2009 Teaching and Learning Symposium

2:30-4:30 p.m., April 21, 2009
HUB Ballroom

Session Description



Engaging Students Through Writing Assignments

Amy Absher (History)

A good scholar needs a good imagination. Scholars regularly have to imagine new ways to view narratives and periodization as well as how to approach sources. Teaching these skills to the undergraduate requires both the student and instructor to view the essay assignment in a new way: as a chance to apply critical thinking skills in a manner that reinforces the need to know not only the information but to see the underlying contradictions and relationships in the sources.

I will present three classroom-tested assignments that suggest ways to remake the essay assignment.

  • The Creative History Essay is an exercise in which students imagine what would happen if a plague broke out on campus, or if the historic figures they studied all quarter were to all show up for a dinner party. The student, using his or her course materials, imagines what would happen next. This assignment is a new way of asking students to consider discontinuity and continuity in history.
  • The Artifact is an assignment created for an upper-division seminar course in which the students were taught research skills, writing skills, and focused on one decade in American history. It is an assignment that combines the best parts of a library based paper and an exam. Each student is given a primary source (an item or printed material from the time-period the class is studying) in a sealed envelope. The students must find a way to build a research project around the Artifact. In addition to having students study topics they might never have chosen on their own, the Artifact tests the studentís knowledge of history and problem solving skills. Essentially, the Artifact is challenging because the assignments asks the students to become a historian.
  • The Footprint Essay is an assignment that asks the student to write an essay that accompanies his or her research paper. In the Footprint Essay the student discusses the steps he or she took to solve the research problems. For example, how did they start their research, what databases did they use, what library collections were most helpful, and how did the paper and the thesis statement evolve over time. What were the dead-ends in the research process? How did they decide which sources were the most important? The benefit of this assignment is that students are asked to become aware of their thinking process and take ownership of their work.

These assignments are intended to supplement the traditional assignments -- such as book reviews, source analysis, and persuasive essays ó in a way that reinforces intellectual rigor by suggesting to the students that creative thinking is a valuable part of critical thinking. The assignments have proven to be beneficial assignments for the non-linear thinkers and for students that find the traditional essay format intimidating. In addition to the poster, I will provide attendees with copies of the assignments so that they can adapt the concepts to their own classes.


Index of Symposium Presenters