I’m at that point in the semester where I’m asking students to think about what they want to do for their more open-ended assignment. Rather than simply answering questions I’ve asked or applying course material to a particular case, I request that they propose a topic they would like to research. This is a source of difficulty and anxiety for some. Granted, there is an element of risk in the openness but I never had much difficulty with choosing a topic myself as a student, so it’s difficult to understand how I can best help as a teacher. For example, for a film class I wrote a brief essay on Blade Runner that I really enjoyed working on and am quite fond of. I didn’t get the grade I thought I deserved – and I suspect the instructor didn’t “get it”, so I appreciate the risk – but I had no problem conceiving the topic and executing the argument. (Fortunately, the essay would be widely read on the Web, for which I would get a lot of responses and it was even translated into Italian – not too bad for an undergraduate essay!)
So while I always liked these type of assignments, some bright students can have difficulties. To address this I do the following:
- Ask the students to send me a proposal with a sense of the topic, argument, concepts and readings that will be used. (I started this in my second semester of teaching and it yielded better results.)
- Provide example topics and/or even an example proposal.
- Encourage students to review their reading responses or bring relevant news items to the attention of the class throughout the semester, so as to build a repository of ideas.
- Provide a list of themes/concepts at the beginning of the course and highlight them throughout.
- Encourage them to brainstorm a number of (provocative) arguments they could make as they research and outline their topic.
But, still, some students experience difficulty with choosing a topic. Are there any resources you would recommend in guiding students through the writing of open-ended assignments?