Guideline for Assigning Long Papers:
Assigning the Longer Paper in WL Classes
Much of the writing students do in WL courses is short and/or informal (short writes in class, responses to outside reading, journals). But many WL instructors require one or two more extended pieces of writing that ask students to pull together what they have learned and to communicate their idea in some formal way. Whether this is a "term paper" (i.e., an essay that comes at the end of the semester) or a research project or an essay that simply comes at the end of some segment of the class, there are a couple of things to keep in mind as you put the assignment together.
- Know Your Purpose: Think about what you want your students to learn from your assignment and communicate that to them. Often students second-guess the purpose of an assignment and end up giving you something you didn't ask for. Your purpose will determine the length of the essay, too.
- Choose Your Audience: Most students automatically presume that any essay is written to you, the expert. Therefore they might make leaps in their logic, expecting you to follow, or they give definitions that sound high-faluting but that don't show a real understanding of the concept. If you can give a more specific audience (other students in the class, perhaps, or a client), the students will often be more careful to explain their ideas and give examples.
- Decide What Kind of Thinking You Want: Summaries are different from arguments: each entails a different kind of thinking. As you write your assignment, decide what kind or kinds of thinking you want your students to do, and then be explicit about that as you write. If you want students to take risks, say that. If you want students to use particular concepts from class, name those concepts. If you want a comparison and contrast, be clear about whether you want a block of information on point A and then a block on point B, or whether you want a point-by-point comparison, from A to B all the way through.
- Choose Your Verbs Carefully: Depending on the verbs you use in your assignment, students will give you one kind of paper or another. If you say "Explain," the essay will be pretty much cut and dry. If you say "Argue," the student will need to use more creativity and evidence to make his or her case. If you say "Discuss," there's no telling what you will get, because the verb is too vague. Think about Bloom's Taxonomy of the levels of thinking. Do you want students to write an essay that shows they understand a concept, or an essay that shows they can apply the concepts to something new? If you want students to evaluate something, just remember that you are asking for the highest of all thinking skills.
- Decide on the Essay Length: We joke about students asking how long a paper is supposed to be, but in fact this is a good question. A 10-page paper must have much more depth and study than a 2-pager. At the freshman and sophomore level (the WL level), a 5-page essay is a pretty hefty assignment, if you are asking for good mechanics and thoughtful content. If you want students to do research, you will have to teach them how to do it, because they will not have taken English 299 yet. I suggest that you have students use materials from class or on reserve for their evidence, rather than asking them to use the library to find their own sources.
- Be Clear About Expectations: Give your students details about format, length, due dates, and content. What is second nature for us in our disciplines might be foreign to our students. You are introducing your WL students to the expectations and assumptions of the discipline, so that takes some discussion (APA format? MLA?).
- Specify What Counts as Evidence: Many students believe that opinion is enough-they haven't had much practice giving evidence and rationale for their beliefs. But each discipline has a different set of criteria for what evidence has worth and what kind of logic is convincing. In English, the syntax of a sentence is evidence. In history, population data counts. In physics, the angle of an incline affects outcome. Think about what sorts of evidence you assume has value for your discipline, and then make those assumptions clear for your students.
- Model a Good Essay: All the rules and descriptions in the world will not make up for the lack of a good model. Once you have talked through what you are looking for, give your students a sample paper-one from a previous semester, or a solid rough draft from one of the students in class (or write one yourself, as if you were a student). Put the sample on the overhead and take some time to go through it-pointing out format, uses of evidence, development of ideas.
- Give Time for the Process: Good writing takes time. As writers ourselves, we know we should never turn in a rough draft for any important document. We need time to let the first draft cool off, so we can see the gaps and correct the inconsistencies. If you are going to assign a longer paper, allow two to three weeks for the process. But that means that you will need to intervene (or the students will wait until the night before and dash it off). Give a due date for a rough draft (or other early writing). If you could see that rough draft and respond to it (about issues of content and organization), you will be amazed at how much better the final product is. Some teachers hold conferences to talk about the rough draft, because students usually understand verbal commentary better than written. (I give extra credit points for students who come in for a conference or take their paper to the Writing Center.) It is best if the rough draft dates could be written right into the syllabus, but at least they should be on the assignment itself.
There is a lot to think about when you assign a longer essay. But the rewards for the students are great. They have to think at a high level, for an extended period of time. For many students, the essay will be what they remember best about your class.