Thursday, July 26, 2007

Experiments in Teaching Research Skills

For the first time in the upcoming semester, I will be assigning a group research project in a course. The course is an upper-level course that satisfies a general education requirement, and while I do have a number of majors in the course (hallelujah!) I also will have a range of students of varying ability levels and disciplines. Since the course is numbered at the junior level, I'm committed to including a research component, but from the beginning I decided that I wanted to experiment with a different kind of research assignment from the traditional research paper, particularly since this is not a course aimed solely at majors.

So, how to organize a research assignment from which all students will learn something and at which all students have the potential to succeed when the range of students in the course is so wide? Well, that was the task I set for myself, and what I came up with is this group project idea.

I know. Students hate group projects. But I think the beauty of what I've designed is that the bulk of the work is actually individual, and even the group portions won't require a great deal of meeting with one another - they could probably manage the project entirely electronically if they so chose to do so. The first portion, a group portion, requires each group member to read a brief theoretical text that I assign. (This is also a way to get them to grapple with theory, albeit in a small way.) As a group, they need to write a 250 word summary and a 250 word analysis that connects the theory to the unit to which their project corresponds. (I've offered to meet with the groups to discuss the theory stuff outside of class should they feel at sea with this portion of the assignment.) Then, each individual member is responsible for finding 3 secondary sources and providing an annotation for each, and then for finding 3 primary sources (literary texts of some stripe) that are not on the syllabus that could supplement the assigned texts for the unit with an explanation for how they fit into the unit's themes. Each individual member then needs to write an analysis of how the group worked together, what they learned from their individual part in the project, and what they learn from looking at the project as a whole. Finally, the last "group" part of the grade has to do with formatting and submission, so I'm going to receive just one document with all of the above included. Once I've graded each project (there will be four total), I will post them on the course blackboard site so that all students in the course can see what other groups have done, thus providing 4 supplementary packets of material for students who'd be interested in further reading on the topic of the course.

I suppose the reason I'm excited about this assignment is that 1) it forces them into the library and to read and think about sources (both secondary and primary) in a critical way; 2) it's not actually that much work for each individual, and the project assignment clearly assigns duties to individuals so that one person won't get stuck doing all of the work 3) it gives students the opportunity to hone research skills separately from the monumental task of writing a paper, which I really don't think we give students enough opportunity to do. (I will have them write an essay in which they will need to integrate two secondary critical sources, so they will do some research writing, but they will not do a full-blown research paper in the course, as I expect students to do in senior-level courses.)

Of course, the whole thing could go horribly awry, but my hope is that I've thought of the pitfalls and that students will ultimately find the experience of the project rewarding and that they'll learn something from it. So that's what I've spent my morning doing - trying to compose an assignment for the project that is incredibly clear and that closes all possible loopholes that will make the whole thing disastrous. Have any of you ever assigned a similar sort of project? If so, do you have any advice from your experiences? Also, from my above description, do you see any potential difficulties that I'm not anticipating?


Hilaire said...

No answers to your questions...just, damn, girl, that souns like a great assignment! I love your rationale for it, too. You are a great assignment-designer.

Shaun Huston said...

I have designed and used similar assignments. In my experience many of your suppositions about why this kind of a structure will make group work go down more easily with students are true. I have found that certain problems simply can't be avoided - some groups may develop a bad dynamic no matter how the work is divided up, certain individuals will fail to "pull their weight" and irritate others in the group, etc. What the structure you've outlined here will let you do is reassure those who feel as if they are carrying the burden on the collective responsibilities that the final grades for individual students will reflect those kinds of disparities (mostly I just wish students would get over worrying about the "free rider" issue, but I understand why they don't). As you say, these kinds of projects are good ways to let students develop research skills, but, in the end, even the best structure will fail to capture those students who can't or won't fully participate. As with all group work, the make-up of the group matters most.

k8 said...

That sounds very workable! I know that when I have students do group assignments I spend some time talking about the hang-ups some of us have about it, as well as the nature of collaboration. I also talk about disciplinary differences in the perception of collaboration (and, of course, in comp/rhet collaboration notably has been discussed in terms of gendered practice by Lunsford and Ede).

Your assignment made me think about one I had to do in a theory-type course a long time ago. Everyone in our group was to work with the same primary text(novel, poem, whatever) and we each wrote an essay using a particular theory-type, thus making a mini-casebook of approaches for the text. It wasn't easy, but it sure did make us focus on specific theoretical approaches.

stevenb said...

Give some thought to meeting with one of your university librarians about the assignment. You might get some good help with the design of the assignment so that the students get their research done efficiently and effectively.