Two weeks ago, Andy Lang shared with us his frustrations with getting students to engage in critical discussion. This Monday, Michael Hattem shared his experience with generating discussion in the classroom at The Junto, a group blog on early American history. Today, we revisit the topic with a guest post from Ronit Y. Stahl. Ronit is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Michigan. She is currently teaching a freshman seminar, "The Devil in the Details: Religion and the Constitution in the United States" and completing her dissertation, "God, War, and Politics: The American Military Chaplaincy and the Making of Modern American Religion."
The Value of 50 Words
Fifty-word assignments serve as the foundation of my teaching. I picked up this pedagogical tool from Charles Cohen, and I’ve found it inordinately valuable in helping students learn to sharpen their reading, thinking, and writing. Critical thinking relies on a series of discrete skills such as summarizing, defining, comparing, hypothesizing, and evaluating, and I use sequenced “50-word sentence” assignments to give students a chance to regularly practice these skills. Asking students to summarize a source or define a term in 50 words appears simple but is actually quite difficult; nevertheless, students have commented that these very pointed tasks are challenging without being overwhelming.
In the beginning, fifty words seem like a lot—or so my students tell me. Before long, however, they realize distilling information into so few words is a hard but doable, even satisfying, task. (Try it with your own reading—it’s not easy, but it is useful.) When I used these assignments for weekly section meetings a few years ago, a student commented, “I like how the assignments challenge us to synthesize all of our reading and squash it down.” This fall I’m teaching a freshman writing seminar on Religion and the Constitution, and my students write a 50-word sentence at least once a week. On a recent midterm evaluation, one student remarked that the assignments “have already helped me make my writing more concise and direct.” Which is exactly the point.
What does this look like? Last week, my students read Everson v. Board of Education (1947), and had to answer the following prompt: “In no more than 50 words, identify how the Court’s majority and dissent used history to inform their jurisprudence.” The best sentence, coming in at exactly 50 words, stated: “Both the majority and the dissent cited the ‘Virginia Bill of Religious Liberty,’ the First Amendment, and the beliefs of James Madison; the majority’s interpretation of history dictated that the government must remain neutral in its relationship with religious groups, while the dissent’s interpretation opposed any relationship with religious groups.” To craft this sentence, the student had to read the majority opinion and dissent, note the historical references used in both, and reflect on how they used the same material to achieve different ends.
But the value of 50 words extends far beyond writing instruction.
First, they help students focus as they read. A few weeks ago, my students read Pierce v. Society of Sisters (1923), a case that asked whether Oregon could mandate education while banning private schools. It’s an extraordinarily important case, one that has provided ample fodder for scholars of law, religion, education, immigration, and politics. In a class on religion and the constitution, it would be easy to assume that the First Amendment’s religion clauses played a role in the decision. But they did not. Thus the assignment asked students to “ascertain the importance of religion to the litigation of Oregon’s 1922 Compulsory Education Act.” To address this in 50 words, students had to read the case closely with this question in mind.
Second, they prepare students for class discussion. It’s hard to write a 50-word sentence without doing the reading. Succinct answers require far more rigorous thought than meandering ones (which is why I find regular 50-word assignments more effective than 300-word response papers). As a result, I can prepare for class discussions confident that my students will come to class ready to engage the material. Similarly, the assignments lower the barriers to speaking for shy, less confident, or less academically prepared students, as they’ve started to digest the material and can speak from their written work.
Third, they create opportunities for targeted in-class revision. Students can always rewrite their sentences in class, but occasionally, at the end of the discussion, I’ll require them to do so. This instills two essential pedagogical values: 1) ideas develop through discussion and 2) failure is constructive if you recover and learn from it.
Fourth, they’re easy to grade, which makes them valuable in classes large and small (I first used them when teaching 68 students in 3 sections). I can give close and focused feedback on 50 words regularly and quickly, thereby reinforcing that comments matter more than grades (which I don’t give on these assignments). Instead, I view them as low-stakes assignments in which I can mark up their answers and give them guidelines for improvement. Since they’ll write another 50 words the next week, they have ample opportunities to try again.
Fifth, they help assess student strengths and weaknesses. It was not until I asked students to summarize a primary source in 50 words (it happened to be a selection from Roger Williams’ A Key Into the Language of America), that I realized how complex the act of summarizing really is. Almost every student judged Williams, but no one actually summarized the selection. In fact, in the race to assert Williams’ bias (a favorite word, to be sure) against the Indians, no one acknowledged that the text was a dictionary and Williams set out to record and explain the language of “the natives.” If we want students to read, write, and think with sophistication, we have to make sure they have the necessary building blocks in place. In a longer paper, it’s often hard to uncover the exact obstacle blocking a student from better work. However, when well-constructed (more on this below), fifty-word assignments offer a quick and effective means of gauging student prowess at particular skills.
Sixth, these assignments work best when planned in advance, which in turn forces me to think through what I want students to practice, what order of critical-thinking drills makes the most sense, and what I want students to glean from each class reading. Every 50-word sentence assignment is on the syllabus, which means I devise and sequence them in tandem with selecting readings and designing the course. They are integral rather than extra.
Fifty words: it’s not a lot by the standards of a profession that revels in books, but it’s plenty for anchoring class discussion, propelling thinking, and improving writing. I think of 50-word assignments as the academic equivalent of dribbling drills or playing scales, the fundamental components of thinking that require regular practice to maintain and deploy effectively.
 I learned and absorbed these values in college, most directly from two professors who transparently taught them. First, Alan White’s Introduction to Moral and Political Philosophy required us to write 1-page papers for every class, and the comments we made on them during class counted toward the grade. Second, Ed Burger’s The Art of Mathematical Thinking mandated failure, accounted for and reflected upon in “failure journals” that comprised 5 percent of the course grade.