Why I assign term papers

In an essay for InsideHigherEd, Deborah Cohan, an associate professor of sociology at the University of South Carolina at Beaufort, makes the case for why she does not assign term papers to her students. Cohan contends that the term or research paper does not allow students to sufficiently develop their own voice or connect ideas. I found myself agreeing with her stated goals for writing assignments, but coming to dramatically different conclusions. In fact, in my own classes, I only assign research papers in an attempt to meet the goals Cohan seeks. In today’s post, I want to discuss why I assign term papers, my take on Cohan’s essay, and why I believe her goals of writing are right although her conclusions on research papers are wrong.

Photo credit: Suzy Hazelwood

Teaching with the news

On a daily if not hourly basis, we are bombarded by breaking news. The proliferation of news channels and social media increases the volume and speed of how news spreads. Given turbulent news, instructors can leverage current events to demonstrate the applicability of course content. In my book, Teaching for Learning:  101 Intentionally Designed Educational Activities to Put Students on the Path to Success, my co-authors and I described how faculty can accomplish the goal of teaching with the news. In today’s post, I want to share our In the News IDEA so help instructors think about how they can use current events in the classroom.

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IDEA #16:  In the News


It has long been known that students are more likely to learn and to retain information for which they see practical use and relevance (Dewey, 1938). The In the News IDEA can be used in a variety of different formats and course subjects to illustrate to students that concepts learned in class are directly relevant to societal issues. Students may bring in news stories of their choice to discuss, or the instructor may select a “hot topic” for the class. The core concept is to cold-call on students to describe their news story or share thoughts about a current event to encourage class discussion and application of course content to contemporary contexts. In the News is particularly engaging when controversial topics are brought to class that provide fodder for discussion. 

Fostering Deep Learning in College Teaching

College teaching can be one of the most enjoyable and challenging aspects of faculty work. Unfortunately, very few of us receive much in the way of training on how to be an effective teacher. As part of my role leading the teaching center at my current institution, we host a Teaching Effectiveness Symposium at the beginning of the academic year to help provide professional development for faculty. For this year’s symposium, we hosted two teaching experts, Ken Bain and James Lang, to share their expertise with us. In today’s post, I want to share five key takeaways from their presentations on how to foster deep learning in college teaching.

Fostering Deep Learning in College Teaching

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1.  Students take a deep approach to learning when trying to answer questions.

If you think about when you seek out information, I suspect it is when you are trying to answer a question of some kind.  When I need to know to fix something around the house, I go to YouTube and watch videos. And typically not just one, I’ll watch several to get perspectives on how to make a repair. I’m curious and seek out answers because I have an important question that I need to answer.

As instructors, we want our students to go beyond surface level understanding of course content. Surface learners focus on cramming and grades more than a deep understanding and comprehension of course content. Unfortunately, this happens too infrequently. Yet, the research on college teaching clearly demonstrates that students take a deeper approach to learning when they are seeking answers to questions.

2.  Frame class with questions that encourage student curiosity.

Given the fact that people seek out information when they are trying answer questions, you should frame your class with questions that your students will seek to answer throughout the semester. Significantly, students may have questions they want to bring to class, but a primary function of an instructor is bringing questions to the table. In fact, a great thing to do on the first day of class is to introduce questions that will frame your class.

These questions can be a powerful mechanism that can help students think about your course content and apply content to their own experiences.

3.  Provide opportunities for students to try, fail, and receive feedback.

Faculty should provide opportunities both in and outside of class for students to try, fail, and receive feedback. As the saying goes, experience is the best teacher. In terms of teaching, this means that we need to look for ways that students can (in often low stakes ways) try and fail. Yet, try and fail is not enough. Feedback from instructors helps students learn from their failure and make improvements for their next attempt. When designing your class, identify what items students need to work on and then design activities that allow students to try, fail, and receive feedback.

4.  Provide opportunities students to recall information.

The research literature on human memory suggests the need to identify opportunities for students to recall information. There are some relatively simple steps that you can take as an instructor to do this. For example, make all tests and exams cumulative that force students to recall material from earlier in the course. At the beginning of a class session, ask students what they remember from previous classes as a way to encourage memory. At the end of class, ask students to tell you or write down the key takeaways from class that day. If you lecture, you can similarly pause your lecture and ask students to make note of the key concepts and points from the lecture.

5.  Make time for what you expect students to know/do.

A mistake that faculty often make is expecting students to know something without teaching them how to do it. For instance, we ask students to make presentations without teaching them how to do it. We ask them to write literature reviews without ever teaching them how to do this. Many faculty fear taking time away from content to do these kinds of things. But, really, how do we expect students to learn something if we don’t teach them?

Personally, it took me years to get to the place where I was willing to let go of a little bit of content in order to help students develop some of the more soft skills that we find vital for their education. Once doing so, I’ve found it enormously beneficial. I believe my students need to learn academic writing and providing feedback alone wasn’t enough. I needed to develop opportunities for them to try, fail, and get my feedback. And I needed to make time for this in class. We all love our content, but this is a small sacrifice worth making to foster deep learning in college teaching.

Alan Alda on teaching science

Alan Alda is an award-winning actor known for his roles on the hit television shows M.A.S.H. and The West Wing. However, Alda is now more passionate about improving teaching science. He has spoken across the nation and world about his work at the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University. I recently attended a lecture by Alda and want to share my insights from his talk in today’s post.

Alan Alda on teaching science

I’ve always loved Alan Alda. He is such a classic actor to me. He seems to really embody the character.

Given a personal health crisis and his own experience as a T.V. doctor, Alda has begun to use his celebrity to support the cause of communicating science better.

While much of his work is talking about communicating with a broader public, there are some specific lessons for anyone involved in college teaching— in the sciences and beyond.

Video grading can improve your student feedback

One of the biggest challenges that I have as a professor is helping my students improve their writing.  Encouraging students to practice the art and skill of writing is one of the areas where we can have the biggest impact on our students.  I’ve always found the hardest part of teaching writing is providing feedback.  I used to struggled to provide comments to students that addressed larger issues as well as edits for style and grammar.  I also had to manage the time needed to grade in order to provide prompt feedback and protect my own sanity.  Video grading can improve your student feedback and provides the best solution for offering writing feedback.

video grading

Photo credit: Robert of Fairfax

Video grading provides many advantages for delivering student assessment and feedback.  Students have been traumatized by the dreaded red pen and often want to write the “correct” way.  Few of my students have learned the writing process before coming into my class.  My goal is to help them learn the process as much as any specific tips or advice I may have for their papers.  Video grading presents a perfect opportunity to guide students through the writing process.  It also offers many advantages over other feedback methods I have tried.