More Adventures in Teaching Undergrads

Using museum’s techniques for teaching got me hooked, I am completely revamping my workshops and lectures. This year, I will have some rather big classes, in which group work and a dialogue with students will become near to impossible.

The Problem

Experiential (of course) one of the most difficult things to ask a first and second year student is to write a literature review. Most teaching focusses on telling the students how to analyse and break down scientific journal articles but not how to tell ‘the story’, to show their own voice—writing in third person on top of that. So quite often the result is a list of statements: article A states xyz, article B concludes abc …

Some years ago during my PhD I attended a course in creative writing, one technique we learned in this course could help my students to find their voice in academic writing.

The Creative Writing Technique

  • 1. The wanting writer is asked to imagine running down a hill, towards a cliff and imagine her or his feelings, the scenario of what happens once s/he reached the cliff.
  • 2. Provide the students with 5 minutes of writing this down.
  • 3. The outcome of the exercise will a) show the writer her or his state of mind and b) get the writing going.

The Idea…

is to provide the students with exactly this exercise—reflect about it. What story did you tell? Did you see yourself take off and begin to fly, glide, jump into the water, open a parachute, or stall at the edge of the cliff? I would use this exercise to highlight the principles of telling a story and finding their voice.

This exercise shows the students that without preliminary research, they won’t know much about the actual story. Some might find it difficult to make a decision on how the story would turn out. They only know the hill, the cliff and the running, which equates to preconceptions of a topic.

There are many unknown factors, such as weather, motivation, personality, is there a fence somewhere securing the drop? So inevitably only thorough research, identifying key points and issues, will enable them to tell the story.

This leads into a second exercise…

asking the students to think about their next paper they have to write. Setting the scene, thinking about a plot line, introducing the characters (aka resources, references) leading to the finale (conclusion)—the ‘So What?’. Then giving them about 10 minutes to develop an outline of their story. I ask the students about their opinions on the topic. Leading to conversations about the origin of opinions and offering different viewpoints, pushing the students out of their comfort zones.

In the Last Step…

The students are to go through the outline of their story, question their ideas, highlighting assumptions, generalisations, statements that need back-up and referencing, and finally highlighting where references should go.

This is the idea so far. Any comments are welcome.

I will share the slides later.

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