Ditching the Final Paper For a Blog

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Last semester I got to teach a sociolinguistics course (connecting language and social issues) and got ro reconsider what the capstone assignment should be. The content of the course is diverse enough that the traditional assignment has been a final paper rather than an exam.

However I realized a few semesters ago that the traditional undergraduate paper has its drawbacks, the worst being that the traditional paper format is much too easy to plagiarize. The goal of an undergraduate assignment is usually in-depth research and critical review, but not necessarily creation and dissemination of new knowledge (their skills may not be ready for that yet). Maybe the traditional paper is overkill?

Project Blog Instead

To break the mold for both the students and myself, I decided that the final assignment would be for students to use the Blogs at Penn State to create a mini-informational site. The topics would be similar to a final paper, but the product would be different.

To my delight, I think the experiment worked well. The quality was about the same (and probably better in a few cases) and I really think it did filter out of lot of potential plagiarism bombs (it's not easy to use your "blog voice" and plagiarize). I also liked that the new format finally made me really think about what process students needed to follow, the timeline they needed to stick to and what the grading criteria should be.

It also allowed students a little more creativity than a traditional paper might allow (I got some great examples of African-American English in the media). As with any new process, there's room for improvement, but the process below worked overall.

Timeline and Steps

This is a new enough concept that students needed handholding and a clear timeline. This semester, I started right after Spring Break and had weekly assignments/discussions of what to do.

  1. Consultations on Topics - I find this is critical for any course in which I assign papers. Students need to figure out what an appropriate project scope is and be interested in the topic.
  2. Create Blog and Post Topic - This ensures that students are being introduced to the tool early on and NOT in finals week. This also commits them to the project in a way that just claiming a topic does not.
  3. Post Scholarly Bibliography - I ask for three scholarly sources...to get them into the library. This is the week that I explain that Wikipedia is a start, but not a "scholarly source".
  4. Post Popular Media Sources - An important aspect of most sociolinguistic issues is popular perception versus the reality of the linguistic interactions. Thus most topics are covered in popular media significantly differently than academic sources.
  5. Linguistic Data Exercise - The homework includes exercises designed to showcase techniques to properly including linguistic data. This is also a good week to discuss how to avoid plagiarism.

Final Criteria

The actual Web page had to be completed during finals week and I made a few requirements.

  • 5-10 unique pages (any organization of their choosing).
    I think this was really important to helping students think about their content. Even if they were to purchase a paper, they would have to read it in order to split it up.
  • About page, Bibliography required

Grading was done on several criteria including these:

  • Quality of bibliography
  • Quality of linguistic data included (a requirement)
  • Relevance to sociolinguistics
  • Coherence of writing

While not all the results were perfect by any means, I did like how this evolved into a way that I could keep track of student progress. I knew who was getting into problems early on, and I got to steer a few in the right direction.

More importantly, I think students did feel a little more ownership for this kind of project than a traditional research assignment. Although there were definite research quality requirements, students did have more latitude in terms of their voice (academic vs. informal) and there are definitely more media options.

If I teach this course again, I am definitely keeping the assignment as a blog.

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