Tuesday, March 27, 2012
It's working, it seems to be working! Teaching students to write
Those who follow this blog know that I'm trying something new this semester.
In my "Religion in American History" class, I've elected to have my students write five 3-4 page "response papers" in lieu of taking any kind of formal test. The idea is to see if I can help them improve their writing and analytical-thinking skills by having them repeat a task several times under only slightly different contexts (the topic). Not a revolutionary concept, I know, but I'm happy to report that, three essays in, it seems to be working.
As a reminder to the less-than-avid followers, the class is broken into five chronologically advancing sections, each of which focuses on a single question. The first section was entitled, "Were we founded as a Christian nation?" The second: "Was the Market Revolution or the First Amendment responsible for the dynamic religious activity of the first half of the 19th century?" And the third: "How, if at all, did immigration and the intellectual challenges of the second half of the 19th century (evolution and biblical criticism) challenge the Protestant mainstream?"
I know I can improve the questions, and one thing we all know is that the quality of responses is typically related to the quality of the question. Simple questions seem to work best, as do definitive "yes or no" questions, which force students to make a declarative argument, even if they know getting an "A" will require a complexity that is not often a part of a simple "yes or no" question.
Three-fifths of the way in, the students have got a handle on things. They seem to understand the importance of actually answering the question (not an obvious thing) and they also spend a lot of time providing evidence from the primary sources and the lecture to back up their arguments. Compared with how things looked two months ago, their papers are shorter, more straight-forward, and more reliant on evidence. All good things! It's also increasingly obvious when a student hasn't done the reading, and it's increasingly obvious when a student just threw something together at the last minute. On the whole, grades are improving with the quality of the work, as they should.
The Wednesday before the papers are due, we talk about the writing process as well. That has been really interesting. Many students talk about writing the first page as a way of dumping out ideas. Then they process it all and go back and rewrite the paper from scratch. Some students talk about making a formal outline on a paper, then filling in all the blanks, item by item. Some say they think about their answer on the train, then, when the spark hits, they rush home to write it all out. Some have even begun to read their papers aloud, because I tell them their ear is often a better guide than their eye to convoluted writing and run-on sentences.
It certainly helps that there are only 25-30 students in the class, and the grading takes time to be sure. But in the end, I'm hopeful they will continue to improve their writing and analytical-thinking skills. After all, most of our students will not be historians, but they will, somewhere, for someone, have to write.
Any other things I should try? What's worked for you?