When I first entered the “Writing In the Disciplines” program my goal was to try to develop assignments that would encourage deeper, more critical thinking and to encourage better writing from my students. Some students write very well already, but many do not seem to understand how to write at all. I was tired of marking papers with unclear ideas, minimal thinking and in some cases, sentences that just don’t make sense. I wanted to try to catch these students before they “fall through the cracks”. In the following assignments I have adopted as many ideas to stimulate better quality writing and critical thinking from my students as possible. Using John Bean’s ideas from his book Engaging Ideas (Bean, 2001), I have transformed my assignments from a “fill in the blanks” style to include more written work. At CEGEPs we are bound to address the basic competencies in every course we teach, so although the content of my assignments has not changed dramatically, the format of the assignments has changed.
B. Assignment I: Wellness Assessment
If we compare Assignment I in its former format to its current format we will see that it has gone from a series of questions followed by space to answer (fill in the blanks) to an essay format. The questions and ideas I want the students to explore remain the same but the way they can respond has changed. Furthermore, the assignment is now typed, not hand written. A minor change it would seem, but according to Bean (2001) it should produce better writing. Certainly from a marking point of view it should be easier to read. The students will have a choice of styles to write from, all directed at the same questions but giving them a sense of self-determination in their writing and a chance to write in a style best suited to their personal strengths. The Assignment itself stands as a checklist for the student’s to use as they write to make sure they cover all the topics. Not only should the quality of the writing be improved but the students can see exactly where their marks are generated and self-edit their papers before submitting them. At the same time, in a very pragmatic way, it serves the teacher as a marking rubric. A potential benefit from these changes is that anyone else who wants to use the assignment or who would ever have to mark my assignments for me would be able to do so. The rubric will encourage equality in marking for the students, help to qualify their numerical marks, and reduce the subjectivity of the marking as much as possible. This should also address Dawson’s Sustainability objectives by reducing the amount of paper used.
C. Assignments II-IV: Nutrition Assessment, Stress Assessment, Fitness Assessment
In the second assignment I continue to include some of my old habits of “filling in the blanks “. It is a hard habit to step away from but I also want to make sure the students read the chapters. The “cherry picking”, as I call it, should also direct them to areas in the chapter of the text that will help them to build a more critical essay in the second half of the assignment. I stepped away from the marking rubric as an experiment to see if the students can carry over that knowledge from their first assignment. Assignments II through IV also include a Problem Based Learning approach (PBL). This should help the students to develop more critical awareness of the topics. Although, at this level, the competencies demand a more self-reflective look at health issues, the essay topics can do this and encourage the critical thinking generated by PBL at the same time.
The third and fourth assignments follow similar patterns to the first two assignments. They encourage greater manipulation of the subjects and, again, try to tap into each student’s strengths by offering choices for their writing style. The assignments are scaffolding in nature. As the students proceed from assignment I through IV they should also be able to incorporate information and learning from previous assignments into each successive assignment. This may help address some of the issues anticipated by the incoming “reform” students and competency based learning. The students may be able to demonstrate knowledge of a competency in a later assignment even if they have not grasped it at the earlier level.
I am exited about trying out these assignments, but I do have some reservations. My fears are twofold: One, that it will create a lot of work for the students and two, a lot of marking time for me. (I’m sure that’s a thought that will cross anyone’s mind as they read through these assignments!) However, even in my brief sampling of these techniques this semester, I found the marking to be not much more time consuming and indeed far more engaging and interesting to read. I get a much broader picture of whether the student really understands the material. I remind myself that the information I am looking for has not changed, just the format of the delivery. Not that the assignments are evolving from a Horse and Buggy (or maybe an old two-door Tercel!) format to a Ferrari. Both require diligence and attention to detail when marking. But these revised assignments should be lead to better performance for the students. Ultimately it is the students who will benefit the most; I find the format of these assignments to be far more student focused than my original formats, and this should encourage the student’s learning. If it works, the students should be more engaged with the information and learn more- and isn’t that really what it’s all about?