Formal, “High Stakes” Graded Assignments

In many academic courses, all writing assignments are “high stakes” – that is, graded – assignments. Such assignments range from term papers to research paper assignments that may be given several times in a semester. For most students, all graded assignments are “high stakes” that often invoke fear and anxiety, not least because of the concern over grades. Yet traditional research project papers can be one of the most valuable assignments we give students, especially in upper-division courses where students are learning to pose research problems in their majors. However, despite our admonitions that students should do their own thinking and analysis in term papers, many students regard a research project as an encyclopedic “all about” report on a topic area rather than as a thesis-governed response to a significant and interesting problem or question. We all know students’ tendency to manufacture a term paper by patching together passages closely paraphrased (or even copied) from their sources.

When confronting a writing assignment, many students feel powerless, as if they have nothing to say. Good research writing is intellectually demanding and cognitively complex. Students often turn to plagiarism because they have no other coping mechanisms. There are a number of ways in which faculty can help students achieve more success in writing research papers:

  1. Faculty can guide students to think critically by formulating topics and questions in ways that are interesting, significant, and appropriate for the level of study involved (undergraduate or graduate). It is helpful to hand out the assignment in written form, ideally including clearly-explained information about task, format, expectations about the processes to be followed, and criteria for evaluation. Be sure to allow class time for student questions about the assignment.
  2. Students, for the most part, are not sophisticated users of college libraries beyond knowing how to find books. Often they are unaware of other resources. Many do not understand the differences between popular magazines and academic journals, nor do they appreciate the significance of journals (as opposed to books) for scholars. Generally, they are familiar with indexes and probably know little about on-line searches, which often tend to bury users with a vast potential of information. Even if they had a good introduction to library use in a first-year composition course, they are apt to know little about the specialized resources used in music. Discussing the use of the library and the web for research, referring students to the information about library use on this website, and arranging a tour of the music library with the Music Librarian (if they have not already had one) can go far to help with these problems.
  3. Students often do not understand the appropriate use of sources in research. Besides learning how to find information, data, and evidence that bears on a problem, students need to learn to position themselves appropriately in the conversation of secondary sources surrounding their topic – previous and contemporary scholars with whom the writer agrees or disagrees, and how writers in the discipline of music use their sources. Equally difficult for students is figuring out what to do with the sources – when to quote, when to paraphrase, when to summarize an entire argument, when simply to reference. Moreover, students need to work these quotations and paraphrases into the texture of their own prose, carrying on an argument in their own voices. Moreover, since the advent of cheap copying and ready computer access to sources, students tend to copy whole articles and passages rather than learning to take notes, thereby reflecting on their reading and making decisions in advance about what is or is not important. They also get little practice in summarizing arguments. Instructors can help students by teaching them how to use sources and how to incorporate this material into their essays.
  4. Learning how to cite sources and to create bibliographies is another essential skill that students often need help with. Information about citations is available elsewhere on this website. Since a variety of citation styles are in use, be sure to specify how you want the students to do citations and a bibliography, if required.
  5. Finally, instructors can help students’ writing by discussing the process of writing itself. This is one of the best ways to help students learn the active, dialogic thinking skills valued in academic life. Good writing evolves from a lengthy and sometimes messy process of drafting, and redrafting. When student writers become engaged with a thesis, problem, or analytical inquiry and, once engaged, formulate, develop, and clarify their own ideas, they can learn new ways of looking at the subject matter of their courses and, indeed, knowledge itself. It is important to remember that, for many students, learning good writing practices is an initiation into an unfamiliar, sometimes uncomfortable, but ultimately illuminating world.
  • Source: John C. Bean, Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2001).
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