Written Assignments and Out-of-Class Exercises

Written assignments can be more original and exciting than the usual term papers, book reports, and homework assignments. Students are capable of producing fairly sophisticated work if the assignment is clearly explained and carefully structured. For example, you might require students to observe and report on a city council meeting, fundamentalist revival, ballet, construction site, archeological excavation, bus station, or protest march. Of course, you would need to teach them how to take observational notes and suggest an organizational framework for the final report. To help students sharpen writing skills, you may decide to assign shorter papers and allow rewrites until their work is acceptable. In general, many short writing assignments are preferable to a single long paper, depending upon the goals of the course and the level of student skills. Regardless of the length of the assignment, clearly written instructions are indispensable (giving such assignments orally is usually not effective).
Class time can be used for focused activities in which students can practice essential skills. For example, in math-related subjects, after fifteen to twenty minutes of instruction on a particular kind of problem, you could require students to work examples alone for fifteen minutes. This technique forces them to try to apply the concepts that have just been taught, and usually produces questions they didn’t think to ask during the lecture (and also provides a powerful antidote to boredom). Since students typically defer their homework problems until the night before the next class, they often lose the thread of the explanation by that time — immediate practice in class helps reinforce the explanation.
Also in math-related courses, requiring students to work homework problems on the chalkboard provides an opportunity to correct their errors and misconceptions and to ask questions about other homework problems while they are at the board.
In the social sciences and humanities, requiring short in-class writing exercises is analogous to working math problems in class. These exercises can take many different forms — for example: a paragraph defending or attacking a particular point of view, a one-page analysis of a reading assignment, or a short essay summarizing the student’s impression of a class discussion. The variety of these short-writing assignments is endless, and they need not take huge amounts of class time — many can be accomplished in ten minutes or less.

Written Assignments and Out-of-Class Exercises
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