Robert Badger, a professor of geology, describes the lab reports he wrote as a student in an introductory geology class. “I wrote tired, uninspired drivel, merely recounting a vague version of what the professor or teaching assistant had recited, without trying to analyze for myself what it was I had actually observed.” (p. 58) He promised himself that if he ever became a teacher he would not subject his students to “such tedious and pointless exercises.” (p. 58)
Badger did become a teacher, and he avoided what he had experienced by having field trips but dispensing with write-ups. What he discovered, though, was that students could not answer even basic essay questions about what they’d observed on the field trips. So he added the usual lab report, got the expected poor results, and knew he had to do something better.
He decided to try a version of an assignment he’d completed as an undergraduate. In one of his introductory geology courses, he asked students, “Who’s paying for your education?” Most looked a bit confused. Badger continued, explaining that no, their parents were not paying and no, they hadn’t taken out a bunch of loans; instead, each student had an eccentric uncle who loved geology. This Uncle Ralph had agreed to pay for college provided his niece or nephew enrolled in and successfully completed a geology course. And Uncle Ralph required an occasional letter describing the geology course, especially the field trips.
The letters submitted to Badger in response to this assignment weren’t perfect. Students still misunderstood some of what they had seen, but Badger believes “the enthusiasm and quality of their geological perceptions is far superior to what I would receive if I merely requested a routine lab report.”
Based on his success with letters, Badger designed other creative writing assignments. In an upper-division integrated studies program, Badger partners with an ecology professor, and they jointly have students do a two-week lab project on a nearby stream. Students are assigned a section of the stream from which they collect all the aquatic organisms, which they then present in maps, tables, charts, and diagrams. Initially students prepared what Badger describes as “mediocre” scientific reports. The two professors changed the writing assignment and had the groups imagine they were professional river guides who had been sent to scout the river for potential rafting trips. “As potential guides, they had to be educators for the paying public and able to identify the flora and fauna within the stream,” Badger said. “The papers we received were an improvement.” (p. 62)
In another geology assignment, Badger has each student find his or her hometown on a geologic map and use the map to determine the age of the rocks in the area. Students then use other materials from the course to determine what the environment was like during the time period when these rocks were formed, and write a story (first person, present tense) about what it would have been like to be there during that time.
“It is hard to measure the success of these writing methods as teaching tools. I know I am more satisfied with the results than before I initiated them.” (p. 64) Badger thinks that these assignments work well for students because they allow students to write for an audience other than the professor. A professor’s knowledge and expertise can intimidate students. What’s the point of trying to share new knowledge with someone who already has that knowledge, plus a whole lot more? But if the assignment is to share what has just been learned with someone who doesn’t know, that makes it easier and provides some motivation in the process.
Reference: Badger, R. L. You can teach a rock new tricks. In R. L. Badger (ed.), Ideas That Work in College Teaching, Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 2008.
Excerpted from Avoiding Mediocre Lab Reports with Creative Assignments, The Teaching Professor, March 2009.