Why Do We Always Have to Write Papers?

I started my job as an assistant professor 11 years ago. Right away, one of the courses that I taught was called Content Area Literacy. This is a course in our masters program for teachers which focuses on thinking about what it means to read and write within the academic disciplines.

I received a copy of a syllabus someone had previously used. There was an assignment in it called Take 10. The premise was simple. Teachers would identify any 10 strategies for teaching reading/writing within one or more academic disciplines, implement them, and write up a paper.

Made sense to me.

I think it was the third time I was teaching this class that my thinking on this assignment was challenged. It was the first day of class, and I was going over the directions for the paper. A gentleman in the back raised his hand and asked, “Why do we always have to write papers?”

I paused. I had no idea, and I thought it was a great question. Why were assignments (at least in college) typically constructed around writing papers? And even worse, who read those papers?

I was the only one who read those papers. Yes, there’s something wrong with that.

I don’t remember what I did in response to this question. I’m not sure I changed the assignment that semester, but that question sparked something in me that put me on the path which has landed me here today. It moved me to work towards a few larger principles in my own teaching.

Breaking the Traditional Feedback Loop

I might have said this before around here, but it’s worth saying again. One of the things I immediately set out to do was break the traditional feedback loop between teacher and student. This is where the student completes an assignment (any assignment), turns it into the teacher, teacher reads it and gives feedback/grade, and then returns it. Cycle complete.

pile of papersAnother student in the class might read the assignment, but the norm is that the assignment is kept between the teacher and student. In this instance, the feedback from the teacher is what matters most.

Of course feedback from the teacher is valuable (or it should be valuable), but it is not enough in and of itself. Students stand to learn a great deal when their work is, at the very least, public with each other. When I first set off to reinvent my teaching, this is where I started. I used a closed LMS (ning – which was free at the time) and had my students post assignments, review each other’s work, and discuss each other’s work in class. I also reviewed students’ work, but my voice and feedback was one of several that any student received.

Looking for an Audience

As I got comfortable with breaking the traditional feedback loop (which required breaking traditional assignment structures), I started to consider how I could find an audience for my students’ work. Certainly, my students were audiences for each other, and in the beginning stages of my development this was fine (and more than plenty for me to get my head around and manage). But I wanted my students to start thinking of their work as something that could make a contribution beyond that specific class.

This is where I started to get into blogging. I had picked it up as an assignment when I had used a closed LMS. I had gotten comfortable with it and was looking to push my students into a public space. Now, the feedback students received had the potential to grow even more. It wasn’t just myself and their peers but anyone who stopped by to take a look at what they had done.

Becoming Creators of Content

While the above two principles are still in place in my teaching, I recently realized that I have now shifted into a third space: I want my students to think about how they are creators of content. Certainly in blogging anyone has the potential to be a content creator, but I wanted to push them to begin to actively see themselves as content creators. I wanted them to think about what they were learning in class, who could benefit from that knowledge, and to create content that could contribute to the knowledge development of the audience they had identified.

Most recently, I designed an in-class quest where teachers had 40-minutes to engage with a question leading to the development of a content creationpiece of content that could be publicly shared. In class, we had been examining the books teachers are often expected to use with students in schools and considering their limitations. Teachers were then asked to create a piece of content for other teachers about how to respond to the very challenges they identified.

You can see published examples here, here, and here. And because this is part of a gamified class, I award XP for completing this quest in class.

So What Now?

It’s fair to say that in the last eight years I have phased out the traditional paper writing assignment where it makes sense to do so. Obviously writing a paper has it’s place. In doctoral classes, where students need to learn how to write academic papers for publication, I would never toss out the paper assignment. But in a masters class, where the emphasis is on becoming better educators, to what extent is such a paper necessary? I would say rarely.

Each of the three principles I identified above are just a snippet into my thoughts. I could, and probably should, write full length posts on each. But it’s interesting to me that all of this was sparked  by someone asking a basic question about why we write papers. I often think of that individual. It amazes me how one simple question has pushed me to make so many changes. Changes that I believe are for the better.

One Year Ago Today

Comments 3

  • Yes!!!! I completely agree. When I design undergrad and masters’ level teacher ed courses, I try to limit them to just a few papers. Instead, students create projects and practice skills that they will likely use in their careers. They learn more and gain skills for their career. It is a hard shift as assigning papers is often easier (and students feel more comfortable with them than other types of assignments), but I think the discomfort is worth it!

    • I agree! I think a small percentage of students take to it right away but for most it is unusual for them and sometimes difficult. What we’re doing here is taking away the comfort and the known around what school is, what it looks like, and what it means to be a student. I typically keep papers at the doctoral level as it has an authentic purpose for their future careers.