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Can higher ed live without term papers?

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In the latest edition of Campus Technology, Judith V. Boettcher offers a provoking yet practical piece that gives pause.  In Evidence of Learning Online:  Assessment beyond the Paper, Boettcher encourages faculty to explore alternatives to the anxiety- producing and plagiarism-ridded term paper.  A long-time distance learning expert currently at the University of Florida, Boettcher poses a basic question:  What kinds of writing do learners need to do in their chosen careers, lives, and professions?  Her response highlights the continued need for our students to learn and repeatedly practice critical thinking and research skills; however, she adds that information literacy and content synthesis “will result in quite different types of products” housed in a variety of places as media and subject matter evolve.  What might some of these changes in the written word be?  

Boetthcher’s suggestions are perhaps less revolutionary than expected.   Most of us have heard of collaborative online tools such as google docs and the like; in our instruction we have dabbled in blogs and wikis, perhaps created a podcast or two. The point Boettcher makes is to leverage these available technologies not only to present subject matter and facilitate collective thinking but to assess learning.  Web 2.0 tools and new media afford ample flexibility for the creative minds of higher education faculty and certainly, their students.  So why are we bound to the term paper?  It may be that faculty anticipate this culmination of sixteen weeks of sweat; it is payback time, time for students to demonstrate the mastery of subject matter and academic discourse that we have instilled.  Those of us with careers in teaching college writing may even mourn the loss of the research paper in its traditional form; we have too many years and weekends vested in it.  APA and MLA rules are black and white; they provide tangible evidence of learning – or better put, compliance – that we can tick off on scoring rubrics.  But what about genuine synthesis of material, dialogue, application and evaluation of ideas?  

Boettcher urges teams of faculty to look at their disciplines and discern which writing skills, computer literacy, and content knowledge form the core today; these are what need to be mapped to learning goals and outcomes.  An intentional refresh such as this may result in one changed assignment, use of a collaborative space, or a complete course redesign.  Either way, it fosters collaboration and enhances awareness of 21st century written communication for academic and professional purposes.

2 comments

  1. Great post! Thanks for your contribution. I have some ideas to share soon.

  2. I disagree that APA and MLA rules are black and white. While the guidelines are certainly printed with blank ink on white paper, they are often self-contradictory and inconclusive. In fact, for many students, the greatest obstacle with research papers is deciding how to set up their bibliographic information. Online material is particularly trying.
    Thus, working with APA and MLA can provide an excellent opportunity to add an information literacy component and a critical thinking component. Students must make decisions about what information is available about their resources, they must also decide about credibility of the source, and choose the best way to present bibliographic information that follows the main guidelines of both systems: ensure the reader can locate the material referenced if needed.
    As to synthesis and evaluation, an annotated bibliography is an excellent work product that can provide evidence of learning. If students are tasked with describing sources, assessing credibility, evaluating usefulness, and applying to the topic/stance at hand, they will engage with the material and make use of their critical thinking muscles. Further, if they are tasked with reflecting upon their work, process, and results, that metacognition with take them another step toward deeper, more meaningful learning.

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