Trust your students to make the right call: When students shape assignments

Meetings with faculty, favorite comfort food, field research, hot cocoa, potatoes, and blogging. We covered so much today in UNIV 1820 that it was almost as hard to decide what to write for this week as it was to leave after class was finished. But all-in-all my take-away from class is that first-year undergraduates are much more interesting and capable than, in my experience, many people recognize. My evidence? Today, probably without realizing, my mixed-major class set and advocated for the value of college-level writing expectations for one of their major assignments. My Teaching Assistant and I just let them loose, and they did the rest.

The Assignment: In this course students will receive writing guidance and feedback on a minimum of two Blackboard blog posts. The content will be wholly student-driven, consisting of each individual’s spin on coverage of one UConn Reads event on campus (attendance is required) and one weekly topic from class. An optional third blog post can be on any other UConn Reads event, class weekly topic, or approved alternative topic of relevance to the course. Only 1-3 students can cover any one topic, so that they can all have reasonable publication opportunities. Students are expected to read the blogs posted by their peers every week so that at the end of class they can nominate the blogs they want to be submitted for a publication opportunity, with the author’s permission. We will only pass on posts my TA and I approve that also receive confidential “yes” votes from more than 50% of the students.

Pre-Class Homework: To give them some frame of reference for this lesson, students were required to review at least two (somehow relevant) blogs prior to coming to class today. Students knew that they would need to give specific examples of what they though worked well and what was ineffective, but that was all.

In-Class Activity: In class today I explained the way voting would work for publication. And I emphasized that everyone would be accountable to the whole community of learners in our class because everyone will need to read the blog posts their peers create. And any published blog would represent out community. Their most important task of the day was to use what they learned from reading other blogs to collaboratively determine what “accountability” would look like, first in small groups, then all together. In other words, how will we differentiate a strong submission from a weak submission? This is what they created once the four small groups came together:

Characteristics of Strong Blogs Characteristics of Weak Blogs
Creativity / Originality “Copy and Paste”
Personal Anecdotes / Pictures Offensive Language
Respectful Controversy Uncited Sources
Engaging Grammar Mistakes
Clear Organization and Design No Personality
Relevant Content Repetition
Thought Provoking Solely Focusing on Self
Relatable, Conversational Tone Unsupported Opinions
High-Quality Images No Variety
Off Topic

Although they didn’t use the same terms we might use as instructors, I was impressed that they identified core writing elements that would be valued in their academic writing as much as a blog. Specifically, said they wanted to see voice, academic honesty, engagement with ongoing discourse, critical and creative thinking, professionalism, and well-supported arguments. Students most passionately spoke against plagiarism (though, not using the term) because it was seen as disrespectful of other writers, lacking meaningful engagement with the topic, and otherwise reprehensible work. Other students shared equally vehement arguments for proofreading final products, for rooting ideas in larger debates, and against forwarding unsupported arguments.

Needless to say, if I had created and disseminated a grading rubric I would have hit on all of the same standards my students developed for their assignment. But this exercise was infinitely more enjoyable. And because they have not only selected their prompts, but also their grading guidelines, I expect to have greater buy-in. I’m looking forward to reading their posts!

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