Training students to ‘step up’ to the next level

I had an interesting revelation over the last few days.  I’m teaching a senior seminar in the same mode as my seminar last spring.  This is the course I discussed in my ELI presentation last week (about which I have yet to blog).  This semester, the seminar is exploring the long run implications of the US Federal Budget Deficit. The course website, such as it is, is here.  Anyway, the other day as I was thinking about the course and how it had been going, I found myself disappointed.  It seemed like we hadn’t made much progress, that the students have been collecting evidence, but then they’ve done nothing with it.

I realized that I was actually comparing my current students at this point in the course, with my previous students at the end of the course.  I decided to have a ‘teaching moment’ yesterday.  I reminded them that this was not a regular course, that in a regular course the instructor brought in the information and then told them what it meant.  So far, they had managed to do the first part, tracking down relevant information — evidence of the growing problematic nature of the federal budget deficit–and that was good.  But they had yet to do the second, more difficult step: processing the information publically and drawing conclusions.  While this is in fact hard, it’s a central part of what makes this course special.  (I realized of course that they’re in the early stages of the learning curve since we’re only in Week 3 of the term.)  I told them, they needed to step it up to the next level.  To that end, I gave them this assignment (Item 1), where I asked them explicitly to write an analysis and present conclusions.  I asked them to do this collectively and then gave them a few minutes of class time to decide who was going to contribute which parts–this was really recognizing which students had done what already–and then how they would organize the analysis effort, and who would serve as editorial team to polish the results.  They seemed to get it.  We’ll see.

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