Context: One Key to Deeper Learning

Friday May 1st at the Graduate Center’s Annual Purposeful Pedagogy Conference, the keynote address was given by Dr. Anna Stetsenko, a Professor in the Human Development and Urban Education Ph.D. Programs at the Graduate Center. I also was lucky enough to have taken a Ph.D. level course with Dr. Stetsenko about three years ago. Both from her keynote address and throughout the semester she was my Professor, she spoke of the importance of context in learning. She has opened mine as well as many other doctoral level students’ eyes to the relevance of providing our own undergraduate students with an understanding of how context shapes the theories and paradigms of thought that emerge at a given time in history and in a given field. Because of Dr. Stetsenko, I too have developed an eagerness to take a holistic lens to teaching. Her combined focus on the inclusion of context within pedagogy and encouraging active learning on the part of students provide us with wonderful lessons toward improving our teaching, regardless of whether we are relatively new instructors or have been teaching for many years. Below are three specific ways in which I now focus on context within my own classrooms and were inspired by Dr. Stetsenko.
Historical Context
The historical context of what was happening when a particular theory, area of research, or paradigm of thought emerged helps explain how and why it emerged in the first place. History including politics, power dynamics, wars, and other influences shape how knowledge is created and in fact affects what knowledge is given precedence at a given time. One such example of how I impart this to my students in my Social Psychology courses is to require them to read various older primary scholarly research articles (as well as current ones) throughout the semester and have them research what was going on at that time in history in regards to politics within the author’s country and the paradigms of thought in psychology. As one example, my students read Milgrim’s (1963) original article about obedience and how the impact of Nazi soldiers’ obedience to Hitler served as a trigger for Milgrim’s interest in studying the ‘dark side’ of leadership and obedience. The students learn to place all research in context through this type of exercise and to notice how the time period in which a researcher lives impacts what is deemed as valuable to study at that point in history as well as what was published during that decade. Additionally, in teams, my students present a topic that is interesting to them and related to the course, yet beyond the content that I provide them. This gives them the opportunity to search for historical context and teach it to classmates to further their learning.
Cultural Context
I consider demonstrating the value of cross-cultural perspectives to my students as one of my foremost goals in teaching. At this time, it is essential to acknowledge culture’s impact on a given field as a whole and within a given theory (e.g., Does a given theory apply cross-culturally? Why or why not?), as well as how culture relates to our students’ own perspectives. To do so, I first take the time to teach at least two general class periods early in the semester about how culture shapes one’s beliefs, values, and opinions in order to open my students’ eyes on the impact of culture, interspersed with small group work where teams of students generate examples of how they have seen the impact of culture in their own lives. I have found that when having students link their real world experiences to the research in this area through the use of journal-entry writing assignments or by focused discussions with others, they are quickly quite interested in the topic of culture. To implement this, I require them to define a related theory and then explain examples which were not discussed in class within a brief write-up (1-2 pages) and I assign scholarly research articles which include culture as a theme to provide a basis for class discussions. In addition, my students often complete short thesis statement papers where they cite sources beyond the assigned ones of the course in order to build support for their own original hypotheses. This can work well in other fields beyond my field of Psychology quite well also. Culture impacts what knowledge is valued and how information is considered important. I urge all instructors to attempt to establish the importance of culture as a contextual variable for how the leaders, theories, and ideas in your own field were shaped.
Scenario-based Examples
Lastly, I use scenarios in all my classes as a way to establish a concrete sense of context to the information students are learning in each class period. Examples that are vivid such as creative yet realistic scenarios allow for students to comprehend the course content in a manner that is relevant beyond their textbooks. If used as a scenario that students must explain in writing or if requesting them to write an example of something discussed in class, this pushes students to be able to use terminology in the course within their writing which also reinforces a deeper level of learning than simple term and definition lists could do.

Tackling the Paper Pile

Spring Break has come and gone. Every instructor had their wish list of things to get done during break, when suddenly not having to prep for teaching freed up what seemed like days of free time. And yet…if you’re anything like me, you probably didn’t get through all of that wish list. Now that school is back in session, that big pile of midterm essays you collected before break is on your desk, staring at you, (still) waiting to be graded.

Many of the principles that we espouse with WAC philosophy require advance planning before the semester begins, as they deal with assignment design and syllabus organization. But there are things we can change and implement mid-semester, and one of these is the approach to grading.

We covered much of this in detail in our minimal marking workshop last fall, but let’s revisit just a couple of the most important points that can help alleviate some of your grading woes.

1. Focus on higher order concerns

When we try to catch every grammatical and usage mistake that our students make, we can end up with an overgraded paper. The student will see their paper full of corrections and suggestions and will do one of two things: 1) get overwhelmed and just ignore everything, or, 2) only make the corrections that you’ve marked and then consider their “revision” done. Neither of these are optimal. We want our students to read and seriously consider our comments on their papers, and we want them to take the initiative to improve their writing. Consider only marking one important, content-based error per page. Choose the one thing that the student could do that would vastly improve that section of their paper (it’s likely not fixing that run-on or semicolon usage). And write out your comment/suggestion in a full sentence that doesn’t leave the student wondering what you mean.

When students can handle higher-order mistakes, their lower-order mistakes often improve alongside.

2. Consider offering a revision option

If you don’t already have a draft built into your assignment, consider allowing your students to revise their final paper for a higher grade. This might seem like you’re creating extra work for yourself, but in reality you can mark the first version they hand in less, saving some of those comments for the final draft. Just pick one or two issues per page to comment on (and then consider a global comment at the end such as “there are many issues with your subject-verb agreement throughout”). There’s no point in making tons of corrections to the student’s writing if they’re not going to revise and hand it in again, anyway. Students do not read our corrections and then say “OK, next time I’ll remember not to split my infinitive.” We all know that unless they have an immediate incentive to revise, students won’t do it. So let’s give them that incentive. Grade the papers they hand in fairly but honestly; don’t give a C paper a B. The students will be motivated to revise and improve.

These are two relatively easy ways to help us mark less and allow our students to have some autonomy over their education. It’s not easy – the urge to fix that comma splice is sometimes uncontrollable, especially when students hand in a garbled first draft as their paper! But when we step back and realize that our students have the ability to be good writers who often need a few big pieces of advice, rather than many small ones, to bring their writing to the next level, we help both them and ourselves.

Midterm Reflection and Low-stakes Writing

With midterms over, or nearly over, and spring break on the horizon, many of us are taking stock of student performance. In a perfect world we would all look at our grade books or spreadsheets and see that all of our students were right on track. In reality, this is a time when some are left wondering, why are midterm scores are lower than expected? That gap between expectation and performance is an important one to explore, and one of the ways to do so is through low-stakes writing.

Self-assessment has a long history in higher education. Scholars, like the prolific David Boud, and journals, such as Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, have been devoted to the topic since the 1970s. Studies on and strategies for student self-assessment abound, and the above links provide a starting point for those who are interested in exploring the topic. One WAC-friendly approach is low-stakes writing. Low-stakes writing is short, reflective writing. It is also writing that is ungraded or graded simply, using something like a check system or a limited point scale (a five-point scale is common), so that is doesn’t feel like a burden to students or to instructors.

There are a number of ways that you might structure low-stakes midterm self-evaluations. They can be take-home, in-class, or online. They can focus on the midterm exam or assignment, or consider the course up to the point of writing. In any case, prompts should encourage students to think about themselves as learners and set both you and your students up to be more effective in the coming weeks of the semester. Low-stakes writing suggestions include questions about the midterm:

Was the format of the midterm what you expected? What about the content? Was there anything about the midterm that surprised you?

Course content:

  • Are there any concepts that you still do not understand at this point of semester? What areas of course content do you feel particularly strong in? What areas do you need to work on?

Personal performance:

  • Did the grade you received on the midterm match your expectations? Do you know where you stand, grade-wise, in this class? Are you content with your grade thus far? Do you know what you need to do if you want your grade to improve?

Study habits:

  • How do you prepare for class meetings, generally? How did you prepare for the midterm? Is there anything that you would change about your study habits?

No matter what you ask, low-stakes writing assignments like these can be a great way to facilitate communication between you and your students.

A different approach to low-stakes writing is suggested by an article on student anxiety over exams, published in Science in 2011 (Science is available through a number of different databases at City Tech’s library). In “Writing About Testing Worries Boosts Exam Performance in the Classroom” Gerardo Ramirez and Sian L. Beilock discuss two laboratory studies and two randomized field experiments that support the hypothesis that writing about text anxiety can help alleviate its impact on performance. The studies show that students facing high-pressure exam situations, which midterms and finals certainly can be, may perform better if they have the opportunity to write about their concerns pre-exam. This is because, as Ramirez and Beilock explain, performance anxieties disrupt the ability of the working memory to focus on the task at hand. They discovered that getting some of the negative thoughts out in writing before an exam allowed those who suffered from high test anxiety to perform as well as those who did not.

While it may be too late to try this kind of low-stakes writing for the midterm exam, there are still ways to incorporate the insights from this article. You could devote ten minutes to writing-the-fear-away before the final exam. But you don’t have to wait until May to use Ramirez and Beilock’s advice. Their idea to try writing to lower test anxiety was based on the idea of therapeutic writing, which is used over a span of time to help manage negative thoughts and feelings. A classroom application of this concept might be to periodically give students free-writing time to write out all of their concerns related to the class. (If you are concerned about student privacy, these could be uncollected assignments that are graded on the basis of time on-task.) Allowing students to get out all of the “I got a bad grade on the midterm and now I’m afraid I’ll flunk the class” and “I didn’t come to class a lot at the beginning of the semester and now I think the professor doesn’t like me” thoughts might take some of the air out of them. It might even get students thinking about ways to counter them with positive action like developing a study plan or making an appointment to meet with you during office hours.

Low-stakes writing, whatever form it takes, can find a place in any discipline, any classroom. As you look toward the second part of the semester, consider if there are ways that you can use low-stakes writing to meet your course goals. You get further information here or by contacting a WAC fellow.

Incorporating In-Class Activities to Strengthen Understanding of Class Concepts

I have learned, both first-hand and by observing my classrooms, that students learn more when they actively engage with class material. When I first began teaching I noticed that students often learned more in the project-focused lab I taught (for which I barely lectured at all) compared to my lecture-only course. In the lab, students had to design their own research studies and test other students in the class in order to collect data that they then analyzed together. I observed that students were personally invested in the activities, were actively engaging with and learning from their peers, and had an easier time targeting areas or steps they didn’t understand.

Given my observations, I began to slowly incorporate in-class activities into my introductory neuroscience lecture course and I immediately saw a shift in student excitement, exam grades and quality of class discussions.

An effective problem-oriented class activity asks students to apply course concepts to novel problems, requires students to provide a rationale for their solutions, and promotes working together in small groups. This can facilitate learning in the following ways:

1. Students become active instead of passive learners

This means that students are involved and take an active role in their own learning. Active learning develops critical thinking skills by utilizing course content rather than passively acquiring it. By providing a problem-centered task, it provides an entry-point for engagement and further exploration. We want to teach students not only the class subject matter, but we also want to develop critical thinking skills to effectively interact with the subject matter. Courses that are purely lecture-based thus only provide the subject matter, but do not require students to critically engage with it.

2. Students have to provide an argument for their solution

By providing a problem-based task and asking students to formulate and justify their own ideas, we are helping them develop important critical thinking skills. Not only that, the activity can at the same time help clarify a content-specific problem that many students have a difficult time understanding. For example, I noticed that students had a difficult time understanding the various brain-slice types in my neuroscience course, so I found a video illustrating all the different types and developed a task that involved estimating the brain area and slice type being shown in various images. As a team, students had to describe the features they saw and justify their answers. Students were not graded on being correct, but instead shared with the class why they thought a specific brain image was from a certain brain location. The goal of the task was not to get the ‘right answer’ but to develop critical thinking. In addition, in order to formulate their own ideas and justifications, students tie new material to previously acquired knowledge and personal experiences. This process helps students integrate course content with previously learned concepts to promote learning.

3. Working in small groups promotes participation and understanding

Studies support that students often learn more from peers compared to those with more advanced knowledge. This is in part because peers struggle with similar confusions and can often help clarify concepts more effectively than teachers. In addition, working in groups helps develop comfort as well as friendships among students, which can often increase participation for shy or quiet students. Often times, small group work will contribute to more productive and energizing class discussions, as students are more comfortable with one another (as well as the class concepts being discussed).

Difficulties I experienced when integrating tasks into the lecture class include pinpointing what class concepts students find most challenging, and finding the time and creativity to develop activities that capture and clarify these concepts. But tasks can be developed and integrated slowly over several semesters, and you can monitor student responses to further tweak the assignments. In addition, to decrease the focus on getting the ‘right’ answer, assignment completion is calculated into student participation grades and I often incorporate similar problems on exams.

Assignments can be written (e.g., do you agree/disagree with a certain statement, explain your position), task-oriented (e.g., solve the following problem and justify each step) or can involve games (e.g., jeopardy). You can get as creative as you want! In fact, our next workshop titled ‘The Creative Classroom’ will focus more on developing fun in-class tasks that promote active learning, critical thinking and collaboration. Join us on Tuesday December 9th at 1pm in Namm 1105 to learn more.

Assisting Students in Reading Difficult Texts Through Writing

It’s on the syllabus: Read Chapters 2 and 4 for next’s week’s discussion. Next week comes and less than half the class has read the assigned textAfter the sigh, there is the impromptu lecture filler. Besides the busy lives of college students, there may be another reason why students have not read the text—it may be too difficult for them. Even so, the goal is not to “lecture over the assigned text” (Bean, 2011, p. 163). There are ways to support students in becoming stronger readers and empower them to encounter difficult texts.

One of the basic principles of WAC is that writing promotes learning and develops critical thinking skills. Part of this is the ability to anchor one’s arguments in text, which necessitates an understanding of disciplinary text.

Many students approach reading in the same way and fail to adjust their reading strategies. They may not realize that there are various reading strategies available to them. Because of this, students need help determining when a deep, slow reading is required, when to chunk information and when they can skim a text (Bean, 2011).

The following suggestions will support students who are struggling through text and hopefully, encourage more students to complete assigned readings.

1. Be explicit with students about your own reading process and allow students to share their own. When do you skim texts? When do you read carefully? Do you write notes in the column? Do you use a color coding system? Do you use  post-its? What do you underline and why? How do you distinguish between what the author is saying and your own reflections? “The fifteen or twenty minutes it takes for such discussions can sometimes have a powerful on students’ reading strategies” (Bean, 2011, p. 169).

2. Help students get into the dictionary habit.  Encourage students to look up unfamiliar words. “One strategy is to make small ticks in the margins next to the words they are unsure of and to look them later when they come to an appropriate resting place in the text” (Bean, 2011, p. 170).

3. Attach a low-stakes assignment to the reading: “What it Says” and “What it Does.” To encourage a careful and deep reading of a scholarly article that you anticipate to be a difficult reading, you can teach and assign students the “what it says” and “what it does” strategy. For each paragraph, students can write a “what it says” and a “what it does” statement. A “what is says” statement is a summary of the paragraph’s content or the paragraph’s stated or implied topic sentence. A “what it does” statement describes the purpose or the function of the paragraph. An example can be “summarizes an opposing view” “uses an analogy to clarify the previous paragraph” (Bean, 2011).

4. Create text-based free-write prompts.  An example of a text-based free-write supports students in recognizing that many texts have a specific point of view. A closer read or even a re-read of the text can be promoted if you ask students to identify the ways the text attempted to change their point of view. Bean (2011) suggests the following prompts: 1) Before I read this text the author assumed I believed [fill in] 2) After I finished reading the text, the author wanted me to believe[fill in] 3) The author was/was not successful in chnging my point of view. How so? Why or Why Not?

5. Use Graphic Organizers. Some students may find it more powerful to “visually represent a text than through marginal notations, traditional outlining, or even summary writing” (Bean, 2011, p. 179). If students find this to be useful, the following PDF is filled with 36 pages of graphic organizers for reading strategies.

Remember, there is no need to lecture over the readings. Assign the reading with confidence and give the students the tools they need to decipher the text and embed low stakes writing assignments, then enjoy facilitating critical and deep class discussions.

Writing to Calculate: Ideas for Incorporating Writing into Math Coursework

Estes (1989), in his discussion of the importance of writing in math, refers to writing as a “thinking clarifier,” in that the act of writing out a concept requires understanding that concept. This understanding may even occur in the sometimes painful process of getting a few complete sentences typed out. Unfortunately, though, “a major concern with writing projects in mathematics (and other courses as well) is that they often feel tacked on and artificial” write Parker and Mattison (2010: 47).  “The paper is something they had to do in order to receive ‘writing credit’ for a course. It’s a game and everyone is playing along” (38). Most of us—students, math faculty, and non-math faculty, can relate to this opinion, or recognize it.

Parker and Mattison astutely describe this discrepancy in attitudes toward writing, from one discipline to another, as being—in the case of math—the difference between “writing about math,” which often comes in the form of an assigned paper on a mathematician, and “writing math,” which is actually writing on math content concepts, to facilitate their absorption. Luckily, there are a number of ways to incorporate writing into the math curriculum, that are not only painless, but productive and purposeful as well. For example, they suggest a “textbook writing assignment,” which requires students to write out the mathematical equations they learn in textbook style, and also to explain why the equations are the way they are. By having students write out textbook chapters that will be distributed to the rest of the class, by way of making study materials for everyone, in this example, students are given a clear audience, beyond the professor, and an opportunity to uncover any difficulties they may be having with the material.

Alternatively, there are ways for math professors to incorporate less formal (more lower-stakes) math writing assignments, or instead to incorporate more writing into exams, and therefore into exam study guides. As Estes points out, including short-answer questions on exams need not merely be traditional math “word problems,” which are limited to a short section of the algebra curriculum. In other words, asking students to write out concepts taught, a step beyond only writing out the equations numerically, is beneficial for exams and for exercises to practice for the exams. Estes’ example prompt is as follows: “If two variables have a correlation coefficient of -0.98, explain the meanings of the negative sign and the absolute value of 0.98” (12).

While the non-mathematician reader may need to leave the details of this example aside, it is a helpful illustration of how such word problems may apply to other non-Humanities fields. For example, in my social science field, linguistics, I assign language datasets to my students, and when students volunteer a correct solution in class, I am usually obligated to ask, “and how do you know?” While our students often get the correct answer by calculating it, at other times they arrive at the answer by guessing, or—perhaps more common—by erroneously using incorrect reasoning that accidentally led them to the correct answer. We all know that this will not help them with similar questions in the future. So, this act of explaining out loud how the answer was determined is something we can all apply to our own classes. A parallel example to Estes’ (above) in my own linguistic coursework could be:

Question 1: “For the two morphemes below, identify which morpheme is inflectional and which is derivational.”

Question 2: “For the next two morphemes, explain why morpheme A is inflectional, and why morpheme B is derivational.”

My exams and assignments usually do include a “what is your evidence” question, but asking students to write this evidence out, in prose, is taking the process of writing to learn one step further.

For additional convincing and thought-provoking evidence that it is beneficial to integrate prose into math, Estes also describes an elementary math class lesson plan on fractions, in which the teacher starts with a sentence like “half of ten is five,” then replaces the numbers with digits, “half of 10 is 5,” then the remaining words with symbols, “½ x 10 = 5,” showing that the equal sign functions like the verb “to be,” and so on.

Another idea is to come up with reasons for mathematical concepts that students may not know. For example, Strogatz (2014: 287) describes the light bulbs that go off when he explains that the term “rational number” is so named for fractions like ¾ because that number is a ratio of whole numbers. He also finds it helpful to explain that “squaring” a number is so named because the results can fit in a square, like the number nine, illustrated below:

Without being able to predict exactly what would work for math professors here at City Tech, I imagine that, when I was a student in an introductory math class, I would have greatly appreciated answering an exam question such as, “Write out the meaning of and reason behind the term ‘to square a number.’ Feel free to provide examples and drawings to make your answer clear.”

What kinds of “word problems” do you use in your various disciplines?



Estes, Paul L. (June 1989). Writing across the mathematics curriculum. Writing across the Curriculum. 10–16.

Parker, Adam, and Mattison, Michael. (November 2010). The WAC Journal, 21. 37–51.

Strogatz, Steven. (March 2014). Writing about math for the perplexed and the Traumatized. Notices of the AMS, 61, 3. 286–291.

Tailoring Expectations

One useful perspective-realignment I’ve found useful raising to faculty, particularly those who don’t teach strictly “English,” is the that many assignments have implicit writing assumptions which must be made explicit.  It is difficult sometimes to see the necessity of writing underlying even ostensibly non-“expressive,” or technical, assignments.  This sounds like an easy, or superficial suggestion, but consider, for instance, courses which integrate design and writing in an integrative and mutually-informing manner — in order to produce any sort of finished, visually appealing document, the writing present within must be coherent and “finished;” yet, this expectation is often only alluded to tacitly.  Further, even if one is actively grading “writing,” it is often difficult to break down this “writing” requirement into constitutive units the students can follow, or knowingly deal with on an individual, then total, basis. As an added benefit, when students are made more conscious about articulation, even in a small way regarding a tangible quality of writing, it makes them more aware of the total flow and logic of their work.  (These tangible qualities are then able to compound, and inform one another.)

One possible suggestion:  Perhaps (even as a sort of pedagogical thought experiment), try outlining one or two explicit qualities of writing to be graded, or paid attention to, in a non explicitly English or even humanities assignment.  As we often discuss at WAC, try to scaffold, or otherwise anticipate the exact skill you would like them to exercise by introducing it earlier than the exact moment you wish them to recall or produce it.  Then, see if, for example, should you ask them to pay attention to something like topic sentences, or even choosing neutral, or discipline-specific jargon for the assignment, whether the overall clarity of thought, and quality of product produced, improves.

This means of “tailoring” expectations, or honing in on required, but implicit, qualities of writing in assignments, is also transferable to other areas, such as peer review.  Rather than asking students to holistically grade entire documents for “quality” or “followability,” try to hone in on two or three qualities (perhaps even breaking a “thesis” question down into a subcategory or two), and set firmly-defined timelines for how long students spend on each portion.  This means of narrowing the scope of the students’ attention will likely improve the sharpness and nuance of the skills paid attention to, and overall improve the logic, thinking, and argument of the writing, and writing-reliant aptitudes, required.

Writing to Learn

As the fall semester of 2013 draws to a close, it is useful to reflect on what we have accomplished over the course of the semester. We the Writing Across the Curriculum fellows have led three main faculty workshops since September: Effective Assignment Design, Peer Review, and Effective Grading. Despite the three varied topics of these workshops, they share a common thread, which is the WAC philosophy of “writing to learn,” and in addition, their content overlaps nicely.

In order to highlight WAC principles, I wish to focus on one particular aspect of the effective grading strategies that Jake Cohen and I discussed in our workshop on Tuesday, December 12 (the last of the semester). We went over some techniques to improve student writing and work, most of which also incidentally result in reduced grading time, which is always welcome, especially at this end-of-semester crunch grading time. To view our workshop slides, please click here, and check out the handout. (You can also visit this page to download documents from all of our workshops.) We discussed minimal marking, supportive responding when writing comments on student papers, rubrics, and planning assignments ahead of time to make grading more efficient. This last category is closely related to the two previous workshops from this semester: assignment design, clearly, and also peer review, in that having students assess each others’ work can save time, and greatly improve student writing.

This assignment design category is also the “one particular aspect” that I choose to elaborate on for this post. Among the several techniques we suggested for planning ahead to make assignments more “gradable,” one sticks out as being particularly WAC-esque: the uncollected writing assignment. The value of this notion, which is generally under-utilized by faculty in all departments, is two-fold: It is easy to see how uncollected assignments decrease the overall amount of time we spend grading work, of course, but why assign them at all? The answer lies in the foundation of WAC philosophy, which is that people learn by doing—and more specifically, by writing. So, what kind of uncollected writing do we recommend you assign, how do you enforce such assignments without collecting them, and, finally, how do students “learn by writing”?

One of the best illustrations of this concept is provided eloquently by Toby Fulwiler in “Why We Teach Writing in the First Place”: “Writing the thought on paper objectifie[s] the thought in the world… [which] even happens when I write out a grocery list—when I write down ‘eggs’ I quickly see that I also need ‘bacon.’ And so on” (127). This concept works well for professors across the curricula: Think about assigning a five-minute, in-class free-write asking students to describe course content covered in the past month/week/hour, by way of ensuring that they can articulate it well for whatever type of exam they have coming up, and by way of allowing them to discover holes in their understanding of what you have covered so far. If you are concerned that they won’t oblige the assignment without the potential for reward, then you can choose, for example, to select three at random to read aloud in class, or to be posted on your Blackboard/OpenLab page that same evening.

We hope that those who incorporate this technique will ultimately find that the grading process of the final papers you assign will be ameliorated, in that the students have now had a chance to “practice” or “train” for the final writing process, something akin to athletes who could never run a marathon without similar training, without you having been required to grade an intermediary draft. Ideally, as students come across “holes” in their own comprehension of your course content, they may come to you with more questions, or make better use of your office hours. I know that they will arrive at a deeper understanding of your course material in the same way that I have done regarding WAC philosophy, in the process of writing out this blog post.

Happy Holidays!

WAC Highlight: Professor Mary Sue Donsky

Course: LAW 2301 Estates, Trusts and Wills

Course Link:

Assignment: Field-Based Collaborative Research Assignment

In this assignment, students visited an African burial ground at 290 Broadway.   They researched the distribution and ownership of property under the laws of early New York.  Students attended a lecture by a National Park Ranger and read the site brochure as well as two wills.

Assignment Link:

What WAC principle(s) does this assignment exemplify?
This assignment puts into action writing to learn principles by requiring both an individual response to the site visit and readings in the form of a legal memo, as well as a group wiki post and oral presentation.  This assignment employs scaffolding as the individual response then allows for effective group collaboration.  The online writing also supports the oral presentation component, which may be seen as the high-stakes aspect of the assignment.

How might this type of assignment be used in other courses across the curriculum?

Other courses may similarly design a visit to a New York site and provide the opportunity for students to engage with primary research sources.  Further, a wiki post is an excellent format for students to present group writing in and provides the opportunity for students to comment online and to show their work outside of class.

WAC Highlight: Professor Peter Catapano

Course: HIS 3208 – History of Immigration, Ethnicity, and Nativism

Course Link:

Assignment: Hester Street
In this assignment, students watched the 1975 film Hester Street, in which a Russian Jewish immigrant in NYC’s Lower East Side shakes his ethnic roots for a more Americanized version of himself, leading to family turmoil and strife. Students were given a set of questions to answer as they watched the film. They were also required to post a paragraph-long response on the course blog in the OpenLab which had more questions such as whether or not the film could be considered a feminist film due to its strong female leads..

Assignment Link:

What WAC principle(s) does this assignment exemplify?
By asking students to respond to directed questions where they had to analyze the underlying themes of the film, this assignment lays the groundwork for later assignments that may require a thesis statement in a larger research paper. For example, the role of Hester Street as a feminist film could be used as a jumping point for a larger research project in which other contemporaneous (or not) films are analyzed in that light as well. Secondly, these short assignments allow students to write less formally while simultaneously thinking critically about the film they watched. These kind of assignments lend themselves to strong discussions in class and on the course blog.

How might this type of assignment be used in other courses across the curriculum?
By structuring assignments that ask students to critically think about its theoretical/conceptual significance in an informal setting allows for fruitful discussion where students explain (and sometimes defend) their interpretations. This makes the process of writing a formal, thesis-driven assignment more accessible to the student while at the same time giving them ownership of their ideas throughout the writing process.