As a general philosophy of education, I believe that my role as instructor is to help students organically develop their own thought processes. It’s one thing to provide students with retrievable content knowledge, it’s another to help them fully access the cognitive tools already at their disposal. If content is taught to the exclusion of metacognition, it’s the equivalent of providing parts without an instruction manual. They content only has utility if student’s can put into practice in their own individual context.
For the course ENC1102 at the University of Central Florida, I designed my assignment sequence to double as cognitive instruction manual. Students would begin their research project with an Initial Research Proposal.
This assignment occurs early in the course content, after they have been given a brief overview of the writing studies context in which their research will be taking place. By having the first major project be a draft of a future assignment (the Revised Research Proposal), I’m foregrounding a few of the cognitive takeaways I want the students to have from my course. First, that writing is recursive, that individual writing tasks will evolve over time with knowledge. Second, that any writing occurs in the midst of a larger conversation. By having them sketch a question rather than commit to a specific question/framework, it gives the students a chance to see their research as responding to the sources they read. They have a chance to find a gap in the literature before committing to a topic.
The main priority with this first assignment is to get the students started with a genuine point of interest. If they aren’t sincerely invested, they both won’t get an authentic research experience and it will become less likely for the metacognitive elements to stick. Reflection is often a side-effect of interest. If students are in a purely transactional “assignment for grade” mode, that reflection will be much harder to inspire and the authentic cognitive evolution will become much less likely to occur.
Next, I have the students compose an Annotated Bibliography. This assignment fulfills a similar role to the Initial Research Proposal in that it establishes revision as an inherent part of the writing process. It will become the basis for their Literature Review, and hopefully, this cumulative process will allow that recursive nature to really become internalized.
I frame the Annotated Bibliography as the “listening” stage of a broader conversation. So, in addition to preparing students for their specific research subject, it also underlines the fact that their writing will always take place in a broader context. As students understand how their writing is a continuation of other texts, they will ideally be better able to write mindfully in the future, taking into account the expectations of a genre and the prior conversation as they compose.
After the research of the Annotated Bibliography, I have students form a Revised Research Proposal. Now that the students have internalized how to listen in on a conversation, this primes them to take the role of speaker. The Revised Research Proposal prompt offers students to claim real authorship over their work, places their proposed research on the same level as the sources they read for their annotated bibliography.
My goal with this assignment is for students to privilege their own ideas and questions as being worthy of extended academic inquiry. Even students who performed well in high school may not have that sense of their capacity to generate new knowledge, and that foundational belief in the value of your ideas and questions is essential to being a speaker/author in an academic community. Perhaps just as importantly, it’s also essential to critical thinking. Retaining that sense of worth and authorship over your own ideas allows you to examine the arguments of others with a skeptical eye, to synthesize diverse concepts into your own unique thoughts.
This is part of why I have the Literature Review as the next assignment in my sequence.
After gaining more confidence in their perspective, in the midst of their own primary research, students will reconstruct their annotated bibliography into a more fluid review of the available literature. This further transitions students from thinking about their sources as discrete chunks of information and instead envision them as a fluid conversation. As they restructure their previous assignment to create narratives based on topic (rather than summaries based on source), students will evolve their understanding of the research process and synthesize the distant points of knowledge/data they discovered into a more coherent picture.
This marks a continuation of students learning to take ownership over the broader academic conversation. They unstitch information from the original sources, and weave it together into a narrative of their own creation. Instead of noting what a number of different sources are saying separately, the students describe what they see the sources as saying together. This reframes their academic journey as one where they develop their own intellectual narratives as opposed to absorbing one objective textbook of information. Students are given the opportunity to claim agency in both the reading and writing process through this exercise in synthesis, and this agency will be crucial to them having genuine cognitive engagement with the material throughout their academic journey.
All of this leads to the Final Research Project.
Ideally, this is a cumulative design sequence, where students will be able to port previous writing tasks directly into this final paper, thus making the assignment less daunting than the name suggests. Their Literature Review may constitute a significant portion of their introduction and discussion. Their Revised Research Proposal will likely contain an abbreviated version of their methodology section. Every previous writing task builds and contributes to this final paper.
I hope that this design accomplishes a couple of different cognitive goals. First, I hope it helps students see that their writing is not an isolated, distinct task. They write both in conversation with a larger world, but also in conversation with themselves. Throughout their academic careers, they will likely return to similar thoughts, pull at similar threads. This assignment frames those recurring motifs in their work as a sign of writing at its most effective rather than a sign of repetition. Writing is one of the most useful tools at our disposal to evolve tricky ideas, to wrestle with questions just outside our understanding. By learning that they can make incremental progress across a number of writing tasks, students are better equipped to handle complex questions, both imposed by their academic environment and of their own design.
Second, I hope that all the critical analysis of literature that students did prior to this point helps them isolate and utilize the genre conventions of a writings studies research paper. The immediate flow from literature review to final paper forces students to critically examine the genre just before they prepare their own entry through the Final Research Project. Learning how to extract form as well as content from a genre, learning how to identify an audience’s expectations based upon how other writers address them, these skills will prove critically helpful to their future daily writing tasks if internalized.
I could tell the students all of these skills I want them to take away from the course in a Powerpoint. In fact, I know that I will be telling them in the classroom over the course of the semester — I do not believe there is any value in holding cards close to the vest as an educator when it comes to learning objectives. But there is a difference between memorizing and internalizing, between knowledge and actionable cognitive skills. By fostering opportunities for students to go on their own, authentic intellectual journey through this assignment sequence, I hope to match the high ambitions of my education philosophy. Hopefully, students leave my classroom with a coherent instruction manual in addition to the raw material.