Ends of semesters can be fraught and frenetic, both for students and for faculty. My students are completing final revisions to projects begun earlier in the semester, and they are preparing for a final assessment. I, in turn, am managing feedback in multiple modes and for multiple classes. As Roy Stamper pointed out in his blog post The Endings of Things: A Couple of “Capstone” Assignments The Endings of Things: A Couple of “Capstone” Assignments, we are trying to review and reflect, knowing “there’s still work to be done.” I am tempted each term to engage in “pedagogical cramming,” whereby I endeavor to introduce and review any concept I might have neglected or glossed over during the semester.
But cramming, pedagogical or otherwise, rarely yields the results I want. I’ve sat through countless sermons and lectures during which speakers couldn’t seem to “land the plane,” circling above their distracted audience with facts and pleas and suggestions and invitations and reminders and just-one-more-thing and let-me-just-add. What is crammed into those final minutes is also the very information I tend forget before I’ve made it to the restroom after finally being dismissed.
So, as we enter finals week, I am resisting that urge to cram and stuff, even if there are some boxes that will remain unchecked in my mental list of things to cover. Instead, I will give the students an opportunity to reflect on their own writing and the threshold concepts underlying all the assignments I have given them. Stamper calls such reflective opportunities “capstone assignments,” and he offers two examples. Here is my own version:
This week, I gave my students the following list of concepts, which I called my “basic principles.”
- All writing involves choices that affect meaning: words, structures, details, punctuation, and organization.
- Effective writing pays attention to the needs and the knowledge of a reader.
- As writers, we seek feedback and use it to revise (not just edit) our work.
- People’s words and ideas are valuable; we must handle them with accuracy and care when we write about them.
- We can never out-write our reading ability. (Adapted from Cheryl Hogue Smith)
- Uncertainty, difficulty, and confusion are normal parts of our growth as writers.
- Specific writing tasks require us to follow the conventions of a discourse community.
- Reading and writing demand thinking and make us better thinkers.
I then asked the students to select any three of these principles. For the final paper, they will write a letter to future students in our class, explaining and exploring the three principles that they chose. Their exploration might include any of the following:
- An explanation of the principle in their own words
- Examples of how they have improved, developed, or changed their writing, based on this principle
- A specific example from a paper they have written this term which illustrates this principle
- A specific example from a comment I made or handout I gave which illustrates this principle
- How this principle will influence the way they write for future classes or for a future job
- Advice for future students, based on the principle
My hope in this assignment is that the explicit statement of principles and the associated task will help students reflect and review more deliberately, without the pressure and pace associated with an in-class review session. Each suggested strategy for developing the assignment also reviews a course concept or skill: paraphrase, self-awareness, levels of specificity, interpretation and use of feedback, planning for concept transfer, and recognition of progress.
I have lost a few students this term; employment changes, financial challenges, and family situations have kept some from completing. But I believe those who have stayed with me to the end have grown in ways that neither they nor I would have imagined back in January. Four began in ESL classes with me last August; you would be hard-pressed to match their initial, tentative pieces then with their researched-essays today. I hope that when I receive their final letters next week, I will find that they, too, are celebrating their progress. I’ll let you know what happens.