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1 Assignment Design & Critical Thinking in Writing-Intensive Freshman Classes Arlene Wilner Rider University Classroom-Inquiry Project sponsored by The.

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Presentation on theme: "1 Assignment Design & Critical Thinking in Writing-Intensive Freshman Classes Arlene Wilner Rider University Classroom-Inquiry Project sponsored by The."— Presentation transcript:

1 1 Assignment Design & Critical Thinking in Writing-Intensive Freshman Classes Arlene Wilner Rider University Classroom-Inquiry Project sponsored by The Carnegie Academy for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning

2 2 Assignment Design & Critical Thinking in Writing-Intensive Freshman Classes l What do faculty expect of college students? l How do entering students think? l How can we design assignments to bridge the gap between where students are and where we would like them to be?

3 3 Data From Faculty 9 co-researchers/ 4 disciplines l Syllabi with goals, objectives, criteria for evaluation, and daily assignments; “justification statement” explaining the rationale behind the design of the syllabus l Sequence of writing assignments for the semester l Reflections on design of specific assignments that students also analyzed, as above l Videotaped interviews with 2 English Dept. faculty - a doctoral candidate and a senior Professor l Focus group discussion with 5 faculty (2 English, 2 History, 1 Political Science) who teach writing-intensive classes

4 4 Data From Students ~300 students in study group l Pre- and Post- semester essays reflecting on learning experiences in high school and in college l Reflections on at least two of their writing assignments from the second half of the term l Comments regarding helpfulness of instructor feedback on papers and specific examples of helpful feedback from xeroxed papers l A large sampling of students’ essays from my classes and numerous others (over the course of two years) l Videotaped focus group discussion with 2 freshmen and 2 seniors l Audiotaped interviews with 2 students who took my CMP 115 in fall 2000

5 5 The Perry Paradigm l Dualism l Multiplicity l Contextual Relativism l Commitment within Relativism

6 6 Well-Structured Problem l Lends itself to a relatively algorithmic solution l Parameters are finite l Solution is unambiguous l Resolution is testable

7 7 Ill-Structured Problem l Contingency permeates the task environment l Solutions are always equivocal l Idea of ‘getting it right’ gives way to ‘making it acceptable under the circumstances’

8 8 Abilities Associated with Ill-Structured Problem-Solving l Entertain uncertainty and contingency l Imagine sympathetically, although not necessarily to embrace, a position or state of mind different from one’s own l Develop criteria for evaluating the persuasiveness or validity of a position (as opposed to an “opinion”)’ l Seek the historical, social, and political contexts out of which ideas emerge l Understand that different disciplines bring different sets of assumptions and ways of knowing to inquiry l Construct an argument that incorporates an awareness of alternative positions and one’s reasons for rejecting them College teachers usually value habits of mind very different from the ones cherished by recent high school graduates.

9 9 Video 1--four students “How can we tell what the author meant?’ Click here for video 1

10 10 Langer’s 1994 Study of High School Students’ Writing Across Disciplines l “Students were rarely challenged to explain their interpretations or encouraged to examine the evidence on which they had based their conclusions. More typically, in all areas of the curriculum, they were asked to summarize information and points of view that had been presented to them by the teacher or the textbook.”

11 11 Pre-Semester Assessment Prompt l Describe the course you consider to be the best in your education so far. Be as specific as possible in explaining why the course affected you as it did. Aspects you may wish to comment on include course content, class activities, the teacher’s methods and approaches, class atmosphere, and grading policies, among others. Please give as many details as you can to show why this particular class was so effective in your view.

12 12 Preferences of High School Students l Fun/variety of activities l Personal attention and sensitivity to individual personalities and “styles of learning” l Either well-structured problems or non- problems (Craig Nelson’s “Baskin- Robbins” stage of critical thinking)

13 13 Students’ Characterization of Best Learning Experience in High School The Exception In my many years of school I have had a number of different classes. Many of these courses were exciting or fun but they all seemed to be missing something. I think what I am talking about is content. Content is needed in a course to get me interested. I would have to say that my favorite course was World History. It was not the teacher who made the course fun or any activities. One of my biggest interests is ancient civilization... In the end it is content which will attract me to a course, not great teaching.

14 14 To make everyone comfortable, he had a radio in the back of the room that would be playing at all times. He wore crazy shirts with periodic tables and silly science-promoting slogans and sang songs about filling atomic orbital levels. (Junior Chemistry) Students’ Characterization of Best Learning Experience in High School He got so involved with the class that he had a feeling for each individual’s needs and learning style. (Senior AP Physics)

15 15 She would “kiss” her students for class participation and enthusiasm using chocolate Hershey Kisses as rewards. (Honors English) We had a journal in class. We wrote two entries a week. When we handed them in, our teacher, and only our teacher, would read them. There was never a negative comment on them. Her comments made you feel so good about yourself. (Senior English) Students’ Characterization of Best Learning Experience in High School

16 16 Students’ Characterization of Best Learning Experience in High School The class delve[d] deep into the various genocides such as the potato famine, the Cambodian killing fields and perhaps the most intriguing, the Holocaust. What made the class interesting was the “no right or wrong answer.” We didn’t have a textbook. We all used our knowledge and combined it with our teacher’s immense knowledge and before we knew it we conducted several intelligent talk forums during class. (Holocaust/Genocide)

17 17 Students’ Tendency to “Assimilate” Thesis: Literary Criticism Students’ Version: Toni Morrison, from Introduction to Huckleberry Finn I was disturbed by Huckleberry Finn when I first read it as a child. Now, as an adult, I understand my complex and ambivalent attitudes toward this classic work. Morrison dislikes Huckleberry Finn because it is racist. (Race, Class, and Gender in the U.S.)

18 18 Students’ Tendency to “Assimilate” Thesis: Media Studies Students’ Version: Ben Bagdikian, “Dr. Brandreth Has Gone to Harvard” Corporate interests strongly but surreptitiously influence the content of supposedly non-commercial programming and articles Advertising is sneaky in the way it tries to influence us (e.g., the sexy girl in the car commercial). (CMP 100)

19 19 Students’ Tendency to “Assimilate” Students’ Version: Ken Flieger, “Aspirin: A New Look at an Old Drug,” FDA Consumer Jan/Feb While aspirin, administered in professionally supervised doses, has been proven to reduce the risk of heart attacks in patients with a history of cardiovascular disease, its value as a preventative substance for healthy people is less clear because research results have been inconsistent. Aspirin can help prevent heart attacks when taken in low doses. (Technical Writing) Thesis: Science

20 20 “Understanding Difficulties ” Mariolina Rizzi Salvatori “While initial disorientation, as a response to difficulties, is to be expected, I would suggest that students', and teachers', consistent circumventions of them, particularly in entry-level courses, demonstrate the effects of educational approaches that, by stream-lining and providing answers for difficulties, nurture continuous dependence on a hierarchy of experts most of whom are unwilling or unable to share with others the processes that enabled them to acquire and amass their cultural capital.”

21 21 A Sampling of Course Objectives for Basic Composition (first level of a three-semester sequence ) l How to distinguish between a general claim and an illustration, an abstract idea and a concrete example l How to summarize accurately the ideas in assigned readings l How to identify the strengths and weaknesses of an argument l How to compare and contrast different ideas on a topic of intellectual import l How to recognize irony, shifts in persona, and other rhetorical strategies l How to use one’s understanding of the ideas of others to effectively advance a position in writing l How to use textual evidence gracefully and persuasively to support a claim

22 22 Characteristics of Assignments in Study l Require close reading of challenging texts l Require students to incorporate summary/ paraphrase of ideas or plot elements in support of ideas or arguments l Invite acknowledgment of ambiguity, uncertainty, and qualification l Require explicit statement of a clear central idea (thesis) that is a non-obvious claim l Often require integrating perspectives from two or more texts

23 23 Video 2--Michele Haughey l Students’ responses to an ill-structured problem Click here for Video 2

24 24 An Ineffective Ill-Structured Problem This assignment will give you an opportunity to agree or disagree with one or both of the authors we’ve recently read—Stephen Nilsson and/or George Kleiman. Requirements: Adequate first paragraph that includes name of article or lectures, name of author, and approximate date of publication... AND A GOOD THESIS that states your judgment of the author’s ideas about a particular issue: for example, Kleiman writes about schools, technology, and the media, so you should limit your thesis to one of these. Body paragraphs that support your claims with quotations or paraphrases from the handouts, text, or lecture. Be sure that you know what topic or issue each paragraph addresses. A conclusion that invites the reader to think further about the issue. Correctly punctuated sentences: no fragments or run-ons. 2-3 pages.

25 25 A More Effective Ill-Structured Problem TOPIC: Confining your discussion to the course texts listed below, COMPARE the cultural ideology(ies) closest to your beliefs with the one(s) most foreign. REFLECT on what your discussion tells you about your culture and your place in it. TEXTS: Gunn Allen, "Grandmother”Achebe, "Chi" Bulfinch, Greek mythAfrican Myth Michelangelo, Creation of Adam Nihongi Sartre, "The Wall”Popul Vuh Sartre, "Existentialism" Miwok myth Hawking, “Our Picture of the Universe”Genesis

26 26 A More Effective Ill-Structured Problem PRE-WRITING: 1. List the texts in order of decreasing congruence with your own cultural beliefs. 2. Take the one (or two) texts most congruent with your own beliefs and the one (or two) least congruent. List as many points of likeness and difference as you can. 3. Sort your points logically and decide on an order of presentation. 4. Add or refine points as additional thoughts occur during this brainstorming stage. LENGTH AND FORMAT: About three pages, word-processed, double-spaced. Document citations from the course texts informally using parenthetical references within the body of your text. [For example, Sartre's narrator says, "... " (SR 49); Michelangelo depicts a creator who... handout).] CRITERIA FOR EVALUATION: 1. Demonstrated understanding of texts 2. Intelligence of argument 3. Clarity of argument 4. Correctness and effectiveness of prose style

27 27 Freshman Students’ Responses “The most difficult part of this assignment was trying to tackle an idea such as creation without contradicting myself. It is not an easy assignment, let alone to do in only 3-4 pages.” “Overall, my high school classes were more about memorization than contemplation.” “This assignment is different in the sense that we were given a topic in a sense, but no two papers will look anything like each other.”

28 28 Freshman Students’ Responses “Dealing with creation, this paper has forced me to review my own beliefs. Questions have arisen to which I have no answers, but that’s just a process of life. I have also been introduced to ideas that have sparked interest/debate.” “Most challenging about this assignment was taking my personal views and structuring them into something someone else could comprehend.” “I looked at my own beliefs in a more skeptical way than I have before. When you have a collection of different theories, where most of them seem absurd, it’s hard not to question your own theory.”

29 29 Video 3--Anne Osborne and Kathy Hoff “Truth,” “History,” Fiction”--sophisticated disciplinary epistemologies The challenges of being thrown into Multiplicity “willy-nilly” Click here for Video 3

30 30 Video 4--Anne Osborne and Michele Haughey How can “belief” inhibit “knowledge”? “Where does my voice fit in?” Click here for video 4

31 31 Balancing Guidance and Freedom BHP 150 Great Ideas II Spring 2001 Profs. Rusciano and Wilner In The Prince (1513), Machiavelli gives advice on how a political leader should conduct himself to maintain order as well as his own position. He says he wants to write something “useful” and that he wished to “follow the real truth of things [rather] than an imaginary view of them” (44). Write a paper of 3-4 pages in which you consider how Machiavelli’s philosophy, as set forth in the excerpt you read from The Prince, is an implicit response to Plato’s ideas of proper governance as set forth in “Allegory of the Cave.” Ideas to consider (not a set of questions to be answered independently as if for an exam): What do the two theories say about how individuals can, and should, perceive reality? What is the obligation of a leader to the people regarding their understanding of reality? Why is Machiavelli often considered anti- Platonic in his views of politics and knowledge? Be sure to cite textual evidence to support your assertions, including the page number(s) in parentheses following the quotation or citation.

32 32 Video 5--Frank Rusciano and Anne Salvatore The difficulty for faculty of determining “what is self-evident” Click here for Video 5

33 33 Suspicions and Speculations Confirmed 1. The rich get richer, and the poor, poorer: Being placed in an enriched, honor, or AP class is not a guarantee that critical thinking (ill-structured problem-solving skills) will be taught, but not being placed in such classes seems to guarantee that they will not be. Since many college classes depend on the kinds of high-level skills fostered by our assignments (analysis, synthesis, reasoned and evidence-based critique), it is imperative that ALL of our students be given the opportunity to practice them early and often.

34 34 Moving Up the Perry Scale Kathy (honors): “I discovered that understanding the theme is really only the beginning of really knowing what the writer is trying to show. P.S. I used quotes from Sartre and Plato as well as other works that we read in order to prove points in my Psychology papers. Things we discussed in class stayed in my mind throughout all the discussions I had in my other classes.” Jane (honors): “I think that I question things differently now. For example, I found that the essay “Discovering Columbus’ made me think more about the way information is presented and whether or not it should be taken as fact. I applied this idea to readings in my other classes.”

35 35 Moving Up the Perry Scale, cont’d. Karla (honors): “I have always been open to the points of view of other individuals and when I would hear, say, about ‘rituals’ (not necessarily religion-based) that were done in other countries that to many people would seem ‘crazy’ or ‘terrible,’ I would think, well, somehow it makes sense to them. However, Things Fall Apart gave me a depthful [sic] insight into the views of other people and their rituals and helped me to understand how these ideas and rituals could make sense to them.” Craig (honors): “Basically, I learned in this class the importance of learning more than “just the facts” and also the importance of discussion.”

36 36 Moving Up the Perry Scale, cont’d. Peter (developmental): “The readings that we have discussed, especially Plato and Machiavelli, have opened my eyes to the kind of world we live in. Although there was plenty of work involved, I felt that the challenge brought out something in me, that I never knew I had--the ability to gain knowledge and apply it to different aspects of my life.” Susan (standard course): “Reading a story, essay, or series of letters has always been a way to learn what a teacher thinks of them. I then would have to be able to spit back to that teacher how they felt about that piece of literature. Now, within this course, I have been able to freely think for myself.... Then, finding out I could support my ideas and feelings with evidence taught me how to be able to stand up for my viewpoints and feelings on various topics.”

37 37 Suspicions and Speculations Confirmed 2. While we hope that critical thinking skills are “generic” in that they are transferable across disciplines (to varying degrees, depending on whether the domains share an emphasis on well- or ill-structured problem solving), the skills themselves cannot be taught ‘generically.’ Curricula and assignments are tied to particular content and require manipulation of that content in particular ways over which we instructors have control. Imagining one or more of several possible solutions to the problems we pose is an act of intellect, creativity, and ethics--for ourselves, and for our students.

38 38 ONGOING HYPOTHESES l Faculty need to balance attention to affective domain (students’ sense that teachers care about them as individuals and are alert to their current ways of thinking and feeling) with strategies that foster accountability to discipline-grounded criteria and modes of inquiry. l There are no formulas, but it is possible to cultivate a sense of better and worse practices within a spectrum of choices. Assignments designed as “ill-structured problems” appear to nurture the sorts of engagement with ideas generally associated with critical thinking (especially when combined with constructive feedback in the form of “conversation”). l Since faculty can benefit from “learning communities” just as students do, common readings across sections can enable productive workshops on assignment design.

39 39 Video 6--Michele Haughey and Kathy Hoff The value of collaborative faculty development Click here for Video 6

40 40 Video7--“Are you sure the cameras are off?” What can we know, and how can we know it? Discuss! Click here for Video 7


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