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Biology TOPICS Courses

Potential assignment types

Prepared by Lisa Kurz
Campus Writing Program
Franklin Hall 008

1. Microthemes
2. Explanation of a Multiple Choice Answer
3. Meaningful Paragraph
4. Scenario / Puzzle
5. Analysis of Data or a Graph
6. Group Project
7. Annotated Journal


(For a definition of “microthemes” and a general discussion of their practicality and usefulness, see the article by Bean, Drenk, and Lee, 1982.)

a. Summary of a lecture

Model: Biology B3XX Lecture Summary

In this assignment, students are allowed to use their lecture notes, which ensures that the summaries will be more accurate, and permits the professor to require revision if the summary is factually incorrect or very badly written. In this class lecture summaries are assigned once per week but students don't know ahead of time which class will include this assignment, so the assignment can also act as an incentive to attend class.

Petr, pp. 136–137

This author emphasizes value of lecture summaries to instructors, who can use them as an indicator of whether students understand the material or not.

Maraffa (1985), p. 166

This professor points out that lecture summaries can help students synthesize material covered during the lecture while it's still fresh, thus improving their understanding of and memory for the material.

Steiner (1982)

This chemistry professor assigned lecture summaries to be written out of class and handed in at the next class. He reported a positive relationship between performance on the lecture summaries and grades on a subsequent test.

b. Summary of an assigned reading

Model: Journalism J110 First Essay

Because this assignment specifies the audience for the summary and the criteria by which it will be evaluated, students will have a clearer idea of what is expected of them (an important point considering that this was the first writing assignment of the semester). Note the brevity of the writing demanded by this assignment—150 words, or less than one double-spaced page.

Bean, Drenk, and Lee (1982), pp. 28–30

These authors emphasize the difficulty of the seemingly simple task of summarizing an article or other reading in a page or less, and point out that requiring students to summarize readings that express conflicting points of view forces students away from “superficial one-right-answer thinking” (p. 30).

c. Abstract of an article

Powell (1985), p. 415

Each semester this chemistry professor requires (among other writing assignments) 3 to 5 abstracts of journal articles from his students; he includes peer review to lessen the grading burden.

d. Explanation of a concept

Model: Physics P300 Paper 1

In the first topic on this physics assignment students are instructed to write their one-age essays for an audience of non-scientists, a technique that reveals remarkably clearly the students’ understanding (or lack of understanding) of a fundamental principle of relativity.

Model: Biology B2XX Study Guide Microtheme #1

In this assignment students are asked to summarize an experiment discussed in class from two different points of view, to demonstrate that they understand the arguments for and against the differing interpretations of the experiment.

e. Support of a thesis

Model: Geology G105 Extra-credit Assignment

Students opting to do this extra-credit assignment were allowed to do some outside research before writing this essay. The assignment allowed students some creativity while requiring them to develop a point and support it with evidence.

Model: Biology B3XX Microtheme #1

This assignment was designed to force students to confront and overcome certain preconceptions that they typically bring into a course on evolution.

Bean et al. (1982), pp. 30–31

This part of the Bean et al. chapter describes the focused thesis-support microthemes assigned by a professor of finance. The professor identifies controversial, unproven issues in the discipline and expresses each issue as a pair of contradictory propositions (e.g., “X does/does not cause Y”). He requires that students pick one of the alternative propositions and defend it in a page or two.

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Model: Business Law L201 Quiz

This professor gives pop quizzes in her large lecture class to prepare students for the exams and to encourage regular attendance in class. Each quiz contains at least one question that asks students to explain, for a particular multiple choice question, why the answer the student chose is correct. Students receive credit for the multiple choice item only if their answer to the associated explanation question is also correct.

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Model: Biology B2XX Study Guide

In this assignment students are to demonstrate not only that they can define the terms listed and use them in a sentence, but also that they can relate the listed terms to each other in a coherent fashion.

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Model: Biology B1XX Microtheme #3

This assignment requires that students go beyond a simple regurgitation of facts to apply those facts to a new situation.

Model: COAS E105 First Essay

The basic information requested in this assignment is quite straightforward, but the assignment is made more challenging and more interesting by embedding the request in a novel context.

Model: Biology B2XX Study Guide Microtheme #2

In this assignment the students are asked to apply what they’ve learned in class to a new situation and arrive at an answer to the question posed, then to defend/explain that answer.

Bean et al. (1982), pp. 34–37

The example provided in this article is a humorous and scientifically rigorous “case study” requiring students to explain certain physics principles to a non-scientific audience.

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Model: Journalism J110 Essay 3

In this assignment students are given a data set and asked to write a very short essay (only 150 words) in which they make some sense of the data provided. Much of the feedback provided to the students in this large lecture class is given in a set of general statements handed out to all the students in the class when their essays are returned (a copy of this feedback is included with the assignment). This technique saves considerable grading time and effort.

Petr, pp. 132–135

The author, a professor of economics, argues that “economic literacy” (and general critical thinking skills) can be fostered by asking students to explain tables or charts of economic data drawn from the popular press or other everyday sources.

Bean et al. (1982), pp. 31–34

In this part of their chapter Bean et al. illustrate two types of data interpretation assignments: one that provides data in tabular form, and another that provides a series of data-containing sentences that students are to use in their essays.

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Model: Sociology S101 Mini-Assignment #1

In this group project a topic and overall task are specified and members of each group are assigned specific subtasks. Dividing a larger project into subtasks in this way makes the project more manageable even for introductory-level students (as in the large introductory class in which this assignment was made).

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Petr, pp. 130–132; 137

The example described in this chapter is actually a modified journal in which students collect and annotate articles from the popular press on a particular topic.

Maraffa (1985), pp. 167–168

The example in this article shows that journal-writing can either address a specific topic or question or be open-ended (without a set topic).

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