draft of part of the paper, and do short in-class writing to develop an outline or thesis. I think some of these were good ideas but not applied as well. For example, we met to choose a topic and I suggested sources based on whatever they were interested in, but then the consultation stopped.

To put all of these ideas together, perhaps a better paper assignment for a history class would look something like this:

  • Day 1: We introduce students to the idea that learning and intellectual pursuits are based on a continuous conversation.
  • Week 2-3: Students choose a paper topic from a long list of possible topics. For each of these topics, we send them a brief bibliography to help them get started; but we require they find more primary and secondary sources.
  • Throughout the semester we ask them to write at least brief blog posts: (1) evaluating the reliability of and insights from one of the primary sources for their paper, and (2) evaluating one of the secondary sources for their paper.
  • To allow and encourage students to invest in the paper, we use a less time consuming method of ensuring they do the homework (perhaps online quizzes as opposed to discussion fora, or a mixture of both).
  • Before their paper is due, we also require them to meet with us to discuss their ideas for the paper. We also offer to look over and comment on drafts of their papers.
  • Offer extra credit for consulting the writing center.
  • Week 10/11: Paper is due
  • After we return the paper, students have the option of revising the paper and receiving an average of their original and resubmitted scores.
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