Center for Instructional
Innovation and Assessment


Robert Mitchell
Julia Sapin
Kathleen Saunders
Portfolio Contents
Portfolio Resources
Kathleen Saunders
Department of Anthropology



Welcome to the University: Find a Place in the Lecture Hall and Bring Your Number 2 Pencil


My first experience teaching a large lecture class was Introduction to Cultural Anthropology in the fall of 2000. I carefully prepared a syllabus, crafted lectures to illuminate core text concepts, chose ethnographic videos to add visual and narrative interest, and wrote four objective tests to evaluate student learning. Office hours were the quietest times of my week until the first exam results were posted. Then I received a flood of freshman students earnestly claiming that they had studied diligently but scored poorly on the exam and that they "did better on essay exams." I was daunted by the thought of grading 180 essay exams four times a quarter in order to test whether this form of evaluation would reveal a higher level of comprehension than the objective tests indicated. I also learned that often, student understanding of an "A" grade was my understanding of a "C". Finally, there were those plaintive cries that "my roommate hardly studies and he did better than I did." Yes, I thought, we all know those very annoying good objective test-takers.


The search for evaluation tools to demonstrate learning was one reason for introducing writing components in a large lecture GUR. Another was a more practical type of motivation: to incorporate writing into a 300-level course I was teaching that fall. I assigned a "short" research paper of approximately 12 pages on the kinship practices of any ethnic group in the world to illuminate the wide variety of possible ways to arrange kinship structures. I did tell the class that it needed to be cited according to the AAA style and that any plagiarism would be dealt with severely. My assumption was that college juniors were old hands at writing academic papers. This turned out to be a very bad assumption.

When the class and I were dissecting "what went wrong" after the papers were turned in, the students made it clear to me that most of the GUR courses they had taken over the previous two years were large lecture format, with little or no writing required. For most of them, the 12 page paper was the longest piece of sustained writing they had ever done, and most of them really didn't know the conventions of academic writing. This realization provided me with my second motivation for introducing writing components into a large lecture GUR: preparation for writing competency in upper-division classes.


My third motivation stemmed from discussions in the Teaching and Learning Academy involving students, faculty, and staff. It was provocative to hear faculty and students from different academic disciplines discussing the learning benefits of particular writing assignments that were not evaluated. It was also instructive to hear student frustration about perceived "busy work."

Combined with these specific pedagogical issues is my agreement with Bob Kerrey1 that facility with writing acts as a "gatekeeper" to entry into professional advancement within the contemporary world. Imposing the discipline of writing helps to impose discipline on thought and the development of masterful language, oral and written, is one worthy goal of a Liberal Arts education.


My current Cultural Anthropology syllabus reflects these motivations and attempts at innovation in assignments and assessment. Students are assigned four different writing tasks, evaluation methods, and learning objectives. I make the learning objectives and the rationale for the evaluation procedure transparent to my students. The structure of the course is a lecture on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, an ethnographic video on Thursday and small group discussions on Friday. I use the following four types of writing assignments in this class of approximately 160 students.

Writing Assignment Type 1: Video Responses

Students view ten ethnographic videos over the quarter. Each video is selected to enhance understanding of the text and lecture topic of the week. Students must write video responses to seven of the ten videos (see Video Prompt Assignment and Video Prompts); which videos constitute those seven responses is a choice I leave to them. This gives the class the opportunity to skip those weeks when their work or exam load is high.


My teaching assistant and I receive these assignments every Monday, split the pile, and have the graded papers with commentary ready for return by Friday. After alphabetizing them, we alternate who grades the top and bottom of the pile weekly so all students get the benefit of hearing from both of us equally over the quarter. The first round of papers is the most time consuming because we are vigilant about every grammatical or punctuation error; by doing so, we are able to demonstrate that the care with which we read them should be matched by the care with which the students write them. Furthermore, we write substantial commentary on the content of the writing. My teaching assistants report that the task of evaluating the essays makes them more introspective about their own writing. Often, I write a posting on the web about common misconceptions or good insights as demonstrated by the papers. We also select the best few papers and get permission from the authors to post those on the web as models of what an exemplary video response paper looks like.

The most frequent score on the first week of papers is a 7 out of 10. Several students typically receive scores below 7 and of those, many seek help in bringing their writing up to University level. Few who come in for one-on-one analysis fail to improve. By the end of the quarter, the mean grade is usually over 8.

Writing Assignment Type 2: Small Group Discussion

The weekly Friday small-group discussions are led by senior Anthropology majors who are enrolled in a course titled "Teaching and Learning in Anthropology." It is designed to be a practicum in discussion group leadership. I try to keep the small group sizes to 25 or fewer students.


The topic of the weekly discussion groups is critical analysis of assigned scholarly articles from a reader, Annual Editions, edited for introductory students. For each article (usually three are assigned) the students must write two concise sentences. The first sentence states the author's main point in writing the article through the student's own words. The second sentence is a research question that the student draws from the article. Full credit is given if the assignment is completed.

Discussion leaders track attendance and assignments electronically and then turn them in to me. I scan the papers for patterns and then make general commentary about them on Blackboard. This process takes about two hours of my time per week. Early in the quarter students tend to write summaries rather than extracting the main point of the article, so I post models. Also, in the beginning of the quarter, many of the questions posed are not research questions but rather questions of fact. Again, posting models improves the general quality without the necessity of individual evaluation.

Writing Assignment Type 3: Community Action Project

The Community Action Project (CAP) is a national Anthropology project designed to involve beginning university students with practice in ethical decision making in the discipline. Students must enroll in the project online, read material on a contemporary ethical dilemma in anthropological practice, and then write a persuasive letter to a decision-maker directly involved within the dilemma. For example, the issue in 2007 was the proper use of biological samples taken from indigenous Brazilian Indians twenty years ago for one stated purpose, which are now being used in contemporary research for another purpose. After the letter-writing phase of the process closes, all student participants receive four of their peers' letters to review. After the winnowing process of peer review, the five letters most highly-rated nationally are made electronically available for students to affix their signatures before they are sent to the decision maker. In Fall 2007, approximately 2,000 students participated in the national pool of letter-writers. I was pleased and gratified to have a national winner in the Fall 2007 class. In Spring 2007 Western had two national winners from a somewhat smaller pool.


The Community Action Project also provides an electronic resource for the instructor to follow the progress of their students through this process: registration, letter submission, completion of peer reviews, and computation of final peer scoring. My time commitment was minimal: posting deadline reminders and final grades.

Besides the national winner, sixteen students were judged to have written a paper worth 95% or better. No student in the class was judged to have written a paper worth less than 75%. The class' mean score was significantly higher than the national mean. In their course evaluations, students reported high satisfaction with the CAP because it had the real-world consequence of producing a document used in decision making.

Writing Assignment Type 4: Discussion Board

I enlisted the help of an outstanding senior who had worked for the Writing Center to open two threads per chapter of the Western Reads book selection—Honky—on the discussion board of the class web site. Honky was required reading for the course and one Friday discussion session was devoted to the book. Students were required to make four significant postings during the quarter. The maximum points that could be earned per posting was 10; students could keep posting until they had four 10s.


In my view, this assignment was the least successful exercise of the quarter. It was the assignment most often not completed. Student postings on the first half of the book were the best because the prompts elicited their own experiences with race and class. It fizzled on the more abstract and analytical threads. I thought it would be less threatening to discuss the vexed questions of race and class in America in the forum of personal reflection but in the main discussion, students shied away from the tough questions or retreated into the position that these were issues of historical interest but not applicable to their own lives.

It consumed about 30 hours of TA time to evaluate the posts. If the students had been more engaged with one another, I would advocate this as a good use of resources. I have used discussion boards successfully in small, upper-division courses and I suspect that the size of the class may be a key factor in this outcome. Students in large lecture courses are not as familiar with one another as students in a small seminar, but neither are they totally anonymous—a condition of communication that they often enjoy in "chat groups."


End-of-quarter course evaluations indicate that the integration of these writing assignments adds to the students' sense of satisfaction with the course. There were some complaints of "too much work assigned" but no one complained of "busy work" when the objectives were described. When queried in class, no students reported spending more than 10 hours a week on this 5 credit course and many reported spending fewer than 5 hours per week. My conclusion is that the writing components are not excessive.

There are also benefits for me, as an instructor. Close reading of their weekly video essays and scanning their weekly article assignment helps me keep better-informed about student comprehension of the material. It also helps me identify struggling students before they reach a point of academic crisis.

While deviating from the "three tests" norm for large–scale lecture GURs does entail more work hours for me, it is manageable because of the assistance of graduate TAs and undergraduate discussion leaders. We are all teachers and learners in this enterprise and it is my intention to foster the professional experience of my assistants as they lighten the work load for me.

The effect of the writing assignments on final course grades is interesting. The following figure illustrates results from the Fall 2007 section. It is a simple frequency count of grade distribution—had students been evaluated on objective tests alone—and the frequency of actual grades based on tests plus writing assignments. The number of students receiving Cs for the quarter is the same under both conditions. A significantly larger number of students earn As and Bs and a significantly smaller number of students earn Ds and Fs when writing assignments are included.


Thoughts on Teaching and Learning

Against common conventions, I argue that the oldest profession is Teaching.


Teaching and learning are reciprocal processes occurring naturally and spontaneously with every human interaction from birth. Culturally, we identify some members of this dynamic dance as Teachers, a position achieved by demonstrating one's commitment and competence at life-long-learning. In large scale societies Teaching and Learning are institutionalized into distinct categories with defined persons designated Teachers and Learners. The categorical reification is stiffened by differentiated titles, social relations, and credibility of knowledge claims.


While I reject the model of Teachers and Learners as distinct categories with the flow of knowledge running downhill from the font of the Teacherhead into the basin of the Learnercatch (with much evaporation, splash, and overflow to continue the imagery), still distinctions remain. Students and I have tasks to accomplish together. We have obligations to each other and to the wider civil society to which we belong.

Teaching is a privilege. The ability to pursue life-long learning as one's profession is to occupy a very small, fortunate niche in the distribution of the world's labor. Many others, equally as able and intellectually hungry, of necessity devote their life energy to pressing issues of physical survival. University learning is also a privilege. A very small percentage of the world's young adults are able to pursue undergraduate degrees. It is imperative that we understand ourselves as persons-in-community who have been given a great gift that must be reciprocated.

Anthropology has the chutzpah to claim all that is human as its intellectual terrain: biology and origins, past and present (archaeology and socio-cultural), descriptive and socio-cultural linguistics. It makes knowledge claims based in positivist science and hermeneutic reasoning. It borrows theories and methodologies from fields as diverse as developmental biology and literary criticism. Some anthropologists seek human universals or regularized patterns of being human. Others highlight difference and seek to illuminate myriad ways humans have arranged their social lives through time and across place.


I find Introduction classes exciting to teach because the freshness of discovery on the part of the students re-energizes my enthusiasm for spreading the anthropological orientation to understanding social life. As I explain the methodology of participant/observation fieldwork, I tell them that I will act as their "informant" in their new cultural milieu of higher education in which they often do not yet know the operating rules and expectations. I want them to feel the deep satisfaction of understanding, of discovery, of co-creation. One of the ways that we create is to write. I strongly believe that the newest members of the academy should have many opportunities to write as an integral part of their learning and evaluation from their first day on campus.



1 Chair of the National Commission on Writing for America's Families, Schools, and Colleges, which recently prepared a report on the growing importance of writing for employment.

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