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.