Papers and Class Projects
Conceptualizing and Assigning Papers and Projects
students working together to
determine cathedral proportions.
papers or projects is similar to conceptualizing exams: you must know
what you wish to accomplish. Will a review be sufficient, or are you expecting
a logical argument? Are you flexible regarding style, or should students
follow a format specific to your discipline? Does the complexity of the
topic fit your students' level and the assigned page limit? How you construct
and phrase the assignment will influence what students submit. In the
suggestions below, we are assuming that you assign papers and projects
because you know that working on them helps students clarify and refine
their thoughts about a subject (see also Deen, 1995, and D'Errico and
the assignment to gain what you want. Words like "review,"
"describe," "survey" and "summarize" prompt
most students to write reports rather than analytical essays. Words
like "analyze," "critique," "judge" and
"explain" more often produce the kind of expository prose
you probably want.
- Hand out
assignments in writing so that students can review the assignment as
they work on it. Moreover, writing tutors whom your students may consult
need to see your actual assignment rather than work from students' recollections.
- Make sure
your students understand the conventions and expectations of your discipline.
A student studying a new subject will find a lab report, a psychological
case study, or a literary analysis equally alien. Provide examples of
your academic genre, and review basic genre requirements. Students are
particularly baffled when asked to write a "book review;"
you may have in mind The New York Review of Books, but their
experience probably extends only to high school book reports. If your
discipline is second nature to you and it's tough to explain, take your
written instructions and a sample paper to the Writing Center; as outsiders,
they can tell whether you are explicitly requesting what you expect.
the audience for each paper. Is it you? Other students? An academic
journal readership? This information helps students know how much quoted
material to include and review, as well as the appropriate tone.
booby traps from the assignment. For example, a "compare and contrast"
assignment may well produce thesis-free essays that either spend half
the pages on each topic or simply list points of similarity and difference.
Likewise, the series of questions you offer to stimulate students' thinking
may lead them to produce an unfocused essay that merely answers each
question in turn.
- Help students
get started. You might ask for a thesis statement about two weeks before
a paper is due, together with notes about proposed supporting evidence
and a list of sources in bibliographic form. If you want the student
to acknowledge and respond to opposing arguments in the paper, you could
also ask for a paragraph describing alternate points of view. Then you
can help students as necessary before they submit the entire paper.
more, shorter papers or projects to permit more frequent feedback and
improvement of students' work. If possible, assign a short (one- to
three-page) essay early in the semester. Not only will you immediately
identify students likely to have trouble, but you can also extract several
thesis paragraphs you can use to explain revision techniques.
- When possible,
give students opportunities and motives for revision. Incorporate a
short essay into a longer final project, and students have a stake in
improving their writing. For best results, require a preliminary draft
of papers and projects prior to the final due date; read them quickly,
note successes, pinpoint confusions, and suggest improvements. Don't
go into too much detail; leave the rewriting to the student. Yes, you
will have some extra reading early on but usually noticeably better
final drafts. You also avoid receiving a paper written the night before
the due date.
if your class attracts first- or second-year students or non-majors,
consider requiring each student to submit a thesis statement in advance;
then, if possible, have conferences with students in trouble. Otherwise,
discussing strengths and weaknesses of thesis statements as a class
can enlighten several students at once. For an effective, detailed process
to help students create and complete a long-term project, consider the
"Paper or Project Prospectus" (Angelo and Cross, 1993, pp.
a dark and stormy night. Suddenly a scream pierced the air. . . . Good
writing takes enormous concentration.
Schulz, Peanuts, 1988
Grading Papers and Projects
you must grade papers and projects according to the criteria you announce,
so be sure you are happy with your advertised standards. Refer to the
techniques described in the section on grading essay exams, but demand
a much higher quality of writing and reasoning for papers and projects
that students have worked on over a period of time. Even when content
is your main objective, comment on students' writing, organization, logic,
and style; attribute part of the grade to these aspects of communication.
When commenting, remember that students who write poorly may well not
have learned yet how to do better. You may need to show that you cannot
find a thesis statement or show why a paper is poorly organized. Poor
writers might not know how to fix an "awkward" sentence; you
need to explain what is wrong and, perhaps, how to fix it. To save time
and offer as much help as possible, consider creating a checklist with
adequately detailed examples of errors and corrections that you can attach
to problematic papers. Use this to supplement, not substitute for, individualized
comments. (See also "Interacting with Students.")