Ashley Weleschuk, Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning
July 23, 2018
“I like to think of [the inquiry project] as everything but a research paper” – Dr. Derritt Mason
Although research is an important part of literary studies, the many stages of the process—from developing effective research questions to finding a way to enter a critical conversation—aren’t always made transparent to undergraduate students. Dr. Derritt Mason, an Assistant Professor at the University of Calgary, is trying to change this through the teaching and assessment methods he uses in courses like ENGL 472: Advanced Studies in Young Adult Literature. His main inspiration was the book Literary Learning: Teaching the English Major by Sherry Lee Linkon. This book discusses the promotion of research skill development alongside the prevention of high, end-of-semester workloads that result from having overlapping, high-stakes deadlines. There are 40 students in ENGL 472, which is larger than the courses discussed in Linkon’s book, but Dr. Mason was able to adapt the methods to fit with a larger group of students. He has designed the course around an inquiry project where students reflect on how their perspectives shifted through their research and readings throughout the course.
Reading and Research Journal
At the start of the course, students are provided with a list of classic and contemporary texts. They select one as their inquiry focus for the semester. As they read other pieces of literature and explore different perspectives on young adult literature in general, they keep this text in mind. They document their learning and changing ideas in weekly journaling activities. The entries are short, between 200-500 words, and are informal in structure. Journaling helps students stay focused on their inquiry text throughout the semester and gets them thinking and generating ideas. Dr. Mason selects three entries to grade for each student, but assigns their final mark holistically, assessing the consistency, completion, and overall reflectiveness of the entries. This makes up 25% of the course grade.
Critical Research Overview
A big part of the research process is finding existing scholarly sources that can inform and shed new light on a text. Dr. Mason asks students to find two peer-reviewed sources that connect to their inquiry text and write a response about how they engage with the text. Students can explore whether the texts agree or disagree, what themes or issues come up, and how they affect students’ interpretations of the text. Finding peer-reviewed sources on some of the more recent texts is challenging, as there are not many scholarly papers written specifically about them. However, students can find pieces that relate to the themes, structures, or devices used in the piece they are studying. This assignment helps students gain new insight into their text, and prepares them for the next project.
Group Poster and Presentation
Students are put into groups for this project. Two students who are studying the same text team up with two students studying a different one. Contemporary texts are paired with YA classics. The students collaborate to find intersections between the texts, which can be challenging. Some texts discuss similar ideas and are easy to put into a conversation, while others do not have any surface-level similarities and require deeper analysis to find a connection. Groups develop research questions and find peer-reviewed sources to make their claims with. Students spend several class periods working together and creating a poster. Students present them in class and get the opportunity to circulate and discuss the various posters with their peers, as well as other students and faculty members from the department.
Inquiry Synthesis and Portfolio
Although many of these assignments are common to other English courses, they are pulled together in a unique way through the final inquiry synthesis and portfolio. Instead of presenting a thesis and sustained, focused argument as students do in standard research essays, they write a ~2500 word synthesis of their experience with their inquiry text. They can choose to engage with the inquiry in different ways, such as by organizing their piece around a series of themes, talking about their research questions, or chronologically discussing the process that they followed.
They also have to present different artifacts and reflections from their research in a portfolio. They can incorporate journal entries, extra work from the two projects, and other raw work from the course into this portfolio. This means there isn’t much new content that needs to be created for this assessment. Dr. Mason also suggests that students include photos of their notes or comments they scribbled in the margins of their books while reading. This helps reduce the amount of work for students at the end of the term, a common problem in some English courses.
This project helps students demonstrate their learning clearly. The focus is not on drawing conclusions, but on making discoveries. Dr. Mason notes that this project provides him with more evidence of the progression of students’ thinking that occurred throughout the semester than an essay does. He gets to hear their experience and see concrete examples of their changing approach and learning.
Initially, students are surprised by the format of the course. It is quite different from the standard essay-focused courses in the English department. However, most students get used to the unique methods as the course progresses and dedicate themselves to the inquiry process. Although there is no final essay in the course, the writing component is still rigorous and engaging. They put in as much work into their inquiry project as they would into an essay, but it is designed to be split more evenly throughout the course.
In English courses, it is important to outline expectations without restricting creativity and individual perspectives in written work. Dr. Mason does not use traditional, structured rubrics, and instead, provides a list of expectations for each assignment. This allows for clarity but does not overwhelm students with unnecessary requirement details that would limit their creative abilities.
Students noted in their feedback for the course that the weekly journal activities were time-consuming, especially when approaching the due dates for other assessments. Dr. Mason intends to reduce them to every other week, and include some peer responses in the future. The other big challenge was dealing with technology. Dr. Mason used the D2L ePortfolio software for the portfolio component of the course, but due to many technical difficulties, he was not happy with how it worked. He hopes to use a more effective platform in the future.
Overall, Dr. Mason was happy with the outcomes of the course, with students having the opportunity to try new assessments and getting deeply invested in the process of researching. Dr. Mason hopes that he is preparing his students for future research and giving them a better idea of what the process looks like. He recommends to his colleagues to look at the wealth of available teaching resources. There are lots of great examples and methods being used; you just have to find the one that fits best with the discipline and the course you are teaching.