Anatomy of a Course: Syllabus construction, pt. 2 (assignments)

I mentioned in my first “Anatomy of a Course” post that I had flubbed my interview question on course preparation by only mentioning the books I hoped to use. One of the basic things I failed to do was to discuss course assignments with the search committee. Because learning is less about what the professor says than what the student does, this was a serious omission. As a result, assignment design really should be a starting point rather than the end point of preparing your courses. In some cases, the curriculum helps determine this for you. For instance, all advanced history seminars at Lafayette require students to write a 20-25 page research paper that demonstrates serious engagement with both primary and secondary sources. For my advanced seminar, therefore, I start out by blocking periods of time for students to work on their paper proposals, their outlines, their drafts, and their final projects before filling in other course elements around those blocks. When I developed my new introductory seminar on the Cold War (which is also a course that requires 20 pages of “process” writing but focuses on teaching novice students how to critique and use different sorts of primary sources), I also began by creating the (short) paper assignments before moving on to the rest of the syllabus.

HIST 244, however, is not a course that fulfills either a departmental or a college-wide writing requirement. Professors are, of course, free to assign papers in non “W” courses, but I have chosen not to do so in recent years. Teaching writing is very time-intensive, both in terms of the amount of class time used to teach writing well and in terms of repeated reading of student work, so if I assign formal papers I usually do so in courses where writing is foregrounded. There are, nevertheless, many other assignment options one can choose: repeated short quizzes or in-class writing exercises, oral presentations, exams, web project collaborations, and many more.

My choices in this course have been somewhat traditional, however. As you can see on the syllabus (http://sites.lafayette.edu/sanbornj/hist-244-syllabus-assignments/ ), the majority of the grade is composed of a midterm exam and final exam. The reason for this is that two of my core goals for the class are for students to be able to describe key events and features of the past one hundred years of Russian history and to do so in a historical explanation based on causal reasoning. Moreover, I want them to be able to bring together several different sources as they create their narratives. My exams consist of several short answer questions and one essay (two on the final). They examine not only whether students have done the reading but also whether they can make sense of those readings within the context of the class as a whole. Exams are an excellent way of promoting and assessing these goals; it turns out that “old” pedagogies (like exams and lectures) often deserve a place in the contemporary classroom.

These are not the only assignments I use, however, so I want to spend a little time describing the other elements of the grade. I have a relatively small amount devoted to unannounced in-class activities. These can be “check-in” quizzes on the previous night’s reading or, just as often, “lecture” quizzes that I give at the very end of lecture. I was fortunate to attend a great presentation by my friend and colleague Jennifer Talarico (@j_talarico), a psychology professor who focuses on memory, in which she showed convincing evidence that students who recapitulate the big points of a lecture immediately after it is given are able to put that information durably in their long-term memory. These quizzes are not long (5 minutes or so), but they are effective. Spending class time on short, low-stakes student writing of this sort is usually time well spent.

Another 5% of the grade is for “excellence points.” These are here for a couple of reasons. Part is for classroom participation. In seminars, I require and grade participation regularly. In larger classes, this is often unfeasible, but I do want a mechanism to reward students who come to class prepared and who thoughtfully probe difficult questions out loud in the classroom. But part is also because an “A” is supposed to require excellence. This is not a mathematical question, in my opinion. Students should really demonstrate something special over the course of the semester to get an A. These five points allow me to reward (and directly recognize, as I send a student an email when I award her an “excellence point”) a great point in class or a particularly insightful exam essay. Finally, part has to do with student motivation. Most students are motivated at least in part by grades, but my experience has been that many students are even more strongly motivated to impress their professor in some way. This is a good mechanism to encourage that and reward it.

Ten percent of the grade is devoted to co-curricular activities. As the last post showed, part of the federal regulations for credit hours encourage the incorporation of co-curricular activities into courses. If you’re going to require something, you need to evaluate student work and engagement with it. There are two major co-curricular events that will be associated with this course: an interdisciplinary symposium on revolution and a lecture by Steve Norris on film, memory, and patriotism in contemporary Russia. Students will not only be required to attend these events but write short papers critiquing them. In addition, I am requiring them to attend at least one other outside lecture during the semester. These outside speakers add a lot to our students’ education, and all it takes is a little incentive to get them to head to a lecture rather than the dorm after dinner.

Finally, there is the “commonplace book” assignment. I got this idea from Nathan Carpenter, a terrific teacher who was a visiting professor at Lafayette. Nate in turn got it from Joseph Adelman (whom I cite on the syllabus). I have long assigned reading responses, but commonplace books are a real upgrade, in my view. Three aspects are especially useful. First, there is the insistence on students writing their comments by hand. Again, there is scholarship that shows that writing by hand facilitates long-term learning more effectively than typing (and of course both are far better than having students not respond to readings at all). Second, there is the process of indexing, which forces students to think in a more “meta” way about their readings and provides them with a terrific mechanism for exam review. Finally, and most importantly, there are the selection criteria. You will note that none of the criteria ask students whether they “liked” the reading or the author or whether the reading “surprised” them with new material. Open-ended reading responses are filled with these sorts of comments. After the first commonplace book check, they dwindle away, as I insist pedantically on the use of these four criteria. These criteria are well chosen. The most commonly used is the first, which trains students to identify core arguments. The second provides students a way to write down a question to raise in class beforehand, making it easier to actually ask when the class turns to look at them. The third is crucial for preparing for exams and linking different parts of the course together, and the fourth keeps them alive to aesthetic appreciation without making “liking” a work the sole yardstick of their judgment.

Finally, these commonplace books, along with occasional quizzes, require students to keep up (at least if the professor spot-checks them). I tell students all the time that they will do well in my course if they keep up with the reading and remain engaged in course sessions. This is almost universally true. Most students who do poorly in my courses are not surprised by a bad grade at the end of the course, they drop the course when they realize they’ve dug themselves a big hole. I try to structure assignments in such a way that both they and I know when that hole is starting to grow.

In the third (and final) entry on syllabus construction, I’ll provide my weekly course schedule with readings and proposed lecture and discussion topics. I hope you’ll find it useful!

This is part of a continuing series entitled “Anatomy of a Course,” which will be updated throughout Fall 2017. Click on the “Anatomy of a Course” under the “Categories” drop down list to your right to see all of the posts.

About Joshua Sanborn

Professor and Head, Department of History Chair, Russian and East European Studies Program Lafayette College (Pennsylvania, USA)
This entry was posted in Anatomy of a Course, Teaching Russian History. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Anatomy of a Course: Syllabus construction, pt. 2 (assignments)

  1. Clayton Black says:

    Josh,
    Can you offer more explanation, please, of the term “commonplace book”? You explain the benefits and the method, but I’m not certain what it actually is. As I re-read what you’ve written, are they just notebooks in which students write their responses to the co-curricular activities and/or readings?

  2. Hi Clayton,
    Sure, the assignment is described in full at the link above: http://sites.lafayette.edu/sanbornj/hist-244-syllabus-assignments/
    If it’s still not fully explained, let me know, and I’ll follow up!

  3. Matt Lungerhausen says:

    The Commonplace book assignment is really cool. I have been struggling with the problems of note taking and reading in both my survey classes and with my upper division history majors. Neither group seems to have the skills they need and I have not been very effective at teaching them these skills. I have used reading reflection papers in past, but I might try the Commonplace book in the future.

    A couple quick questions:
    * What does your grading workload look like if you are collecting the Commonplace books at the Midterm and the Final exams?
    * Do you use a rubric for the assignment?
    * Do you ask the students to distinguish between primary and secondary sources in their selection of quotations or in their commentary?

    Thanks for this series of posts, they are enlightening and thought provoking.

    • Hi Matt, thanks for the comments! Yes, the grading workload is definitely more concentrated using this system. There’s no necessary reason why the commonplace book has to be graded at the same time as the midterm, though there is for the final (you need to see their final index as well as all the entries). That said, it does provide a good time to give personalized feedback on those books. I don’t use a rubric for it, though as I said I’m very clear about the importance of using the selection criteria. I give marginal notes in these too, praising for good points or commenting when it seems they’ve been rushed or simply dashed off. I also don’t require them to distinguish between primary and secondary sources, though source criticism inevitably comes up in the discussions. Obviously, the key constraint on grading is that you need to get the books back quickly, because these are hard copy, and they will be using them constantly throughout the semester.

      Speaking of discussions, these books are a great discussion starter, both for all-class and small group discussions. All students are required to keep these books up to date and to bring them to class each day. That makes it easy to cold call students, especially ones you’d like to see more involved in the class for whatever reason: “Student X, why don’t you read us one of your commonplace book entries for today.”

      It’s also very important that there be at least one spot check of the books in the first couple of weeks, both to follow up on the promise to conduct those checks and because you can catch common problems early. Indexing turns out to be one of the most confusing aspects of this assignment for students, so you can get the whole class on track with the quick spot check. Plus, that check isn’t “graded,” that is, you’re technically only checking to see that they have made all the necessary entries, so it allows you to give feedback in a general way to the whole class.

  4. Karl Qualls says:

    Thanks, Josh.
    Like others, I’m most taken with the commonplace books. I have had similar assignments, but I’m going to steal this idea! I particularly like the indexing idea, and it seems to me that a discussion of how this could help them prepare for exams and papers would provide good motivation. If students can index/categorize their sources, it should be easier for them to pull sources together to answer essay questions or write short papers.

    As for the grading question: we are fortunate that we both have small classes, but even then the grading can be immense. In my modern Europe survey (n=25) I used to collect daily intellectual journals in which students went through my six step method for analyzing primary sources. Some days we would be discussing 3-4 sources, which made for a lot of writing for them and marking for me! Then next semester I collected the journals on Fridays, then monthly, and now it is up to students after the first three weeks (during which I have given ample feedback) to keep up on their own. What I have found is that with these mostly highly motivated students, the possibility that I might collect them unannounced during the semester is enough to keep them going. So, if a professor wants to cut down on grading time, one could simply tell students that journals will be collected at random. If the professor has a particularly busy week, she could select 2-3 journals. In a “slow” week, perhaps it is 10. As long as all students’ journals are collected the same number of times during the semester, then all should be well. One key is to give students feedback often early in the semester as they learn the expectations for what will be very foreign to them.

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