Practical Ideas for Creating a Research-Oriented Classroom Environment

In my previous post I talked about resources instructors can use to foster a research-oriented classroom environment.  If the ultimate goal of a course is to produce a research paper and if a significant percentage of the grade derives from that paper, then it is very important that instructors take deliberate steps to integrate instruction and assessment. In order to design effective assignments that foster skills needed for thesis-writing and argument-building, John C. Bean offers an entire section in his book on designing tasks for active thinking and learning.  I offer examples and variations on these tasks here. 

One of the simplest yet most fruitful activities that I have used to get students to think about a concept is by designing statements that force students to take one side or another.  For example, as a warm-up or the first activity in a class discussion, the instructor could put a statement on the board like this one:  “Kafka’s Die Verwandlung   [is / is not] basically a biography.”  This can help divide students into like-minded groups, or the instructor can ask that half the room take one stance, and the other half take the other, regardless of their personal opinion. These absolute phrases can work with virtually any topic from any field.  This activity can work as a group activity or as an in-class writing assignment to get students used to writing a thesis statement and subsequently finding evidence to support that stance.

                Other informal writing assignments can take the following forms, all of which I have found to stimulate discussion, and ultimately thesis-forming:

·         Students must explain a certain concept (a text, a theory) to a fellow classmate who is having difficulty, or to a high school student, or even to an elementary student.  The college student will have to tailor the complexity of his or her language to match the target audience.  It will also help the student decide what is important to explain, and what they can leave out for this particular person.

·         Students must conceive a dialogue between two authors or two theorists that they have studied.  To modify the format, they can make it a TV interview show, in which both guests get the same questions, but of course they would answer them differently.

·         The instructor can provide ready-made thesis statements or arguments to small groups. They have to explain why the thesis is convincing or not, based on their knowledge, and based on evidence they glean from the texts.


Incorporating activities such as these on a regular basis give students consistent practice in inquiry-based thinking, which ideally leads to thesis-based arguments.  

                The other resource I mentioned, They Say I Say, provides actual templates that can help students organize their thoughts into a written thesis. For example, the authors offer “Templates for Indicating Who Cares” and “Templates for Establishing Why Your Claims Matter” (90-94).  These brief sentence models force students to answer the more abstract why and how questions with which they often struggle.

These suggestions may sound basic, but they also serve to keep us alert to the disparate needs our students have and to plan accordingly.




Identifying a Student

This series of posts is based on an experience I had with integrating an undergraduate student into a research project. It is not a how-to, but one example that is intended to provide some food for thought.

One of the most challenging components of involving a student in your research is to find the right student.

In the fall 2012, I had a series of conversations with a German major and advisee of mine, Emily (name changed), about her frustration with her classwork. She felt that most course work was superficial—by necessity of coverage, the ability of her peers, etc.—and that only the rare project or paper allowed her to pursue a topic in depth. I should say that Emily is truly an exceptional student, not only in her in-class performance, but more so because of her active pursuit of learning opportunities. Three areas of interest in her academic work are immigration and minority experience, pedagogy, and feminist inquiry. They overlap with mine and also, fortuitously, with a research project I had on the back burner. So I approached her about working with me on that project. She accepted, and we are currently wrapping up a successful semester’s worth of work.

What made Emily such a great student to work with? Here are some thoughts.

  • Her academic interests overlap with mine. Her enthusiasm for the topic motivated her to read articles even when I was struggling to find the time to do it, and to try her hand at writing down some of our discussions when I had little energy to write.
  • Her coursework and intellectual activities on campus (in German, Sociology, Social Work, the Feminist Discussion Group, and volunteer activities) means that she has some familiarity with the issues at hand. While she was not familiar with the idea of intersectionality, for example, she was not new to analyzing media through a feminist lens.
  • She is responsible, reliable, and maintains regular communication with me. She attended every one of our meetings and came prepared, whether with a list of sources to consult, an article we had read, or paragraphs that I had asked her to write.
  • Perhaps most important, I enjoy her company! Her positive attitude energized me, and I genuinely looked forward to our conversations.

This makes Emily sound quite the ideal student, and I do think she was just the right fit for this project. Her upcoming graduation (next week) leaves me feeling somewhat dispirited with regard to this project. I regret that we only had a semester to work together, and that the semester was of course full of other demands on my attention and time. I am frustrated with everything else that got in the way, and I envy my colleague in English who had the forethought to involve a student in his research when she was a junior, thereby giving them a much longer and more realistic span of time.

Perhaps more than anything I am wondering when I will work with a student on my research again. When will I find another student so motivated and who shares an interest in my research topics? Will the arrival of that student on my radar coincide with the early stages of relevant project? It seems to me that the question of fit is one that can make or break student involvement in faculty research. What are your experiences in this regard? Please share your thoughts.

Fostering Best Research Practices in Classrooms with ‘Research-Hesitant’ Learners

Students benefit not only from assistance in formulating original theses and developing solid abstracts that persuasively communicate their ideas, but also explanations of why this type of exercise—the kind that we do every day in our discipline—is important and valuable.  In this post, the first of two, I will outline the challenges that many instructors face, especially those at public institutions, and I will cite some key publications that feature Writing Across the Curriculum methods.  In my subsequent post, I will share some field-tested strategies that I have deployed to help what I call our “research-hesitant” students conceive a topic, prepare an abstract for submission, and present at a competitive undergraduate research conference.

More and more frequently, we are encountering students in our classrooms who need what we would consider to be basic help with writing persuasive thesis-based essays. A key text that I consistently use, and one that I read and reread nearly every semester, is John C. Bean’s Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom.  Bean’s text has been a valuable resource for me to guide and support students through every step of the research process, from “Understanding Connections Between Thinking and Writing” to “Encouraging Engagement and Inquiry in Research Papers” to “Coaching the Writing Process.”  Design and implementation of assignments must correspond to that philosophy that writing is indeed a process.  Another valuable resource that I have used consistently is Graff and Berkenstein’s They Say I Say, which offers templates for structuring the argument and thesis parts of argumentative essays.  In order to force students to view writing as a process rather than as a once and done final product, I assign point values for each phase of the assignment they submit: for example topic, first three lines, first paragraph, first draft, final draft, and self-assessment of ideas, structures and argument.

Many of us have used or even have authored and published resources on how to write thesis statements or how to structure an academic paper. I have found, however, that students need much more practice with the steps that precede the actual paper-writing phase, such as developing ideas and testing out arguments well before the draft writing begins.  In my next post, I will share simple yet effective classroom activities and assignments that instructors can consistently implement to foster a writing and research atmosphere in their classrooms.

Meeting New Expectations, Forging New Practices

While undergraduate research is increasingly promoted by institutions, it seems that the institutional support for and recognition of faculty investment in such developments are still catching up with those expectations. It is easy to recognize the value of undergraduate research. It promotes a dynamic and student-centered model of education in which students create knowledge, better preparing them for future autodidactic projects in academia or in another professional arena. Indeed, senior capstone projects have become standard in institutions ranging from small liberal arts colleges to large state universities. In German Studies, this most often takes the form of a research project informed by a theoretical lens and an argument carried out along well constructed methodological lines. Inherent in these sorts of requirements is the notion that students can and should be expected to successfully complete these projects, having developed the discrete skills necessary for such projects over the course of their undergraduate years. While such projects have become institutionalized in our curricula, a number of additional opportunities are flourishing as well. Independent studies and innovative enrichment programs — some taking students off-campus for research or experiential learning — often aid students in designing and carrying out longer research projects than the normal term or semester accommodates.

But what if students in fact have not already developed and refined these discrete skills in the course of their classes or other projects? As this new model of undergraduate research develops, how are we to simultaneously develop a set of best practices for enabling those experiences? How can we best shape and support such projects for our students?

A model for undergraduate research is present and self-study of its effectiveness is already rather established in the natural sciences. In fact, a cursory search of resources on the promotion of undergraduate research leads almost exclusively to the natural sciences. (See, for example, the National Science Foundations well-funded “Research Experiences for Undergraduates” as well as the several studies and Chronicle of Higher Education articles measuring this program’s impact.) Such programs, however, function along drastically different lines from humanities projects. Students are inserted into a wider support context in which they collaborate with more experienced undergraduates, graduate students and (less often) professors themselves. They contribute to research projects already developed, and are assigned tasks within that framework. Humanities projects, to the contrary, are more often independent and created by the student her-/himself with the aid of a professor. Often, this professor is assisting several other students with such projects within the context of a capstone or other advanced course.

While a burgeoning literature has emerged on frameworks for creating conditions for undergraduate research in the natural sciences, there still exists a need for self-study and the development of best practices for such projects in the humanities in general, and German Studies in particular.

These opportunities create unique and highly valuable experiences for our students. German Studies has led the way in many respects, and as a field we have generally been early adopters of new methodologies and critical approaches. This is perhaps an outgrowth of our sense of vulnerability as departments see declining numbers and, in a disturbing number of cases, are being closed down altogether. Undergraduate research presents us with a unique opportunity to be leaders yet again, and to attract students because of the exciting and fulfilling nature of research. Given the dearth of information on best practices and standards for undergraduate research in the humanities, we could position ourselves to shape our field, and our institutions, around the needs and opportunities we recognize.

Choosing a Project

This series of posts is based on an experience I had with integrating an undergraduate student into a research project. It is not a how-to, but one example that is intended to provide some food for thought.

As is the case with many colleges and universities, my university is encouraging faculty to involve students in their research projects. (In fact, it is part of our tactical plan.) While this is more common in the sciences, many of my humanities colleagues both on and off campus have expressed their reservations about the possibility of undergraduate students participating in their work for a number of reasons (some of which will be addressed on BURGS): Do undergraduates have the necessary analytical and writing skills to participate in publication-quality research? Do they have the informational and intellectual background? Will this turn into more work for the faculty member, as it runs the risk of becoming a teaching rather than research project? Is this the best use of a faculty member’s time, as research time is precious and publication demands are high? The benefit to the students is clear, but what is the benefit to the faculty?

When I approached a colleague in English, who has been working with a student on a project for nearly two years now, I had a student I wanted to work with but little sense of how to begin. He gave me excellent advice, starting with how to pick a project to work on. Not all projects lend themselves to research with an undergraduate. As my colleague pointed out, I have been researching contemporary German literature for years, and Julia Franck in particular since before beginning my dissertation in 2006. Of course it would be impossible for the student to catch up on seven years of research, and filling this student in would be a waste of my time. As a topic, then, Julia Franck was out.

The key, my colleague said, was to pick something that was relatively new to both of us. He chose a paper he had written for a conference and has been working with his student to expand it into an article. I am following his model. Last year at the GSA, I gave a talk on motherhood in the film Die Fremde (Feo Aladag, 2010), and this talk became our starting point. For our first meeting, I asked my student Emily (name changed) to read the talk and watch the film, and to prepare some ideas. I was very open to what shape the article would take, and I was curious to hear what she found interesting, didn’t understand, or responded to as we discussed the talk and my notes of the audience’s comments and suggestions. After our first meetings, we still did not have a clear sense of what the final article will be, but we had topics to investigate. It was a start!

What are your experiences with undergraduates and your research? What are your concerns about the process? Do you have projects that would lend themselves to working with an undergrad? Please share your thoughts with us!

Getting Started with Undergraduate Research in German Studies

The best move I’ve made with undergraduate research in German Studies is to stop guiding students’ research projects and start involving students in my research projects. I suspect that many of us in German Studies (and the humanities in general) have, at one time or another, agreed to mentor a student as she or he works to present at a campus research forum, attend NCUR, or complete a bachelor’s thesis. Although it is rewarding to guide a student in this faculty-member-as-director manner, it is clear that this kind of mentoring is an add-on. To mentor a project effectively requires time away from our classes, our service activities, or our own scholarship.

Our colleagues in the STEM disciplines, in contrast, regularly integrate undergraduate research students into their (the faculty members’) research agendas. The benefits are clear: the faculty member gains research productivity by having a committed, intelligent student help move the project forward, and students may in fact gain more than they would writing a single-author project mentored by a faculty advisor. By working shoulder-to-shoulder with an expert in the field, students not only learn research methods, but also engage in the type of investigative dialogue that characterizes our type of research.

My students have contributed to literature reviews, written substantial sections of manuscripts, and helped me think through interpretive problems. The additional hands on deck, the fruitful discussions, and frankly, the knowledge that I had to write my quota of pages prior to the next meeting has meant that projects moves forward much more quickly than if I were to work solo.

In one project, a particularly well-qualified student with a second major in another discipline has brought to bear a body of knowledge and a set of analytical tools from a field where I have no expertise. Although this student is  very clearly not an expert in the same way that a faculty member in that discipline would be, I can legitimately treat her as a budding expert with a solid grasp of the fundamentals of research methods in that field. I have taken care to frame the project not as truly interdisciplinary, but as rooted in German Studies while incorporating knowledge and approaches from the other discipline.

In all of my projects, I make use of research teams where appropriate. For the same reasons that it makes sense to involve an undergraduate student in your research—productivity, quick progress, the inclusion of new perspectives—it can make sense to involve more than one student. Building a research team also ensures that the project doesn’t lose steam if your research student studies abroad or graduates. To build an effective research team requires clear roles and responsibilities, such as designating the faculty member as lead investigator and primary author, and giving the faculty member responsibility for the direction of the article and the determining of research and writing assignments. Once these ground rules are established, research teams can be highly productive.

On balance, working with undergraduate research students has helped me move my research agenda forward while also benefitting students’ intellectual growth. Students have the intellectual satisfaction—dare I say thrill?—of contributing to a substantive project targeted for a “real” disciplinary journal, and they gain research skills that can help them in other coursework or in graduate school. Although I have to edit or even rewrite parts of their work, I am able to build large sections of research articles around passages that students have written, sections that frequently contain insights I would not have achieved working solo. Because these students are capable of thoughtful commentary and discussion, write well, and frequently have disciplinary knowledge outside of my area, working with undergraduates has allowed me to manage more projects, at a faster pace, and with better results than I would achieve on my own.

A version of this article appeared in PURM 2.2 (