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Maria's proposal

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Yes, I'm also very interested in this. I hear students discussing various assignments sometimes (although I've never heard them discuss mine) and it's fascinating to know what they make of it.

Other questions... How do they determine what to do if they don't get it? How do they decide whether to ask each other, look something up on Google, ask the instructor? How can we encourage them to broaden their research strategies/encourage them to think more seriously about their assignments. (Of course, we'll write ours completely clearly, but what about their other instructors?)

Some interesting points came up last week in our discussion of what makes an effective assignment; I'd like to see a similar list for characteristics of an understandable assignment! I suppose many of the characteristics would be the same.

I also think it would be interesting to discuss the use of models. I think that, for my students at least, models are like pictures - they're worth 1,000 words. (I think someone else said that in class last week; I'd attribute the thought to the proper speaker, but I don't remember who it was!)

I've had good luck with the assignments that I've given students models for. Actually, I've typed up a sample outline for the first paper that I have my students write. It's not a sample student essay, but it helps get the point across, and it didn't take much time to draw up. I have found, though, that my students will echo phrases from my sample outline in their papers. I don't find that particularly disturbing, but some instructors might.

On gauging (and influencing) how students respond to assignments: When I’m a T.A., I talk with the professor about her assignment sheet: What does she expect from students? What would she like me to look for in the students’ writing? (The professor with whom I worked last term gave brief, vague assignments.)

Then I lead my students in a close reading of the assignment: First we paraphrase it (what is it saying?), translating the vague passages into actual expectations. What is being asked of you? We spell out all the components and criteria (and I add any insights gleaned from the professor). If the students have questions I can’t answer, I bring them to the professor later.

Finally, I ask students how they’ll begin writing in response to the assignment—what will their first step be? What considerations will come into play? We walk through it on the board, especially the thinking involved (a series of questions posed and strategies for addressing them). This is a great way of pushing them to go further, more in-depth with their literary analysis. As they start to look a little smug (perhaps thinking “this assignment is easy,? as we heard tonight), I say, “OK, you’ve considered w, x, and y ... but *now* what?? They’re incredulous that further analysis is required!

Sometimes I come with an example: suppose you choose to write about Laertes .... Once, when we were confronted by a particularly thorny assignment, I picked out sample passages from earlier texts and had them do the kind of textual analysis and inquiry that would be required of them in the paper. I really only had to pose a few questions, and they impressed me with their insight and the connections they made. Preparation for assignments garnered my highest praise in course evaluations.

I could see modifying these activities for assignments that I have crafted as well.