Blogs and Term Papers

This is the third in a series on the future of the term paper in higher educations (part 1part 2, part 3)

Kathleen Vacek, Director, Writing Center, University of North Dakota

As educators, we want our students to use writing to learn about the world around them, and we want them to use writing effectively as actors in that world. When it comes to helping our students reach these goals, we shouldn’t throw any options off the table. We should use all kinds of writing assignments–everything from blogs to term papers–as long as we thoughtfully match the assignment to learning outcomes.

Being very clear about learning outcomes is the first step. In her book, College Writing and Beyond, literacy researcher Anne Beaufort offers a model of writing expertise that I find very helpful for thinking through writing-related learning outcomes. Beaufort depicts the knowledge of expert writers as five overlapping domains: rhetoric, genre, writing process, subject matter, and discourse community. I’ll use term papers and blogs as examples to illustrate how you might think through the five domains when defining outcomes and designing assignments.

What is a term paper?

What I call a term paper is a scaled-down version of what we write for journals. It seeks to answer an interesting question using appropriate evidence that will be convincing to a particular audience. It is not a summary of a bunch of stuff other people have said. (Students often think a term paper is a summary of sources, so if we want to see a research question and evidence we need to ask for it.) If we want students to be able to pose questions, assemble and analyze evidence, and make an argument, we should assign term papers.

Because the term paper is a sustained project resulting in a relatively long finished product, a successful student writer must make full use of the writing process–starting early, working through multiple drafts, leaving time for editing–to produce the paper. The student needs exposure to the genre “term paper” to know what sections or moves are typically included, what it should look like, and how sources are to be incorporated. The student has to draw on rhetorical knowledge to know how to make a persuasive claim for the particular audience and how to back it up with the appropriate kinds of evidence. The student has to have learned enough about the subject matter to have something to say, to have background knowledge against which to evaluate sources of evidence, and to know what’s common ground in the field versus what’s up for debate. It should be clear by now that all of this knowledge is context-specific. To write a successful anthropology term paper, a student writer needs knowledge of the anthropology discourse community, including what kinds of questions are asked, what approaches are taken to answering those questions, and what specialized vocabulary will show that the writer is a anthropology “insider.” Being able to do this in anthropology does not mean the student can do it in economics.

The term paper is appropriate for upper-division courses in the major because students must integrate the five knowledge domains. But that does not mean that a student’s first encounter with a term paper should be in the capstone course. If we want to use those papers as assessment tools, we need students to practice doing them before they write their final culminating project. We should find ways to build in practice for the capstone project at the upper-division level but before the capstone course.

Some ways to use blogs

Lower-division courses can begin building up particular components of the five knowledge domains. A blog assignment that requires students to make arguments, for example, can be a great way to build up rhetorical knowledge. By writing for a real audience that can respond through comments, students practice being persuasive and see almost immediately if they are successful. A blog might also be used as a student’s journal, documenting his or her learning throughout the course. This kind of blog assignment teaches students how to make use of the writing process to aid learning and to discover new ideas. And blogs are only one tool. There are countless ways to design writing assignments, both high-tech and low-tech.

So term papers and blogs are both potentially valuable learning experiences. Defining clear learning outcomes and matching learning experiences to the outcomes is key. Students need repeated practice in each of the five domains, and they need to build up to complex projects. If we start thinking about the development of writing expertise over the course of a student’s program, we will be better at defining outcomes and designing the assignments that help students reach those outcomes.

More on the Future of Term Papers

This is the third in a series on the future of the term paper in higher educations (part 1, part 2)

Caroline Campbell, Department of History, University of North Dakota

Is the term paper still an important tool in higher education?  This question fits into wider debates over a variety of practices in higher education.  Too often the debates are framed in polemical terms whereby a practice is deemed to be either anachronistic and ineffective or cutting-edge and successful.  While these extremes are attention-grabbing they often don’t reflect the realities of what goes on in many classrooms.  Here’s a partial list of some of the hallmarks of higher education whose relevance has been called into question by social commentators, educators, and politicians:

Put together, each of these form a significant segment of what many colleges and universities do.  Because each is so common, critiquing them as lacking in relevance has contributed, perhaps unintentionally in many cases, to a wider discourse that higher education employs antiquated practices and thus fails its students.  As some critics point out, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerburg dropped out of school and supposedly are the better for it.  A typical line of argument is as follows: why go to an anachronistic school where you will be forced to attend lectures, which aren’t effective teaching methods, work independently, which “real” jobs don’t require, interact with a teacher whose communication skills are so-so when you could find better purveyors of information on-line, and write a term paper that nobody besides the professor will read.

Yet this line of argument masks important data that demonstrates the benefits of obtaining a degree beyond high school.  For example, according to a recent report, unemployment for new college graduates is approximately 8.9 percent whereas it’s at 22.9 percent for those with only a high school diploma.  Of course these rates vary according to major, the type of institution that the graduate attended, and a variety of factors pertaining to an individual’s race, gender, and sexual orientation, among others.  In many ways, higher education and the liberal arts disciplines that are subject to the most vitriol are doing things right.  This is a fact that gets lost in laments over all the irrelevant aspects of higher education.  For example, Google has famously stated that it plans on hiring around 6,000 employees over the next year, of which they hope 4,000-5,000 will be liberal arts majors.

Nevertheless, reforms are still necessary.  While Academically Adrift has garnered the most press, multiple studies have shown that colleges and universities are not teaching enough students to read and write effectively.  Because UND serves students with a broad range of skill level and motivation, these findings could provide some useful ideas on how to improve our approach to teaching and the methods we employ.  Indeed, in comparison with flagship universities across the United States, UND ranks near the bottom in terms of the percentage of students who graduate in four years (21.1%) and six years (51.2%), above only the University of New Mexico and the University of Montana.

In this context a nuanced approach to what constitutes effective teaching and learning is most useful.  For example, a more revealing question to ask than ‘are term papers relevant’ is what makes an effective term paper?  What makes an effective blog posting?  In this vein, it would be enlightening to have more discussions of assignments and methods that we have attempted that haven’t worked, why that is, and what can be done to improve them.  More broadly, what teaching methods and assignments are best suited to a professor’s personality and intellectual interests?  What specifically do UND students need that the faculty and administration is not yet doing?  These types of questions enable educators to avoid a one-size-fits-all approach to education and recognize that a professor’s strengths and weaknesses are as diverse as the students we teach.  These questions also enable us to avoid the Chicken Little approach that higher education is teetering on brink of disaster while we balance those alarmist views with examining systemic and cultural shortcomings that do need reform.

The Future of Term Papers

This is the second in a series on the future of the term paper in higher educations (part 1).

Cynthia Prescott, Department of History, UND

I am thoroughly convinced – by recent Scholarship of Teaching and Learning and by my own experience in the classroom – that writing should be central to the teaching of many academic disciplines, including History.  This calls for us to incorporate many different forms of writing into our courses, from informal journal entries to carefully revised formal essays, and everything in between.

In fact, I embraced the logic of Writing Across the Curriculum so thoroughly as to abandon term papers in several of my upper-division History courses.  Instead, I encourage students to use informal and formal writing assignments as a means to deepen their understanding of course material.  I have also experimented with online discussion boards, blogs and wikis to encourage students to engage with the material in (somewhat) more public ways.

Yet even as I abandon lengthy term papers in favor of shorter, more focused writing assignments and explore ways to engage my students using new media, I find myself increasingly convinced that our students need to learn how to write research-based term papers – perhaps now more than ever.  Why? Blame it on Google and Wikipedia.  In an age when raw data is accessible to an unprecedented extent (and K-12 education increasingly teaches to multiple-guess tests), our students are increasingly convinced that Google and Wikipedia are the only tools that they need to find the “right” answer to any question.  At the same time, the political climate increasingly favors the dumbing down of complex political arguments into easily tweeted sound bites.  A coincidence?  I think not.  It is therefore all the more important that we guide our students to develop information literacy and to think critically about their sources of information.

In the years since I was an undergraduate, the technological revolution has placed ever more quality research at our fingertips.  Even more importantly for historians, it has also begun to make primary source material – original government documents, private diaries and correspondence, historic photos, television commercials, and so much more – readily available to scholars at all levels.  While I am a tad nostalgic about the visceral experience of being the first (and perhaps the last) to hold a dusty, crumbling manuscript, I recognize that the digital humanities give my students unprecedented access to previously inaccessible primary materials – even in a location as remote as Grand Forks, North Dakota.  Certainly it is possible to create shorter assignments that ask students to engage with these newly-available primary sources, and I am working to incorporate such projects into all of my courses.  But there is a different kind of learning that happens when an individual has to go out and find the appropriate material for themselves, and to assess which materials are most relevant and most reliable.  In an age of Facebook and Twitter, there is also something to be said for encouraging our students to engage with a particular topic in depth for a prolonged period.  Certainly most of my students will not truly be creating new knowledge, as the traditional standard for History education demanded.  But their experience of exploration, accessing and assessing information, and grappling with it in an extended piece of writing are all skills that I believe will prepare them to be better citizens.

The Future of Term Papers

Once the staple of academic assessment, the term paper is now being challenged as an ineffective and harmful to student progress. Does the term paper still an important tool in higher education? This topic was recently brought up in a the New York Times by a Duke professor that argued that the term paper should be replaces by the blog as a teaching and assessment tool. It was also highlighted in The Chronicle of Higher Education as being potentially anachronistic. Over the next several weeks, Teaching Thursday will be exploring a wide variety of perspectives on term papers and blogs.

Bill Caraher, Department of History, University of North Dakota

Since the 19th century, the term paper has stood as a central component of the professional training of historians. Inseparable from the seminar system developed by the first professional historians in Germany, the term paper represented the standard delivery method for new historical knowledge. Grounded in primary sources and situated in relation to secondary literature, the term paper encapsulated the professional standard of the discipline and formed a first step in training students to produce theses, dissertation, scholarly articles, and eventually monographs. Along the way, historians have argued that term papers introduce students to a number of transferable skills from clear writing and organization to research skills, precise argumentation, and respect for the work of others.

The digital revolution and the changing landscape of higher education have begun to challenge the value of traditional terms papers with their roots in professional, vocational training of historians.  In my classes, I am shifting to shorter (<1500 word), more structured and focused assignments that have less room for creativity, but also owe less to traditional models for professional training.  I suspect that these shorter more focused assignments have more obvious applications in a wide range of setting (such as web writing, memo writing, and other professional, non-academic areas of work). I am also starting to include more “public” types of writing into my class with students having to prepare discussion posts – for example – that can be read by their fellow students. This not only adds a level of peer pressure to the assignment, but also creates an immediate and easily recognizable audience for their work.  Finally, I am beginning to toy with more collective writing assignments that would leverage resources like the Scale-up classroom (where students work in teams linked digitally) or using Wiki type interfaces that allow students to produce synthetic works but still get recognized for their contributions to the final product. These kinds of corporate, public, and focused writing assignments mark a serious departure from the traditional practices of term paper writing and the goals of those assignment.

Michael Beltz, Department of Philosophy & Religion, University of North Dakota

One of the subtle arguments forwarded in the debate over the future of term papers focuses on the disconnect between the term paper as a formal assessment tool and long-term, job-related skills. Several writers have argued that the term paper does not correspond with the main skills that are applicable to the modern workforce or modern citizen engagement. These authors tend to highlight alternative assignment and assessment tools that have a more direct relationship to non-academic activities. Coupled with this criticism is a corresponding argument that the term paper is an assignment with no clear audience and assignments like blogs avoid this by having a more immediate and intimate audience.

I think that this set of criticisms is a red herring argument that misses the role of the term paper in two ways. First, in many ways all of the assignments and assessment tools used in higher education have limited connections to non-academic life skills. Most formal examinations and quizzes have limited connections to the non-academic life; on the job or at home, it is rare that we will every encounter a fill in the bubble form or have to do a term-matching exercise, under time constraints, for our supervisors. Students are unlikely to be in moderated large or small group discussions on the theoretical concepts in an academic article. Even the blog is not directly applicable to non-academic life, since instructors put significant constraints on topic, structure, tone, and style. Personal blogs and interest-based blogs, in non-academic life, do not have the constraints. Equally important, the issues that authors of personal blogs and interest-based blogs have to deal with (like flaming, trolling, anonymous posting, etc) tend to be structured out of academic blog postings. I am certain that many people will be able to find examples from non-academic life that provide counter-examples to my individual points above, but it is my contention that in general there is a disconnect between most academic assignments and non-academic life. The term paper seems different in some ways, but this seems to be more of a problem for all assignments rather than just the term paper.

The second way that I think that this argument is a red herring is that it underestimates the relationship between the term paper and non-academic life. It is a mistake to think that the term paper is an audience-less form of writing. The term paper has a specific audience, even though it is an audience of one: the instructor. However, much of the writing that is done in non-academic life is written for an audience of one. Reports, performance reviews, letters, policy prescriptions, white papers, policy memos, etc. all have a very narrow audience size (often only an audience of one). The fact that different disciplines and different instructors have different expectations and requirements for term papers strengthens the skills taught by term papers. These differences demand that students learn how to address an audience of one and how to be adaptable in their presentation of ideas. However, these varied term papers help students develop: the skills of research, a deep understanding of a new topic in a short period of time, the ability to use evidence to make claims, and the ability to reach reasoned conclusions based on this research. The term paper probably should not be the only assessment tool we use, but that does not mean that the term paper is a relic of the past that should be abandoned as outdated.

The Peril, Promise, and Potential of Distance Eduction: A Faculty Lecture

Please come and hear Prof. Carenlee Barkdull from the University of North Dakota’s Department of Social Work (and Teaching Thursday contributor) deliver her Faculty Lecture on the Peril, Promise, and Potential of Distance Education. The lecture is on Thursday, March 8, at the North Dakota Museum of Art.  A reception starts at 4 p.m. and the lecture at 4:30 p.m.

Carenlee Barkdull, UND Department of Social Work and director of the Master of Social Work (MSW) program, has been a faculty member since August 2005. She has taught numerous graduate and undergraduate courses, including qualitative research, generalist practice with communities and organizations, advanced generalist practice with communities, introduction to social work, and graduate field seminars.

She earned her Bachelor of Arts in anthropology, and her master’s and doctorate in social work at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. There, she received numerous doctoral program awards, including the McPhee Research Scholarship, the Marriner S. Eccles Fellowship in Political Economy and the Phi Kappa Phi Fellowship.

An overarching theme in her nearly 20 years in human service organizations – and in her more recent career in higher education – has been bringing social work perspectives to bear in solving community problems and building community capacity, particularly for diverse and vulnerable populations. Barkdull managed grants from the Children’s Bureau for the University of Utah’s Social Research Institute, guiding collaborations in rural and reservation communities over a three-year period to improve outcomes for socioeconomically-disadvantaged children and families in four western states. An additional grant she obtained from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration funded a similar project for the Paiute Tribe in southwestern Utah. She also served as an evaluation consultant over many years for elementary and middle school afterschool programs in Utah.She is the author of 16 publications, manuscripts and evaluations, and has presented at numerous national and international conferences. Her work has focused on both community practice and diversity, especially in relation to American Indian, Muslim and refugee populations. Since coming to UND, she has been awarded grants from the Northern Valley Nonprofit Organization that supported her research on poverty in Grand Forks. Grants from the Public Scholarship Fund supported a graduate student-led conference on restorative justice, and, more recently, work relevant to New Americans in the Grand Forks community. Barkdull also co-authored and is principal investigator for an interdisciplinary grant awarded in January to investigate the oil boom’s impacts on the state’s vulnerable populations.

A more recent area of scholarly interest has been distance education. The social work department launched the first distance program of its kind in the nation for MSW students in 2006. This model has been adopted by two other universities. The rapid growth of the distance program has brought significant growth for the social work department, more than tripling the number of graduate students over five years. She has more than 10 years of experience with distance education in her career. She recently co-authored a publication with colleagues at the University of Indiana on technology and teaching.  She is currently preparing a manuscript on the social work department’s innovative graduate program with Carol Schneweis, distance program coordinator, and other co-authors. The focus of her lecture will be to address some of the current challenges and controversies around distance education and teaching with technology. She will also share results of her research with the MSW distance program’s first graduated cohort.

Checking in on the Experiments

Michael Beltz, Department of Philosophy & Religion, University of North Dakota

At the beginning of this semester, I decided to change some of the aspects of my teaching methodology. Instead of changing components of my teaching in a random manner, I set out to address and correct some specific problems that I have encountered in past semesters. I also hoped to address some of my own teaching deficiencies. Below, I will focus on an analysis of three changes I implemented. Now that we are to the middle of the semester, it is time to assess whether these experiments are showing signs of success and whether they have led to any unintended consequences.

Problem meant to be addressed: I have found, over the past several years, that I am not especially good at learning students’ names. However, most of the teaching literature in higher education indicates that students perform better when faculty take the time to learn their names.

Core idea of the solution: On the first day of the semester, I had each student fill out a placard with his or her first name and first initial of his or her last name. At the start of each class period, students are expected to pick-up their placards and have them visible from the front of the classroom and visible to the rest of the class. At the end of each class session, students leave their placard at their desks, and they are collected by me for distribution during the next class period. The core idea behind this approach is to provide me with constant reminders of the student’s name. This should help me learn the student’s name more efficiently, refer to each student by his or her name in a more meaningful manner, and to have a stronger immediate connection between the quality of comments made by the student and their subsequent grades. At the same time, by having students’ placards developed during the first class period, no class time would need to be spent by me learning the student’s names through repetitive role calling.

Results and observations: The solution was implemented this semester has yielded some unexpected results. It turns out that I feel that I actually know fewer of my students’ names than I knew at comparable times in previous semesters. However, the students, themselves, may not be aware that I do not know their names. When each student has their name in front of them during the majority of my interactions with them, I am easily able to address each one by name and establish a sense of positive connection. The problem is that before I refer to any student by name, my eyes in variably glance to his or her placard for reassurance. In short, this solution has done exactly the opposite of what it was intended to accomplish; knowing that I always have the students’ names available to me means that I never spent the hard work at the beginning of the semester to memorize the student names. Equally problematic is the fact that their placards have their first name and first initial of their last names. Because I never am reinforced by their last names, whenever I need to recognize their last names (like on deficiency reports, etc.), the names seem as foreign to me as they did on the first day of classes.

Having made these observations, it turns out that I would not declare this experiment a failure; it turns out that this approach has had a major unintended beneficial consequence. This semester, the number of students that arrive late to my classes is significantly lower than in past semesters. This low rate of tardiness seems to be a product of the placard system. Since students need to collect their placard at the beginning of each class from a collection at the front of the class, there is a strong disincentive for tardiness. Any student that is late ends up standing at the front entry of the room finding his or her placard. Thus, a student cannot sneak into a classroom unnoticed by the instructor or their peers. Without ever having to address tardiness directly to the class, after the first week of classes, the number of late students has dropped to a negligible number.

Problem meant to be addressed: As occurs in many lower-division courses, students tend to rely heavily on how the instructor interprets primary texts. In the context of ethics, this means that students generally learn the history of ethics and the development of ideas, but struggle being able to see ethical problems and have a difficult time applying ethical theories to novel situations.

Core idea of the solution: For one of my courses, “Ethics in Health Care,” I carved out one class period a week (a third of my total class time) for students to explore ethical issue on their own. The class is divided into analysis groups of five or six students. These groups explore 50 pages of primary source material each week (in this context they are exploring two journalistic accounts of health care decision makers). The students are each expected to bring 2 discussion questions each week and the instructor provides five discussion questions. These class periods consist entirely of the groups discussing their questions and thoughts on the ethical issues involved. At the end of each discussion period, each student is responsible for submitting a short summary of the discussions relating to their discussion topics.

Results and observations: In many ways, this experiment has been a great success. After the initial few weeks, the students in this class have taken to this type of project. Even without direct guidance for how to be successful, each group rapidly developed strategies for how to approach the texts and how to discuss the ethical themes in the books. In six of the eight groups, the students engage in the discussions to such a level that they do not get to each student’s second questions. The groups hold each other accountable and engage in ethical analysis that is closer to most medical ethics analysis. Individuals and groups must make sense of the subject matter themselves, rather than having analysis strategies and answers provided by outside sources. The individual students’ work has shown a strong willingness to try to use the discipline’s methods in novel circumstances. At the group work level, the results are even stronger. Since groups have been given limited guidance on how to reach consensus or compromise for ethical issues, the groups have developed their own understandings of what ‘compromise’ and ‘consensus’ mean for ethics and how to reach group conclusions. None of this came immediately to the individuals or the groups, but the rate of progress has been more rapid than I had anticipated.

There does seem to be a negative unintended consequence to this approach. By defining one day a week as time for students to work through issues as a group, students seem much more passive during the other class periods each week. In the past semesters, this course had involved quite a bit of full class discussion of cases and ethical issues. This semester, students seem like they cannot wait to talk on the group day, but are quiet the rest of the days. I suspect that this is a result of how the class time is framed. When one day a week is set aside for students’ voices to be heard, this implies that the other days student voices may be less welcome. While this is not true, the students’ perception of how the time is to be used does seem to have affected students’ understanding of the course.

Problem meant to be addressed: I want to provide positive incentives for students to contribute to class discussions. I also want to provide short-term incentives for students to be properly prepared for each class period. However, I recognize that not all students feel comfortable discussing personal ideas within a large classroom environment. Equally important, I want to avoid creating incentives for students to ‘participate’ in class discussions in an uninformed manner.

Core idea of the solution: To deal with this problem, I decided to change the way I talk about student engagement and participation in my classes and my syllabi. I have relabeled all ‘participation’ components of the courses as ‘engagement’ components. At the beginning of the semester, I spent some time discussing the difference between ‘participation’ and ‘active engagement.’ This included examples of when participating in a discussion is not engaging other students or ideas from the textbooks. I talked about how people can engage with the course material and discussions, even if they do not participate. These discussions focused on student concerns, and allowed them to talk about these issues in the first week of class, rather than having them distributed in a top-down manner.

Results and observations: The experiment has been a complete success. Across my classes this semester the shift to engagement points has significantly improved the quality of discussions. A higher number of students contribute to the discussions, and those that contribute tend to have their ideas more closely connected to course concepts (as opposed to emotional responses based on no evidence). Students seem to have embraced the idea that quality is more important than quantity. My observations at this point are too anecdotal to reach general conclusions; for example, it is possible that the strengths I am seeing are a product of the specific students I have in my classes this semester. This is unlikely, though, because the benefits cross lower-level and mid-level courses and cross majors and non-majors. A more likely possibility is that the reframing of the course language was not the causal factor. Instead, the results could be based on the fact that I spent more time and energy in the beginning of the semester discussing proper engagement and incorporated the students’ frustrations and perspectives.

Teaching the First Year Experience: A Dialogue

C. Casey Ozaki, Department of Teaching and Learning University of North Dakota 
Missy Burgess, Assistant Program Director for Student Involvement, University of North Dakoa

UNIV 115A- Making the Most of College: Experiential Learning in Higher Education was one of seven pilot First Year Experience (FYE) courses taught in Fall 2011 at the University of North Dakota.  The course was part of the FYE cohort, where regular meetings and training were held with all FYE instructors and coordinators.  This particular course was taught by C. Casey Ozaki, Assistant Professor in Teaching and Learning, and Missy Burgess, Assistant Program Director for Student Involvement.  Their section was unique from the other six in that it was based on a research experience, and it was co-taught by one person from student affairs and another from academic affairs.  The 24 students who signed up for the course via Freshman Getting Started were divided into five research groups.  Each group tackled a research project from start to finish related to experiential learning that occurs outside the classroom during the college experience.  The course culminated with a poster session for faculty and staff displaying the results of the projects.  Below, Missy and Casey engage in a dialogue about this unique teaching experience.

Casey: When the UND Undergraduate Working Group proposed the development of  First Year Experience courses, they suggested both seminar and research courses that were content focused while integrating transition components. While I felt confident teaching a course on experiential learning and taught previous transition-to-college type courses, it seemed to me that, for this type of course, co-teaching with someone from student affairs would be ideal in assisting students’ transition in both their academic and co-curricular lives.

So, in we jumped, and teaching together went beyond my expectations for this type of a course. First, we taught well together and in ways that complimented one another. While I had more teaching experience, you were great at connecting the material to examples the students could relate to. While I may have conceptualized the class initially, your alternate perspectives added more to the course than I could have anticipated. Second, given that our positions represent two significant aspects of the college student’s experience, academic and co-curricular, I think we were able to help students holistically transition to UND. Finally, while the workload was as heavy as if I taught the class individually, I appreciated having another instructor to examine outcomes, student work, and course correct as the semester progressed.

Missy, what was your experience? Did you think our collaboration was successful?

Missy: I also found the collaboration to be very beneficial.  For me, my knowledge of student transition issues and the first year experience outside of the classroom was strong, but it was my first time to integrate academic content into a course with this purpose.  I was able to learn from your classroom management expertise, and I tried to bring a knowledge of events and activities happening on campus.  Course planning took more time than I anticipated (I have a new appreciation for the work of faculty members!), but I think that having the ability to bounce ideas off of someone else enhanced the course and also held us each accountable for getting the work done!  Finally, I think our different roles proved very helpful throughout the students’ research project experience.  You were able to help them connect to the collegiate research experience,and I was able to help them see how their research on students’ outside the classroom learning experiences could be used by student affairs practitioners.

One of the neat parts about basing a course on experiential learning was that we were able to pretty easily connect the academic content to interactive transition activities.  For example, we attended the Involvement Expo as a class and then related it to how students learn from experience.  We played Campus Resources Jeopardy and then related it to surface versus deep learning.  This helped to make the incorporation of the transition activities a bit more seamless.

Casey- Do you want to talk about some of the transition-to-academics activities we did?

Casey: Sure. I would say that given the transition goals of a content course, we heavily scaffolded the work of this course. For example, at the beginning of the course when we focused primarily on the literature and theories behind experiential learning we attempted to help students learn how to read and take notes by, first, showing them what types of questions to ask and information to look for in reading through a very detailed reading guide that they filled out. The next reading guide was less detailed, less specificity was provided for the next guide, and even less so for future guides until they prepared their own notes. We gave the students feedback and tried to help them develop reading and note-taking skill, while still engaging with the content.

We also broke down the research process into small, multi-purposed steps to both help students develop academic skills while learning the research process and developing more complex thinking and information literacy skills. We focused on helping students learn about and do a qualitative research study during the second half of the semester. Each group of 4-5 students developed the research questions and design, conducted data collection and analysis, and prepare and deliver a poster presentation. Following is a sampling of the strategies and techniques we used to support students learning:

  • Library Scavenger Hunt: After a class tour of the library, students complete a scavenger hunt worksheet, identifying references relevant to the project. This project contributed to the literature required for the project, while helping them become familiar with the library;
  • Annotated Reference List:  Beginning with the library scavenger hunt as a starting point, students develop a list of five credible sources and annotate them based on specific criteria. Again, while contributing to the development of literature for the research project, students were challenged to learn about different types of information and evaluate their applicability and worthiness;
  • Development of Research Design:  After reading a chapter regarding the research design or methods (e.g., research questions, research techniques, interview questions, etc.) we had the students actively work on that part of the research project in class with our feedback and support;
  • Interview a Faculty Member:  Students interviewed a faculty member from a class they had fall semester, specifically asking about their research interests and how they do or do not utilize undergraduates in their projects. This assignment helped students learn how to interview, as well as learn more about research outside this course;
  • Document Analysis: Students found a document through the library’s Special Collections and conducted a document analysis. Using a guide, students were asked to evaluate the document, learning about another research method, and relate it to their projects;
  • Research Proposal: In small groups, students wrote a research proposal for their project, including a literature review based on group’s annotations, and the research design;
  • Research Report and Poster Proposal:  Beginning with the feedback received on the research proposal, student groups wrote up the final results of the project and presented them in a poster session.


This is only a sampling of the efforts we made to support student learning and transition, but I think we can say that at each point in the research process we attempted to provided activities for engagement and practice and extensive feedback on student work. If we teach the course again there are definitely aspects I would change–reducing the number of assignments and spending more time on test-taking are, for example, two areas to address.

Missy, what would you change about the course? What was your assessment of our ability to introduce freshmen to doing research?  Do you think it worked well to teach these concepts together?

Missy: For the most part, I think our plan worked.  We were able to introduce freshmen to the idea of scholarly research and help them to see a research project from start to finish.  Given the opportunity, I think I might change a few things, though.  As you mentioned, we heavily stacked the experiential learning theory at the beginning of the semester.  While it provided a strong foundation, I think that the students struggled to incorporate this into their project due to the gap in time from when we covered it to when they wrote their proposal.  If we spread this out a bit more, I think students would see the connection a little better.

Also, I think we were able to give freshmen some great transition experiences (learning to use the library, working in groups, executing a research project, attending campus events, etc.), but we realized towards the end of the semester that the students had not always realized what skills they had gained.  When they were asked in their final presentations how they would use what they learned in the course, many referred to using it if they chose to do research in graduate school.  I think I would be more direct with the students in sharing what the intended learning outcome of an activity or a project was and how they might use it in their undergraduate careers.  I think the students definitely gained skills they will use sooner than they think- it may just take them getting there to realize it.

One of the best experiences for me in teaching this course, though, was seeing the students do their final poster presentations during Finals Week.  It was the point where they saw that they could accomplish a project from beginning to end, they could present it professionally, and their research was useful to practitioners.  Seeing that ‘aha’ moment for the students is the reason I think we all do what we do.  So, I think we were successful at introducing freshman to research, and the University along the way.

How about you, Casey?  Would you teach a course in this format again?  Is there anything else you would change?

Casey: First of all, I agree, the final poster presentations were the pinnacle of the teaching experience for me as well. To see the students process and react to the culmination of their work was incredibly rewarding.

All in all, I too felt positive about the course and how it unfolded and, yes, for the most part I would teach an FYE experience as a research course again. One thing I would not want to change was co-teaching with a student affairs professional. Granted, it has to be the right person, but I think the differing expertise brought to the classroom was ideal for a course focused on holistic college student transition. If we were to teach this course again, I would also want to reconsider front-loading the content while making the end of the course research heavy. In other words, I would like to try to integrate the research and content a little more across the entire course…if possible. In looking back, I also think that we simply tried to fit a whole lot into one semester. While I think the course was still successful, I would want to examine how we might build more breathing room into the course and, in particular, more time to discuss experiential learning theory.

As I mentioned before, for a first try at a course format new to UND, I think the class was successful. For me, the opportunity to be part of a new institutional initiative with freshman students in a small class was very rewarding. I appreciated the opportunity to teach in content and approaches that are “outside the box.” It stretched me as an instructor and gave me the freedom to explore and try out teaching strategies that the learning goals for our students. I enjoyed and learned from our collaborative teaching experience. Having someone else weigh-in on HOW to teach concepts and ideas beyond my own perspective expands my own arsenal of teaching tools.

Last thoughts and reflections from you?

Missy: While maybe not the intended consequence, I would say that the entire FYE experience has been one of the best professional development opportunities I have had here at UND.  I appreciated your willingness to think outside the box and explore a nontraditional collaboration relationship.  This course gave us the opportunity to make a difference with and truly get to know a small group of UND students.  It was also fun to truly be able to design a course from start to finish.  If you could teach any course to first year students, what would it be?  How many times do you get an opportunity like this?  Finally, my passion is connecting students to the benefits of the out-of-class experience on campus.  This course gave me the opportunity to do this in an academic way.  I was also able to influence my everyday work with a theory refresher.

While we definitely learned several lesson throughout this experience, I would recommend this course be taught again (with revisions), and I would gladly participate in the experience again.