As I see it, these are the complicating factors:
- As specific as the assignment is, students did not follow directions. As much as we've talked about my expectations, students did not follow directions. As much as I offered help and clarification, students did not follow directions.
- Students put the project off until the last minute, which meant that they could not effectively do the group portions of the assignment. This probably meant that they didn't have time to follow directions either.
- Students didn't take the help that I offered, and that was available through the library, for the project. And if they'd taken that help, perhaps they would have been able to follow directions?
Another thing that the difficulties students are having with the assignments illuminates is the fact that they don't know how to work collaboratively with other people. It strikes me that this is an important skill to insist that students master because in the "real world" we all need to work collaboratively with people. It's easy for students to see their academic lives as personal experiences; their successes and failures as either only affecting them or as reflecting personal vendettas that they imagine professors have against them. One reason that they can perceive their academic lives in this way is because of how assignments are structured: if all of your work is independent, and if the only interaction you get regarding your work is with the professor, it's difficult to see that in doing this work that you are participating in a broader conversation about ideas, concepts, and critical debates. They don't see the wider ranging implications of their academic work.
It's easy to think that research work is personal because so much of it requires solitude. But when I think about the contours of my job as a professor, really I do a great deal of collaborative work. From meeting commitments for committees on which I serve to dealing with editors and readers' reports to working collaboratively with students, most of what I do is not ultimately solitary. Sure, there are parts of what I do that are. But then all of that goes out into the world and has to be in line with the needs of others. I suspect this would be even more true if I worked in another profession. Most students won't become professors, and even if they do, they will need to have the skills necessary to play well with others. If we don't teach them those skills, then are we really giving them the education that they need?
And so, at this point, in spite of the early returns, I still feel like this is a good assignment. I'm hoping that future groups will learn from the mistakes of those who go before them (which they will have the opportunity to do, as I'm going to post the research projects on our course blackboard site, which they've known all along, and I've now decided that I will post them to the site with comments and necessary additions).
So I'm teaching this course again in the spring, and when I do, I do think that I'll make some changes to the assignment.
- I'm going to require each group to schedule one out-of-class meeting with me to discuss the project. I think that I've given them too much independence as the assignment now stands, and I think that requiring one meeting with me will be a good way of forcing them to get to work earlier and will enable me to address problems before we're at the grading stage.
- In combination with number one, I think that I will require that they have a draft of the project prepared for the meeting, so that I can provide comments.
- I will also be able to offer the next section of the class a model of the assignment because I'll have samples from this section. I had thought about doing a version of the assignment myself and giving it to them this semester, but the reality is that I just didn't have time to do it with the book and everything else.
But. I know with some of the students that the problem is not that the work is foreign to them (only) but also that they blew the assignment off. Because it is very straight-forward, they assumed that it was "easy." They assumed that it wouldn't require intense focus and time. About this, they were sadly mistaken.
You know, in thinking about this assignment, I'm wondering how I myself learned these skills. I think I had similar experiences as an undergrad with underestimating the level of time and commitment that certain assignments would take, but ultimately I was a "good" student, and that carried me through. The same is true for some of the students in this case. But I think part of my desire to break the process down for them has to do with the fact that in my own education, I could have used more help with this stuff.
Another thing I've been thinking about is the way that technology has transformed the way that students do research, in ways that aren't entirely positive. For example, I don't think that students tend to take many notes when they do research, something I still do as a leftover from the days before electronic sources and the days before I had a computer (for yes, I did not own a computer until I began my PhD program). I no longer use note cards, but I do take notes on paper, and at the top of a page of notes for a source, I put the correctly formatted bibliographic citation, just as I had to do back in the days before citation machine and easily accessible online databases and library catalogs. I don't think students have these sort of research habits, in large part because they're no longer essential to writing a paper. The problem is, if you don't master those sort of habits, then you're always half-assing it. You never really master the technical skills necessary to really solid and deep research. But how do we teach those kinds of habits? Because they aren't essential, if you require students to do this sort of thing, you're requiring an anachronism - they'll see it as busy work. They need to come to this stuff on their own, to some extent - even as I needed to come to it on my own during my freshman year of college.
Similarly, I'm not sure that students ever compose much on paper. Now, I no longer compose everything by hand, as I did back in the stone ages before I had a computer, but when I'm working on a really difficult passage, I find that writing longhand slows me down in ways that are really positive for the writing, and so I can go deeper than I tend to do when composing at the keyboard. (You may wonder why my blog posts often tend to be so long. One reason is that I type approximately 100 words a minute with approximately 98% accuracy - at least the last time that I was tested - and so I can pretty much compose at a keyboard as quickly as a person might speak and nearly as quickly as a person might think. Ah, there is always transcription typing to fall back on should the whole academic career not work out.) Again, though, I can't necessarily require that they compose long-hand, nor am I certain that this would solve some of the problems that I see.
For me, all of this stuff connects back to the fact that students often perceive academic work as something that happens outside of any real world context. Because they don't see these activities as having value - other than the value that is signified by the grade that is ultimately assigned - they don't necessarily invest the time and energy necessary to do their best work. And with my students, well, why would they? Most often they have other commitments that are more concrete than the commitment to their own education. I recognize that. And so I suppose what I'm trying to figure out is how to make the commitment to their education concrete and real in ways that it isn't for them naturally.