Chapter Essays as a Teaching Tool

A few years ago I added a simple assignment to my introductory sociology classes, and it has paid off in more ways than I expected. Each student writes an essay for each chapter we cover. In the essay, prepared outside of class, the student identifies what they consider the single most important concept from the chapter unit (anything in the textbook or class lecture and discussion) and then explains why they think it is important. Each student must give an example from their own life experiences that illustrates the idea and establishes its importance, and then relate it to the topic.

The idea behind the essays was to encourage students to think about the concepts as we discuss them and to apply them to the world outside the classroom. Preparing the essays forces students to actually sit down and reflect on the information, its ramifications, and its meaning. One of the unexpected payoffs has been how this process makes course content more interesting for students and for me. They take it seriously and frequently make connections that I would not have considered. Doing the assignment well requires that students not only know and understand the material, but that they also apply, analyze, and (in a really good essay) synthesize and evaluate the material.

This approach may not work for every kind of class, but I can imagine adapting a similar approach for any of the social sciences and several humanities courses as well. Some professors may be inclined to ask students to be broad rather than specific with the topic of the essays. I would recommend against broad topics. My experience has shown that focusing the essay on one very specific concept makes for better essays and does not leave out the bigger picture. A student who writes about a specific term or concept almost always places that idea into a larger context, but those who try to write about too broad a topic invariably skim over important details.

Too often we expect our students to immediately and intuitively understand why the subject we teach is important to them. We expect them to automatically see how it applies to their own lives and the world around them. However, I have observed that students consistently do just the opposite: they compartmentalize, treating each unit as an isolated piece of information to be memorized for the next exam, then forgotten or filed away. I have also found that telling students that the things they are learning are important doesn’t seem to make much of a difference to most of them. Writing the essays and engaging in the thinking required to write them well turns otherwise abstract ideas into concrete reality for the students. No one walks out of the classroom at the end of the semester thinking they didn’t learn anything “real” or important.

Sometimes, completing this assignment gives students an entirely new perspective on themselves or their lives to the point where they actually take on a new level of determination and ambition. Every semester I receive a few essays that clearly stand out from all the rest. They tend to be longer than average and reveal a great deal of thought and attention. Often they begin with a phrase like “I never understood why I…” and usually end with a phrase similar to “now I know how to…” One of my students last semester applied the concept of cultural capital to her own family and upbringing. She wrote for several pages, connecting the concept to specific aspects of her own past and her relationship with her family, and concluded by explaining that she now understood them better, understood herself better, and understood what it would really mean to “pull herself up” by being the first member of her family to get a university education.

These essays are the most interesting to read, of course, but even more exciting is how they document the process of a student realizing the connections between their own world and the world of higher learning. They discover what sociology has to offer and how to use their new knowledge to understand and maybe better their own lives. Through experiences like these, students discover that college is not just something you do in order to get a job, but that it can also be a place where real learning takes place.