Choosing a topic for open-ended assignments

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:

  1. 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.)
  2. Provide example topics and/or even an example proposal.
  3. 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.
  4. Provide a list of themes/concepts at the beginning of the course and highlight them throughout.
  5. 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?

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