What I Ask My Students to Write

In my first year of developing and implementing a problem-based learning approach in my ethics courses, I spotted and moved to correct any number of design flaws, small and large. By the end of that year, though, I realized that a well established feature of my courses would have to change.

I had to do something about essays.

At their very best, essays are an excellent form in which to explore and develop ideas. When I used to assign essays, I would hope that students would catch on to the spirit of the enterprise and really try things out, consider possibilities, and generally learn something in the process of writing.

For my students, though, the essay form was too often based on the old five-paragraph plug-and-chug they’d learn in high school, a form that has established itself as one of the most effective thinking-avoidance tools available.

In other words, while the aim of an essay could and should be to develop a carefully considered judgment, in practice they skip over the consideration part, even skip over anything as refined and demanding as judgment, and come to rest on fortified opinion.

The basic technique is to write a flowery introduction (e.g., “Since the beginning of time, man has wondered about the sustainability of turnip yields”), state an opinion or prejudice, assemble a few paragraphs that seem to support of, or at least generally relevant to, said opinion – drawing as much as possible from online sources and documenting just enough to avoid a visit to the Office of Student Integrity – then close by restating the opinion in slightly different words.

If the instructor insists, a half-hearted look at an opposing argument might be shoehorned in, just before the restatement of the opinion.

Since one of the ancient aims of philosophy has been to move beyond opinion to considered judgment, and because students, when invited to defend a position, tend to focus on judgment and thence to slip back into opinion, it seemed to me I needed assignments that focus on the process of consideration itself.

I needed to get opinion out of the way altogether.

I needed, in other words, to stop assigning essays.

So, what would I have students do, instead?

And what would I call it? The names are important: ‘essay’ and ‘report’ prompt students to fall back on old plug-and-chug routines they learned in high school, so I needed names for my assignments about which students have no prior expectations.

What I came up with has gone through several revisions, but here is the version from my current syllabus:

There are three basic kinds of assignment in the course: group presentations, individual considerations and fragments.

A group presentation has two parts: a creative presentation or performance of a problem situation and three options for responding to the situation, using any format that conveys the immediacy and concrete detail of the situation in narrative form; and a facilitated class discussion of the ethical aspects of the situation and the ethical implications of the options. The entire presentation will be evaluated in vivo using the rubric, though the collaboration score will be determined by peer evaluation.

An individual consideration is an ethical investigation of a practical problem situation, including 1) a thorough analysis of the situation to identify practical questions about which there might be disagreement as well as issues of philosophical salience; 2) two or more practical options for responding to the situation; and 3) a thorough, even-handed, critical consideration of each option that makes use of several, distinct philosophical perspectives (as specified). Each individual consideration will start with the problem situation and one of the options from the group presentation; each student will carry out an independent analysis of the situation and one of the options presented by the group as well as an additional option of her or his own devising. The work submitted should take the form of paragraphs consisting of complete sentences, but it can remain open-ended and, in a sense, unfinished. In fact, a consideration should not reach any conclusions or include any arguments for one “side” or another; there may be indications of further areas of inquiry that are still open. Considerations will be evaluated using the rubric.

A fragment is a short, single-purpose writing; as the name implies, it is not intended to be either comprehensive or polished.  All fragments will be returned with substantive comments and recorded as credit/no credit. Fragments come in three varieties:

  • a group plan is a brief account of how the group will prepare for and complete a group presentation, including identification and assignment of responsibilities, plans for in-class and out-of-class work, procedures for communication and sharing documents, and so on;
  • a group checkpoint is a brief account of the group’s progress in following its group plan including accomplishments, challenges encountered, and possible adjustments or revisions to the plan;
  • an individual reflection consists of a few paragraphs of self-assessment, including answers to the following questions: What are you doing especially well in your work for this course? What could you be doing better in your work for this course? How? What have been your most important accomplishments in your progress toward the learning outcomes of the course? What are the most important challenges you have yet to address?

In addition, at the end of the term, each student will submit a final portfolio of her or his own, individual work in the course, comprising:

  • all three individual considerations as they were originally submitted, each annotated with at least six comments (three indications of things done well, three indications of things that could have been better, and how they could have been better); and
  • a new individual reflection on the student’s work and progress through whole of the course.

My classes for Spring start today. I may write a brief update, later, with any notes worth sharing.

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