Designing Effective Written Assignments (Chet
Liabilities of the Traditional Term Paper
Characteristics of Effective Written Assignments
"Consumes inordinate amounts of time . . . and the time is not well spent."
Students report the thinking of the "experts" rather than do their own
Professors write imprecise instructions that do not give enough guidance
Students "focus their attention on form rather than . . . formulating a
1. They employ a step by step development of critical thinking skills
"Students do not learn to think critically merely by acquiring increasingly
complex layers of discipline content; . . . rather, they need to practice
actively the component skills of critical thinking." A series of shorter
writing assignments, building from summaries and proceeding through short
analytical papers will teach and demonstrate thinking better than one long
paper at the end of the course.
2. They focus on real problems and issues
Present the task as a case study or problem to solve. For example,
not "Discuss the relationship between Sartre's concepts of anguish and
freedom," but rather "A friend's marriage has just broken up. Your friend
is in deep despair over this loss and is fearful of facing the future alone.
How would you explain your friend's feelings and condition in terms of
Sartre's concepts of anguish and freedom?" [slightly edited]
3. They have clear instructions
"Whenever my students have uniformly bungled an assignment, the problem
can always be traced to some legitimate misinterpretation of my instructions."
Five Types of Written Assignments for Critical Thinking
Although summarizing might appear to be a simple exercise, it requires
identifying central concepts and issues, prioritizing, and seeing connections
between concepts. "Summarizing requires sorting through words and ideas,
trying to separate the essential from the nonessential. . . Instructors
therefore should give priority to initial assignments that highlight essential
concepts, issues, and principles and require students to translate these
into their own words and experience. . . . Summaries function much like
2. Short analytical papers (micro themes)
A series of several short papers focusing on related concepts can build
a sequence of connections among related themes in the course; they can
also become parts of a longer paper.
3. Problem solving exercises using popular media
Asking to students to apply the knowledge in the course to respond
to an editorial, political columnist, or recent news story is a good way
to turn abstract concepts into concrete applications.
4. Simulations and cases
For example: (1) Summarize the attached editorial/column, focusing on
the reasons and evidence given; (2) how does the writer's interpretation
confirm or contradict the X principle/theory/model we have been studying?
Simulations and hypothetical or real cases provide a realistic context,
a purpose, and an audience with which to apply the content of the course,
to pull together the various themes and threads, to apply abstract principles
to a concrete situation.
Source: Chet Meyers, Teaching Students to Think Critically: A Guide
to Faculty in All Disciplines. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers,
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