Sunday, May 13, 2007

Learning from Grading

One of the good things about grading (there has to be something, right?) is that I get to figure out what assignments work, and then I can try to figure out how to make things work better.

I've been struggling for a while now with teaching research skills. When I say it like that, it seems silly, probably. But research isn't just a matter of doing something and then, voila, research comes out. It takes a bunch of different skills, each of which has to be developed to some extent.

In my field, some of the big skills are:

Developing a real question
Getting some ideas about possible answers to the question
Trying to be aware of one's biases and assumptions
Thinking of ways to test your answers (with historical evidence, evidence from texts, etc)
Figuring out what other people have said about the issue
Finding the historical and textual evidence that will help you answer your question
Reading and understanding historical and textual evidence
Coming up with a more solid answer
Making the argument for your answer

In between are all sorts of other sub-skills, and I've probably missed some, but that's a start.

I decided this year to work on helping my students develop their research skills in a lower division class. But I didn't want to try to make them all do a separate huge research paper. Or even a separate small research paper. What I wanted was to break out a skill or two and work on that.

In one class, I chose to work on helping students read critical essays better. Speaking broadly, I find that most college students in the early stages read critical essays in order to find information to support their argument. I'm guessing that's what they're told to look for in high school for such papers. It's certainly where I started as a student.

But, ideally, students should read essays to get a sense of the conversation scholars have been having about some question, problem, or topic. In order to do that, they need to learn to focus on the critical essay as an argument and to read for the thesis and to read for how the argument's being made. But that's a tall order.

So this semester, I did two things in my Shakespeare class to try to teach my students to read critical essays well. First, I gave an assignment asking students to use the MLA database to find a recent essay on some aspect of one of the plays we read, and then to read the essay, and write a summary. They were required to turn in a photocopy (or printout) of the essay along with their summary. Second, I ordered the Norton Othello edition, and assigned several critical essays in there for reading. We took time in class to work with the essays in depth, looking for the thesis, teasing out what sorts of evidence the writer uses and how s/he makes the argument.

The Othello readings came just before the midterm, while the summary assignment could be turned in on the second day of working with whichever play a student chose. That meant that some students turned in their summaries before the Othello readings, and some after. In general, the summaries turned in after the Othello readings were stronger, more focused on identifying the thesis and basic outline of the argument. I hope that means that working closely with the readings in class taught the students something about reading essays well.

I've decided that the assignment needs some fine tuning. For one thing, I need to work closely with some critical readings BEFORE the students do their summaries, so they get a better sense of how to read critically. And then I probably need to be more specific in the actual assignment about identifying the thesis and such.

I'm teaching our intro grad course in research and such next semester, and I'm thinking about how I can adapt this assignment so that we'll start by really critically reading some lit crit and thinking hard about theses, what counts as evidence, and how arguments are made. Just one more thing to work on revising this summer!

I'd be really interested in how others teach research skills, especially (but not only) in English studies. I'd love to see some assignments if people have them, or to hear about strategies people use.


  1. In a 200-level lit course, I decided I wanted students to dive into scholarly articles before writing their own essays. However, I also wanted to help them improve their presentation skills. To that end, each student picked a scholarly article on the topic at hand (Beowulf) and had to deliver a PowerPoint presentation that summarized the article. They had to use at least three pertinent images (correctly cited, of course) and could only use bulleted, short sentences on the slides.

    This assignment forced the students to encapsulate arguments in a succinct format while challenging them to think about oral as well as visual presentation.

    But I also had an ulterior motive...if I have to sit through one more cruddy PowerPoint presentation, I'm going to put a pencil through my eye! I'm determined to send my students out there knowing how to use PowerPoint as the visual aid it's supposed to be!

  2. Bardiac, I'm going to do a post on my 4000-level class's research papers when I'm done with post-K'zoo posts. I'll link back to this post when I do it.

  3. I have a similar assignment (summarize and analyze a critical article, which must be handed in with the analysis) but hadn't thought to go over some critical essays beforehand.

  4. roaringgrrl, Anything to make powerpoints less painful has to be good!

    Dr. V, thanks! I'll look forward to that.

    Undine, I think modeling how to read and analyze a paper helped; try it?

  5. I think I will try it.