In this blog post, I outline what is perhaps my most successful classroom activity. The basic idea is to have the students help each other to develop their paper proposals.
By doing this activity, students gain concrete skills in writing academic paper proposals, thinking critically about their own proposals, and giving constructive criticisms of other’s work.
It can be used in any class where the number of students is sufficiently small (e.g., under 15), including all graduate classes and advanced undergraduate classes in any subdiscipline (e.g., syntax, semantics, phonology, sociolinguistics, etc.). Perhaps it could be adopted to larger class sizes too (e.g., breaking people into small groups).
If your class requires a final paper, then you should ask that the students submit a paper proposal around mid-semester. For a 15 week semester, the paper proposal could be due during the 8th week. Instructions for the proposal should be stated on the syllabus, and should look something like the following:
“Halfway through the semester, you will submit a paper proposal for your final paper. The proposal should be around 3 pages (double-spaced) long. It should include a statement of the topic, some data (just a few sentences), a brief sketch of an analysis, a plan for working on the topic and a few references that you plan to study. You should make an appointment with me early in the semester to discuss possible paper topics.”
The following wording concerning the proposal review should be also be added to the syllabus:
“Paper proposals will be distributed to the whole class, and one of your colleagues will be in charge of providing written feedback on your proposal. We will spend one or two class periods discussing the proposals.”
Once the paper proposals are submitted, you will send them out to the students by e-mail. All the students are required to read all the proposals and to be prepared with questions and comments on them. In addition, each student is required to provide written feedback on one proposal. The written feedback should be 1-2 pages (double spaced). For example, in a class with five people, you might have the following assignments:
Brenda provides feedback on Alex’s proposal.
Chris provides feedback on Brenda’s proposal.
John provides feedback on Chris’ proposal.
Linda provides feedback on John’s proposal.
Alex provides feedback on Linda’s proposal.
Make sure to make the assignments by alphabetical order, so the students do not think any favoritism or bias is involved.
The students then send the written feedback to the professor who distributes it to the class in preparation for the proposal reviews.
On the day of the reviews, the proposals are discussed (once again in alphabetical order). In each case the writer of the feedback leads the discussion, but everybody can chime in and bring up points. For example, for the above group of students Brenda would lead the discussion of Alex’s proposal. The discussion should be relaxed and highly informal, encouraging everybody to participate.
Make sure that you do not assign any other homework or reading for the week when proposals are reviewed. This allows students to focus completely on the reviews.
In my opinion, the proposals, the written feedback and the discussion should not be graded. These are not gradable outcomes, rather they are steps in the learning process. Unless the student fails to do the work or fails to show up to the class, they should receive full credit for the assignment.
Putting it all together, here is a possible schedule for a class that meets Mondays and Wednesdays:
Professor sends out the proposals to the students.
Professor gives assignments for written feedback.
Written feedback is due.
Professor sends out written feedback to the students.