November 19th, 2009

Why Are You Taking This Course?


Do you ever ask students to think about why they’re taking your course? Most faculty are discouraged by the very common “because it’s required” response. Equally discouraging is what students hope to get out of a course. Sometimes they seem perplexed by the question! The answer is so obvious—they want an A.

Bob Trudeau, a faculty member in political science at Providence College in Rhode Island, has developed an intriguing assignment that gets students beyond those easy answers. It’s an assignment that encourages students to think and write about why they are in a course. Here’s how his syllabus sets them up for the assignment:

Education is about personal change, or should be. This suggests that it is important to know where you are, where you hope to go, and how your education can fit into those larger plans. The value of one’s education depends on conscious and reflective participation in the process.

Students post their “statements of purpose” to a discussion forum, but these statements are a private communication between the student and the instructor. The statements include discussion of overall educational and professional plans—to the extent students know them—how this course might fit into those plans; educational strengths and weaknesses, and how they might impact performance in this particular course; and, based on all of that, what the student hopes to get out of the course.

Trudeau does grade the assignment, but very loosely. He’s moved to a pass/fail system because the content is personal, which makes it hard to assess. However, he creates a “cost” if students fail to complete the assignment or dash off something just before the deadline. Here’s the description from his syllabus:

If you pass, great. If you fail—difficult, but possible—you lose five points on the participation grade for the first half of the semester. Not doing the assignment will cost you a full letter grade on the participation grade for the first half of the semester.

When the students are freshmen, Trudeau combines the statement of purpose assignment with another one called “Visit BT” (Bob Trudeau). Students must find and visit Trudeau during office hours. He wants students to “get actively involved in the out of class/face-to-face part of college.” When students arrive for these visits, Trudeau mentions their statement of purpose. He may ask a follow-up question or make a comment about its contents.

Trudeau’s approach sounds like a great way to launch a course, as well as a great way to make students more responsible for what they take away from the course. One student’s testimony verifies these positive impacts: “I think all professors should start off their class with a similar assignment because it lets students know that this is not a lecture class that you can zone out in, but rather one that requires active mental participation and original thought.”

Adapted from Statement of Purpose Assignment, The Teaching Professor, Aug./Sept. 2008.

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