Developing Alternative Research Assignments with Students and Faculty

This is a guest post by W&M Arts Librarian Kathleen DeLaurenti

The educational blogosphere has definitely been abuzz about e-learning in the last year. One part of the conversation has turned to leveraging technology to develop alternatives to the term paper. Assigning different kinds of writing assignments can hold students to the rigorous research standards of traditional long papers while also helping students gain skills in different writing and presentation styles as well as bringing new kinds of technology-based blended learning to the classroom.

Why Alternative Research Assignments?

Cathy Davidson, professor at Duke University and co-founder of HASTAC, whose work was highlighted in our recent post about Bloggers of the Academy, has written extensively on the benefits of alternative writing assignments. In January of this year, a blog post she wrote in response to a New York Times article by Matt Richter titled “Blogs vs. Term Papers” outlined what she perceives as some of the key benefits:

  1. Students have the opportunity to learn to write for a broad audience, which stretches their thinking beyond trying to please their professor.
  2. While students using these kinds of assignments can often write more than they would with a term paper, it can be very scalable for faculty. Even though Davidson feels she probably spends a little bit more time on reading and grading writing, it’s evenly distributed throughout her semester and she doesn’t face grading 50 final projects in a short time period.
  3. Assignments can put students directly into public discourse where they can see the impact of their writing on a larger scale. She tells of students who engaged in discourse with medical professionals where they could clearly see how their contributions affected public conversations about topics that mattered to them.

Civil War Music class created this wiki as part of their alternative assignment.

How Do You Decide What Kind of Assignment to Use?

As you can see from the New York Times article linked above, it’s common to think that these assignments are a choice between blogs or term papers. This is definitely a false dichotomy — technology offers us many different platforms for developing specific kinds of assignments that will reach learning goals. The important part is to focus on the goals of your course and then see how an alternative writing assignment might support that.

This semester, working with Katherine Preston and her MUS 363: Music of the Civil War class, we developed a series of alternative assignments that grew out of the absence of a central online portal for information on the course’s central topic: Civil War music. When Professor Preston approached me, she had already developed a series of small group website evaluation assignments for her students with the goal to build a web bibliography of important online content, but wanted to discuss what the best platform for the students to work on this assignment might be. As we talked, the overall goal of developing our own research portal was born, but we needed to figure out how to scaffold this across more than just this semester.

The original small assignments didn’t require a significant writing component, so we used the Swem Library Campus Guides to develop an online bibliography where students could collect their links and get their classmates’ feedback. It’s a fantastic platform for collecting online links and annotations, but doesn’t really support comprehensive writing. As the semester moved forward, we decided that maybe we should take the next step and get a website live. The ease of set-up, support of collaboration, and customizability of William & Mary’s Wiki Space made it a logical choice of platform. Students are currently adapting narratives for a broad public audience and collecting the feedback they received on their web bibliographies to revise their annotations. Because this project developed over the course of the semester, the students are currently deciding as a group if they’d like to open the wiki to the public at its completion, so have been keeping a public audience in mind to guide their writing style as they develop content.

For a different project this semester in Professor Anne Rasmussen’s Worlds of Music class we started with a wiki right off the bat. Why was that a better solution for this course? Professor Rasmussen knew she wanted a writing intensive assignment that could be assigned as a group project to make it more scalable for her larger class, but also needed a platform that could support different kinds of media. Students are working in groups to explore immigrant music communities in NYC and next week will use their wiki pages as the backdrop for class presentations, giving them an opportunity to develop their oral presentation along with the group writing skills they worked on developing their content.

What Is the Library’s Role?

Each of these assignments still required significant research on the part of the students. As the Arts Librarian, I worked with faculty to help them decide which platform would best support their research goals for these assignments, but also supported the students in developing the necessary research skills for each project.

For the Civil War assignment, I focused on helping the students get started using the technology, but also on how to evaluate websites. Website evaluation was a significant part of the Worlds of Music project as well, but I also played a greater role in meeting with the students. Each group was required to sign up for a 45 minute meeting with me to make sure they were comfortable with the technology, but also to talk about the research resources and strategies they would need for the assignment. In addition to introducing them to key resources in ethnomusicology, we talked about how to narrow their topics (one wiki page in one semester certainly wouldn’t represent all of the music of China!) and how to present this material in the context of a wiki. For example, using slideshows if they built image collections rather than cluttering up their webpage with so many images it was confusing to other readers.

Both classes still also included some traditional writing assignments, but feedback from students on the web evaluation and wiki assignments has been very positive so far. Anecdotal comments have focused significantly on the excitement of being able to include many different kinds of media to support their ideas and research. Students really enjoy being able to combine their different literacies (visual, musical, writing, digital) into their work products.

Looking ahead to next semester, Professor Preston and I are discussing how re-working a reaction paper assignment she has used often into a blog might support a flipped classroom, allowing more active learning during class time as well as increasing students’ opportunity to write and react to classmates’ papers.

These are just a few examples of alternatives to the research paper that support building research skills while helping students to develop different kinds of writing and presentation skills. If you’d like to discuss your research assignments, your liaison librarians are available to talk with you about how our collections, special collections archival materials, and media center expertise and resources can support your course and assignments!