When I taught WR 115 in Fall 2013, I used a broad education theme to create cohesion in the course. As I revised the class for this academic year, I decided to retain the education theme. However, I radically redesigned the assignments in the course to help make the course more individualized for students and to allow students to focus more closely on research and critically engaging sources.
Students will begin the term by composing an essay that outlines one of their personal academic goals and how they arrived at this goal. We will then move into a section of the course devoted to research and critically analyzing/writing about sources. During this time, students will craft interview questions that will enable them to interview at least two people who might be able to give them advice to come up with a plan to achieve their academic goal. Students will also find at least two secondary sources that should also help them build a plan to reach their goal.
Once students have completed their interviews and secondary research, they will compose a detailed annotated bibliography where they will be asked to critically engage their sources. Students will then compose the second major essay of the course, which will clearly outline a plan for achieving their goal as well as consider obstacles that they might need to overcome. After they’ve completed this essay, each student will give a 5 minute presentation in class in which they share with their classmates their goal and plan for achieving it.
The course will wrap up with a Course Goals/CLOs Essay, in which students reflect upon what they’ve learned this term and provide specific evidence that they’ve met each course goal on the syllabus as well as evidence that they’ve worked toward at least one of Lane’s Core Learning Outcomes. It’s my hope that being asked to write about a specific academic goal with clarity and then have to devise a specific plan on how to achieve that goal will help students not only improve their writing and research skills but also get into the habit of mapping out their academic goals and deeply considering what steps they will need to take to achieve them.
As I reflect on this course I remain a bit baffled by the experience of teaching it. While I had thought that having students focus in on a specific, personal, academic goal would help them care more about this course and their work in it (which is important in a class that almost no one takes “because they want to”), I spent most of the term unsure that this was the case. However, during the last two weeks of the term, I began to see some students express an appreciation for the way the course was framed, what it had taught them about their own academic journeys, and the space it had provided them to really think through and plan one of their academic goals. It was hard for me to tell if students felt this way all term and I just didn’t realize it until the end, or if it was the students who didn’t realize until almost the end of the course that the work they’d done in the class this term actually did have meaning for them.
I’m not even sure how much I would care which it was if I didn’t believe that students who can see the personal relevance of the work they’re being asked to do while they’re doing it tend to learn more in the process of doing it. But it was a strange experience to spend much of the term thinking the way I’d hoped to foster student engagement in the class had failed, only to discover at the end of the term that students actually were engaged in the material. Engaged enough that nearly half the class signed up to take WR121 with me during Winter term.
This class marked the first time that I’d asked students to give a presentation in a writing course. While I think that the assignment itself needs revision and that I need to spend more time framing the assignment for students during instruction, I really liked having this component in the course. It allowed students in the class to see the wide variety of goals their classmates were working toward and to have a broader perspective of what it meant to “get an education.” It also allowed them the chance to participate in the process of using a rubric to asses their peer’s work and to learn to look for “key” points of effective communication in real time.
Since WR115 is intended for students who are not quite yet ready for college-level writing courses, I think the presentation also helped some of the students gain extra confidence in their ideas and their ability to express these ideas effectively to an audience. Because writing is something many of them struggle with (or at least believe they do), it’s hard for many students to feel confident in WR115. For a good number of students, getting to present their ideas orally to a room full of peers they’d spent all term getting to know helped them feel more confident in their ability to effectively communicate their thoughts and ideas to others. The confidence they gained from successfully communicating their ideas in an oral presentation often carried over into their writing in a way that made the presentation assignment especially successful in the larger scope of the course.
I also think students really gained a lot from the interview portion of their research in this class. While some students took the “easy route” and simply interviewed people they already knew, many of the students in this class really took the interviews seriously and saw them as the opportunity I’d intended them to be when I designed the course–a chance to seek out folks or groups on campus that could provide the information or support students need to achieve particular academic goals. I was delighted by how many students conducted in-depth interviews with academic advisers, counselors, financial aid advisers, instructors in fields relevant to their personal academic goals, program leads, folks who could help them map out post-graduation employment options, and other students who are farther along the path toward similar academic goals. I was also delighted by the fact that many students were as able to recognize the importance of the information they obtained from these interviews as I was. It’s always exciting as a teacher to see an assignment work the way you’d hoped it would when you were designing the course, and to have students (for the most part) understand why they were asked to do this assignment and how it was important to their personal growth.
I do think that overall the assignments in this course need a bit of tweaking if I decide to use this framework to teach the course again. There are important connections between the assignments that I think I failed to map out as well as I could have and needed to for students to be able to follow my “teacher brain.” For example, I think I could have created a map or flow chart to share with students at the start of the term that would have allowed them to see how all the pieces of the course fit together into a larger, meaningful whole. I also think that I need to spend more time in WR115 helping students learn how to map assignments, activities, and learning to course goals. While I know that part of the “problem” with doing that this term was the fact that we missed two class periods because of campus closures, I also think that structurally this is one of my overall weak points when I teach this course. Maybe in the future I can figure out how to build an assignment into the course that helps students map to the course goals earlier in the term so they feel more prepared for and empowered to do the Course Goal/CLO Essay at the end of the term.