Midterm Course Progress Report Assignment

Large white poster on a bulletin board with the message: Don't stress about midterms...Just study until you're too tired to feel emotion...It feels like just yesterday I was setting up my course for the summer session—and now, suddenly, midterm is upon us as we begin the third week of this six-week course. By the end of the week, students will turn in a course progress report that reflects on their accomplishments. I’m using a new ungrading approach this term (more on that in a future post), so I need to revise my progress report assignment.

I used a similar progress report assignment in previous courses, requiring students to describe their work on a research report in a memo. In those courses, students typically struggled with accomplishing the goals of the progress report assignment. I provided examples, textbook explanations, and advice from journals and blogs. Among the difficulties students faced, a majority struggled with the requirements of memo format and document design. Over several semesters, I tried providing more support, even designing a Memo Format Self-Review activity to help them get the format right. But they still struggled. I wanted to find supporting resources that worked.

The Midterm Course Progress Report Assignment I came up with for this term asks students to “Complete a progress report memo form that reports on what you have accomplished so far in the course and proposes the tentative grade you should receive for your work in the course up to midterm.” It goes on to urge students to “Use details and examples from your work logs and writing activities to support your argument.” The instructions for the assignment begin by having students gather evidence of their work in the course:

Review your work logs and gather your data. You are conducting primary research on your accomplishments in the course so far. You should find much of what you need in your Weekly Work Log. Consider these questions:

  • What work have you completed so far in the course?
  • If you have taken additional time on any assignments during the first half of the term, have you caught up? Are there still tasks that you need to complete?
  • Which document demonstrates your highest quality work so far? Why?
  • What work demonstrates that you have invested your best effort so far?
  • How have you supported classmates in your Feedback Discussions?

The rest of the assignment is probably what you would expect. It asks students to write a memo that describes and evaluates the work they have completed, proposes a tentative grade for their work so far, and outline the goals they have set for the remainder of the course. What the assignment still didn’t do however was provide a better strategy to help students with memo format and document design, the two areas I know they struggled with in the past.

I turned to the book I’m reading, James Lang’s Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning (Jossey-Bass, 2016). Lang examines small, research-based changes teachers can make to increase student learning. As I worked on the progress report, I decided to try some of Lang’s suggestions. The assignment already incorporated interleaving, the subject of Lang’s third chapter. Interleaving folds knowledge from previous course work into the current unit. As Lang explains, interleaving “involves two related activities that promote high levels of long-term retention: (a) spacing out learning sessions over time; and (b) mixing up your practice of skills you are seeking to develop” (p. 65). The progress report asked students to use the research skills from the second week to conduct primary research on their own work logs, spacing out and practicing the skills during the third week.

While it reinforced the skills from the previous week, the progress report assignment wasn’t doing any of the connecting work that Lang examines in his fourth chapter. Lang relies on an analogy to small, disconnected islands (borrowed from George Orwell) to describe the connecting challenges that students face: They have isolated bits of knowledge and must work to find and create connections among the information and skills. They need to build bridges and shipping routes among all those disconnected islands.

The expectations for my progress report assignments during previous semesters asked students to bring all their skills to bear on a single document. They had to determine the information to report, organize it in ways that work for the audience and purpose, use document design strategies to add headings and lists, and do it all while following the requirements of the memo genre. It’s no wonder students struggled to get it all right in a single project. They had all those skills to navigate and no pathways built among them.

To help students build the connections they needed, I adapted Lang’s model of providing a framework. In Lang’s use, the teacher provides a partial outline, or framework, for the material to be covered, and students build connections as they take notes, filling in that framework. My technical writing students aren’t taking notes on content however. Their job is to apply the different skills as they produce content. I created a framework, a Progress Report Form, that students fill in with the evidence they have gathered. The accompanying Form Instructions outline the information to provide in each section of the framework.

To ensure that they are more successful with memo format and document design, the Report Form includes standard memo headings. Students don’t have to worry about setting the memo correctly; they only have to provide the specific content in the provided framework. Likewise, the body of the memo in the form has ready-made headings for the information students need to provide. The primary document organization is already there. Students only need to organize the information that they include under each heading. Finally, the framework gives them a head start on document design too with headings in a larger, maroon font and the space for the information students will add in the normal, black font. Later in the term, I’ll have students write memos without the supporting template as well as to apply their own document design strategies.

I’ll find out at the end of the week if this new framework provides students with the support they need. If it works, maybe they can avoid that midterm panic that inspires posters like the one in the image above. I’ll let you know when I review their work.

 

 

 

Photo Credit: Midterm Advice by Eric E. Castro on Flickr, used under a CC-BY 2.0 license.