Asking students to write in Social Sciences classes is an important way of finding out the quality of their ability to think critically about the material. As teachers, we routinely ask students to show their understanding of events or concepts, whether the course we are teaching is history, sociology or psychology. In each of these fields of study, asking students to demonstrate their knowledge of applying their learning and understanding to primary source material is a central way of determining how fully they have done their work as students. Constructing meaningful essay exams is a central way this communication happens in social science classrooms, as is asking students to research a topic in the field, integrate that research into their own analysis, and document their work appropriately.
Several teachers at Washtenaw Community College have designed projects which clearly communicate standards and expectations to students, along with offering opportunities for students to apply their skills and knowledge in practical ways. Dr. David Fitzpatrick has designed an assignment for his History 220 course which offers them some choice of topic, and which clearly communicates standards. Students have 5 choices of topic on which to write an argumentative paper which answers a specific question. While the 5thchoice is for the student to determine their own topic pending the approval of instructor, the other choices ask for focused research and thought along specific lines. The questions on an assignment that Dr. Fitzpatrick shared with this project ranged from an invitation to determine what caused the collapse of Reconstruction in our country between 1872 and 1877, to considering how significant slavery was as a cause for the Civil War. For each option, he indicated appropriate starting points for research, and clear standards for documentation (No MLA, either footnotes or endnotes acceptable). He indicates clear length, content and research requirements for the paper, and includes a timetable of due dates for preparatory materials students will accomplish as they complete the paper. Step by step, he clearly communicates with students, and shows by the design of the assignment that he is well aware that student may not already know how to do the sort of research he has in mind. To see more of Dr. Fitzpatrick’s assignments, please view a PDF document below. You will need Acrobat Reader to view a PDF. If you do not already have Adobe Acrobat Reader, you can download it for free from Adobe.
WCC Psychologist, Dr. Anne Garcia, asks PSY 100 students to write a Journal Article Critique in order to show that they are able to conduct research in their field. Her directions for the assignment are clear and include the rationale for the assignment, as well as clearly stating her criteria:
Part of conducting psychological research is reviewing and understanding published research studies. In this part of the assignment, you are being asked to identify and find an article published in a scientific journal that is based directly (or in some cases indirectly) on the original research topic. Please read the article and write a paper about the article that answers the questions below. The paper should be typed in 12 pt font and approximately 2 to 3 pages in length. Be sure to enclose a copy of the research article (including the abstract that briefly summarizes the entire research study) with your report.
In addition, Professor Garcia includes questions for her students to help them learn the vocabulary of psychological research articles, and to aid them in thinking critically about the material they uncover. Her directions clearly state the reason this sort of project is important, and also make it certain that students who are following her directions and cues will end up being able to read, comprehend, and write coherently about scholarship in their field. To see more of Dr. Garcia’s assignments, please view the PDF document below. You will need Acrobat Reader to view a PDF. If you do not already have Adobe Acrobat Reader, you can download it for free from Adobe.
The standard documentation style for historical papers is found in The Chicago Manual of Style, and Kate Turabian’s A Manual for Writers of Term Papers, Theses and Dissertations, both offered by the University of Chicago Press. The standard documentation style for Sociology and Psychology is APA, the set of standards put out by the American Psychological Association. Whichever documentation style you choose, remember that the reason they must document their work in college is not just to prove that they have not plagiarized another’s work, but is primarily to show the quality and nature of the research they have undertaken. By citing their research sources appropriately, they are ensuring that their ideas will be given more credence. The more we can communicate with them about what standards and expectations we want them to be able to meet after they have successfully passed our courses, the better we will be serving their long term goals, and our own agenda of conveying information.
Exam questions. As teachers at a community college, part of what we are communicating to our students are cues as to what college level work requires. To that end, we can consider offering students guidelines for each type of writing they do in our courses. Richard Marius, in A Short Guide to Writing about History, 3rd Ed., urges students to be specific in answering essay questions on history exams. He writes: “You must name people, dates, documents, places… Who? What? Where? When? Why? These questions should haunt your mind, and you should always be trying to answer them as you read and write” (183). By spending some time preparing students to do the quality work we expect of them on essay exams, we can ensure that we are training them to take the opportunity of their education seriously.