Monday, May 4, 2009

Rethinking assignments

As the semester winds down, I tend to take stock of how classes went. Which assignments should I keep, alter, or abandon? What did my class need more or less of?

This semester my two classes went rather differently. One, a medieval history survey, was pretty polished, and I was generally happy with it; there were a few readings I thought I could have prepared to teach better, and I probably could have cut out an assignment or two.  The other, a course on medieval religion, was trickier. I'd not taught it before, and I didn't have a lot of time to prepare it before it started. I made a hasty plan, under the assumption that students would inject their own interests into the class to help direct it. I should know by now that one can never plan on that!

I also experimented with assignments a bit. I like the concept of one assignment I used, but I was not totally satisfied with the results. The idea was that, to gain some familiarity with different scholarship in the field, each student would choose a book and give a brief presentation on it. The presentations would kick off a class thematically tied to the book. 

The problem I had was that students mostly had trouble conveying the main concepts of their books accurately.  Presentations instead tended to be dominated by a series of interesting facts and anecdotes from the book, and then trail off. 

I do like the idea of the assignment, but I think it needs to be structured differently. I think I should require them to end by posing discussion questions, for one thing. I am not entirely sure how to teach them how to identify and describe the argument of a monograph, though--probably we will need to start with articles, work with those in class, and hope they can move up to a longer work from there.

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