Assignment Reboot: Update

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In May I described my plans for a deconstructed research project to be assigned during my six-week summer intensive course in place of a traditional writing assignment. (See “Summer Project: Assignment Reboot” for details.) My goal was to have the students complete the key elements of a research project in structured sections, due over four weeks, rather than handing in a finished product at the conclusion of the course. Having just finished reading spring-semester research projects, I hoped that with this new approach the summer projects would be academically stronger if they were broken up into sections even though the summer students would have less time to complete the project than the spring semester students. Thanks to everyone who wrote to me after the blog was published to share their experiences with deconstructed projects!


So what did I find? Here are some observations from my first experience assigning this project with a class of 24 online students.


First, seasoned students who had completed research projects in other courses were initially confused about “the point.” I had a handful ask if they could “just write the whole paper” instead of breaking down the projects into my four step process. Although some students clearly already knew how to complete a research project, I explained that all students could benefit from slowing down the process. Part One of the project asked students to explain their topic and identify three secondary sources in MLA citation form. Right away some students hit a roadblock because they did not know where/how to locate secondary sources and/or they were unfamiliar with MLA. Since they had only seven days to complete the assignment, however, there was no time to procrastinate. Anyone who needed assistance with the sources had to immediately schedule time with our reference librarian, and the majority of students did just that.


Having students focus Part Three of the assignment on primary sources provided an opportunity to once again offer help. Part Two asked students to summarize the basics: who/what/where/when/how. Part Three required them to find primary sources to illustrate the details. In semester-long research projects I have consistently seen students ignore the differences between primary and secondary sources as they rush to complete a project in the crunch of a deadline. In the deconstructed project the students had seven days to identify three primary sources. For most students, successful completion of this part of the project meant brushing up on what a primary source is -- I provided links to several online resources as well as a sample of my own work for students to mirror. Again, I reminded students of the short window of time and encouraged them to ask for help. I was pleasantly surprised to see so many students booking virtual appointments with our college librarians and the college Writing Center.


Finally, Part Four required students to submit two paragraphs on the historical significance of their topic along with a final Works Cited page in MLA format. I provided several prompts to help the students to think more broadly about their topics and to draw connections to contemporary issues when possible. Once more the students had seven days to complete this part of the project. No time to procrastinate.


Ultimately, my trial run with a (time-sensitive) deconstructed research project was a success. The vast majority of  students completed all four parts of the assignment on time and I was pleased with the effort put forth. It’s difficult to judge whether the results will be the same during a semester-long course because in my experience students who take summer-intensive courses are extra motivated by the need to earn those last few credits that will allow them to graduate and/or transfer. I’ll try the project in a semester-long format this fall and am considering whether or not to maintain the same four-week plan. I’m curious to see if the four-week approach reduces the amount of procrastination that tends to seep into semester-long research projects.


Thoughts? Suggestions?

About the Author
Suzanne K. McCormack, PhD, is Professor of History at the Community College of Rhode Island where she teaches US History, Black History and Women's History. She received her BA from Wheaton College (Massachusetts), and her MA and PhD from Boston College. She is currently at work on a study of the treatment of women with mental illness in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Massachusetts and Rhode Island.