Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Giving directions for writing assignments: I'm doing it wrong

Over the years my handouts for writing assignments of all kinds -- short, long, research papers, close reading analysis, whatever -- have gotten longer and more detailed. These days they have a structure that looks something like this: general overview (including goals and point of assignment); format requirements (sometimes this comes later); details of process (what students will need to do *before* writing); summation/repetition of over-arching goal, often underlined or written in bold. So that last bit on a short assignment might say, "Write a short essay (about 4 pages) in which you address X and Y. Be sure to give concrete evidence to support your claims, state those claims with clarity, [etc. -- insert appropriate necessary move here]." And it will essentially repeat what the general overview said, but with more language about the "how" (the process detailed above it). The longer the assignment, the more complicated this summation might be, but it's never longer than a short paragraph.

So, in other words, I see my assignments as teaching student how to do what I want them to do, rather than just assuming they know what's expected in whatever the assignment is asking. And in the process section, I often point out that the order they *do* things is not necessarily the order they will *present* them in the finished product, or that they won't ultimately use everything they discover in the process of preparing.

Sounds good, right? Sounds like I'm setting them up for success, doesn't it? And in some ways I'm even writing my assignments like a well formed essay or narrative, with a beginning, and middle, and an end. And yet, somehow it doesn't work. More and more students seem to miss the point, the big picture, even when it's underlined and in bold and repeated at the beginning and end. And the students who miss this big picture include English majors, honors students, and even MA students. I had one assignment in my graduate methods class that was an utter failure -- not as single finished assignment addressed the big picture.

Instead, they get all hung up on the details. In that grad assignment, for example, they were seriously angsty over how to site the web page for a scholarly journal. Seriously. A whole bunch of them. I couldn't figure out why so many of them were spending so much time on those web sites. And no one asked me substantive questions about the larger point of the project, which was to report on journals in a given subfield and educate each other on what journals were out there, what their emphases were and what kinds of articles they published, how difficult it was to get published in them (in terms of time and percentage of accepted articles, etc.), whether they published scholarly articles only, or other kinds of writing (forums, reviews, etc.). It was clear in many of the assignments turned in that no one in some the groups (it was a group assignment) had even bothered to open an issue of the journal! I should have known that they were missing the point from the weird questions they were asking. In fact, I'm now thinking that instead of asking students if they have any questions about the assignment that I should say, "OK, who can summarize the point of this assignment for the class?" I think I might a) catch misunderstandings and b) open the eyes of a lot of other students.

And recently, in another class, a short assignment had final directions along the lines of "Once you've done all that, write an essay in which you draw from the evidence you've gathered and answer the following two questions: what does that tell you about X and how can we apply it to Y." More than half the class forgot to address the "apply it to Y" part and the ones who did threw it in as an afterthought. And the practice of "apply it to Y" has been part of every assignment this semester. As in the graduate journal assignment, I think theses students also got so hung up in gathering data that they forgot why they were doing it and what it was supposed to be used for.

So, clearly, something's wrong with the way *I'm* doing things, if all of these different groups of students are missing the point. I have to say that I long for the approach most of my undergraduate professors used. Twice a semester they'd say, "Go write a paper." Seriously, the syllabus (which was usually a single page, btw) would have two days marked "6-page Paper Due" (or something similarly laconic) -- one before the midterm and one after -- and that's it. And then there was a midterm and a final (no details about those, either). Of course, that would be going to the other extreme and there all sorts of reasons I can't do it that way with my students.

At any rate I'm starting to think I'm giving them too much guidance and they're getting lost in the details. And I'm also giving too many assignments. While that theoretically gives many more opportunities to learn, I'm not sure the students who need it the most take those opportunities. It definitely gives students more grades (each weighted very little), but then some of the flakier ones fail to do every one. And it burns me out on grading.

So what do you all think? Give fewer directions? Let them work out the how? Or maybe move the process-oriented guidelines to an appendix and limit the first page to big picture stuff (and move it all there)? A perverse part of me now thinks I should have a class day dedicated to how to read assignment instructions! But that would be a little insane. What do you think?


Sapience said...

My university just did an assessment of its first year writing program. Across the board, we found that assignments that did what you currently do--define the project, provide detailed instructions, etc.--actually DO produce better writing than the assignments that are functionally "write a paper on x topic." We scored both assignments and papers on a four point scale, and assignments that scored a 4 were something like 25%more likely to produce student papers that scored 3s and 4s than assignments that were rated 3.

My guess is that your students wouldn't be doing any better on the big projects if you didn't give them instructions (as you already acknowledge) because what's really happening is that they're worrying about details like citation as a way of avoiding the fact that the big project is scaring them because it's hard intellectual work.

What's worked for me is spending a lot of time in class demystifying why I ask them to make particular intellectual moves.

And I think you might be right--it might be better to give fewer assignments with more steps for feedback than to give lots of little assignments.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

must comment on this later!!

Dr. Virago said...

ADM -- OK!! Will hold you to it!! :)

Sapience -- Ooh, assessment and statistics! That's really, really helpful! And maybe my idea to set aside some class time to *go over* these assignments *with* them is really what is needed after all (as well as fewer assignments).

Sisyphus said...

For handouts:

whitespace is key!

Go back to the single line of directions.

Bardiac said...

Have you thought about reversing your directions? Put the big picture part up front, in bold face. And then work on more specific directions below, and maybe spend some time working through those as a group?

Writing good assignments is an art form all its own, isn't it?

Dr. Crazy said...

As my writing assignments have evolved, I've moved to a structure that involves a lot less narrative, because what I was finding was that students would get lost in the narrative and focus on tiny peripheral details that weren't the point. So what many of my writing assignments look like now is something like the following:

2 to 5 sentences explaining the basic assignment, with the most important things in bold. This is a basic overview.

This is followed by 4 or 5 bullets that hit the main assignment requirements, and that break the assignment down point by point.
For example:

• Paper should be 8-12 pages long, with the works cited page not included in that total, typed and double-spaced, formatted and cited according to MLA style.
• Paper should be accompanied by the original annotated bibliography and proposal that you submitted, which includes my comments.
• Paper should focus on at least one but no more than two novels from the course syllabus.
• Paper should make an original argument about the primary text(s) of your choosing, which is supported with carefully analyzed evidence (quotations, paraphrased material) from the primary text(s).
• Paper should support its argument with carefully analyzed secondary sources, including a minimum of four scholarly sources that relate to the primary literary text. Two of those sources should be scholarly, peer-reviewed journal articles; two of those sources should be scholarly, single-author books.

Or, to use one of your examples, bullet one might be "explain what your evidence tells you about x." Bullet two would be, "explain how you can use what you've learned about x to understand y." Bullet 3 would be something like, "Support your analysis of x and y with quoted and paraphrased material from the primary sources that you are analyzing." Bullet 4, "Each quotation should be introduced with a signal phrase and followed by your analysis of how that quotation relates to x and y."

Separating each piece of the assignment out into its own bullet point gives students an easy reference for seeing whether their paper is hitting each of the main criteria for the assignment. Basically, I think that this is something that talented writers and readers do for themselves with assignments that rely on narrative, but I think with my student population it's unreasonable to assume that the majority of students will be talented in those skills. In writing courses I teach students how to do that with an assignment, but in literature courses, I just don't have the class time to spend on that sort of instruction. So rather than giving them a narrative assignment that many of them fail to do appropriately, I've found it's easier to just give them an assignment with each of the points broken out for them.

That said, I do spend class time - even in advanced undergrad and grad lit courses - to talk about writing and the details of assignments. And I do a lot of modeling of what each major point of an assignment means, giving them "bad" examples and "good" examples. While it means we read one less thing or one shorter thing, it produces much more depth and engagement in their papers, and I think it's worth it.

I've told my students about my experience both as an undergraduate and as a graduate student where you would just be told, "a paper of y length is due on x date," and that was the assignment. They look at me with expressions of horror that such practices could ever have existed :)

Drop me an email or send me a Fb message if you would like to see any of my assignments - I'd be happy to share them.

Dr. Crazy said...

Oh, and as for number of assignments, for whatever this is worth, here is what my courses typically look like:

gen-ed lower-level lit course: either 2 3-5 page papers or 4 2-page papers, midterm, final.

upper-level lit course aimed at majors and minors: 4 1-page papers (NOT reactions but short analysis essays), 1 10-page research paper (with annotated bibliography and proposal assignment preceding it) or 1 3-5 page paper without secondary sources, 1 8-page paper with secondary sources, a presentation with handout, and a final.

grad courses: reading journal assignment, seminar paper (with annotated bibliography and proposal preceding it), and a presentation/discussion-lead that includes an extensive hand-out.

Susan said...

I've just posted an assignment and I'm struggling with the same thing, so I have no clear idea, but I'm curious.

I've been going Dr. C's route (though somewhat less detailed), with a general point (You will write this kind of analysis) and sub-points as bullets (at least it should include....) But I'm really not sure they are getting it.

Funny, I forgot to tell them that they had to READ the articles they write an analysis of...

dance said...

I also have students that overfocus on citation, and I've done a couple of things there:

1) made it clear that my grading citing practices (aside from plagiarism) maxes out at 5% of the 100% grade. Eg, not worth their time to overstress.

2) emphasized the function of a citation, and basically said if it fulfills the function, I'll accept their form without penalty, and showed how my form fulfills the function.

3) moved extensive citation instruction to a webpage that I link on assignments and in the syllabus.

I'm going to start hammering form vs. function into ALL my students, having recently discovering that our thesis-writing seniors are panicked about the form and have no sense of judging what form will best fulfill the function of THEIR thesis.

Similarly to you and Dr. Crazy, I write long assignments and over time, have tried to start using bold headings, strong topic sentences in focused paragraphs, to segregate the mechanical details (due date, length, etc) at the bottom of the page, so that the visual rhetoric of the assignment sheet helps communicate what is important, what is variable, etc.

dance said...

PS. Another thing I intend to start doing is to make it clear that when I write the assignment, I picture them sitting down to work, getting stuck, and re-reading the assignment sheet, and so I try to make it helpful in that sort of circumstance. I'm not sure they do do that---I think I used to---so I'm hoping to prompt them to.

Horace said...

I have fairly detailed assignment sheets too, but the most valuable addition is that a few semesters ago, at the top of the page in a text box, I put the assignment objectives--what I hoped they would learn and what skills I imagined them demonstrating--before the instructions o the assignment. This has produced markedly better work, immediately and consistently. The idea is that they have a better idea of what those instructions are for, rather than just an idea that they should follow them.

I got an "A" in Crazy Beeyotch said...

When I began teaching I actually modeled several of my assignment handouts on those from my medieval prof, who used an approach such as the one you've described. It told me that the professor spent time wording out the project, rather than bellowing "write a paper!" Perhaps that is whats frustrating though--that you spend time meting out instructions which are then completely disregarded.

These handouts also gave me something to refer to when I got stuck, although it is in my nature to *still* track the prof down and ask questions to make sure I'm on the right track. I think these students are unavoidable! As my teaching career has progressed, I've added in things that Dr. Crazy and Horace mentioned--bullet lists (in addition to the narrative explanations) and a list of objectives. Unfortunately, I've noticed that many of my students are rather unenthusiastic about exactly what the objectives are. THey just want to get it done.

As boring as it is, I read through the assignment sheet with students, betting that few of them will do so on their own time. I then ask students to, as you suggested, summarize the assignment and its steps in their own words. This has been the most effective way to ensure students understand my expectations. Also, while I give out an initially large and detailed outline of the assignment, I tend to follow up with smaller handouts on the step-by-step process as those parts of the project come due (for instance, in a research paper that requires an annotated bib, outline, rough draft, etc (insert other steps as needed) I provide additional handouts with the instructions and due dates for the smaller steps. Its painstaking, on the one hand, but allows students to take bite-sized chunks, making the assignment a bit less intimidating. It allows them to narrow in their questions, rather than just giving me blank stares like they do when they receive a 5 page handout on the big-assed paper due in 6 weeks.

tempestsarekind said...

Chiming in rather late, but: thank you for this post. I've been wondering about this lately, though in a much less hands-on way: I'm not currently responsible for writing assignment sheets, but I grade the papers, and see the mistakes the students make, and I think you're right--you have to pre-teach the students to write the paper. Often that hasn't happened, and there's a noticeable difference.

Also, most of my undergrad assignments were of the "go write a paper" variety, too. Occasionally of the "word cloud of ideas about text X, followed by 'go write a paper'" variety. So I was completely thrown when I got here, and the students started asking me whether there would be paper topics and guidelines; it didn't occur to me to expect them!

Natalie said...

If you're trying to cut down on writing assignments anyway, why not split the first assignment into two (especially for students earlier in their careers):
Part 1: all the stuff they need to do BEFORE writing the paper.
Part 2: writing the paper, applying to Y.

That way, the students have the opportunity to get bogged down in details in part 1, and then "get" the point of applying the research in part 2.

Of course there would be issues with this, and the students that *really* need it are still the least likely to bother thinking about the process...