I thought this was university, not highschool...
November 23, 2009 9:21 PM   Subscribe

How far am I supposed to be willing to go to help my students with their term reports?

This is my first term as a sessional lecturer for a 3rd year petrochemical engineering class. The course lecture material has been just peachy, they had 2 midterm exams and everyone did reasonably well. They only have one assignment this term, and it's a 20-30 page report all about a petrochemical of their choosing (like toluene, isopropanol, styrene...).

But, this being their first term of 3rd year, they haven't had to do much in the way of researching and doing formal university-quality papers yet. I had them write up memos on their petrochemical of choice, to give them a feel of the magnitude of the project and also provide some guidance on writing style and proper formatting. I've been providing feedback on how it should be written, trying to make sure they're understanding what information I'm looking for. And I've offered to do go over their reports before they hand them in officially (if they hand them in to me by this Wednesday), so I can help prevent the epic fails ahead of time.

A few of the students have been coming to me for help on where to find some of their information, and this is the point where I'm having some difficulty on how to handle this. There have already been some good references provided as a starting point. Of course it's not entirely easy to find info on proprietary processes and market data, but after having helped a few students who have come to me, I've figured out that some of them just suck at google-fu and library searches. Many of the other students have managed to track down the same resources without my help, I found out in class this morning. After today, I can't help but feel like there should be a definite limit to the amount of assistance I provide.

How far should I go to help my students out then?
posted by lizbunny to Education (19 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Should you hand them the resources? No. But should you give students help with their google fu? Absolutely. Some people don't know the tricks, don't know the databases, don't know how to choose good search terms. Teaching them how to do this -- without handing them the answers -- is definitely an appropriate amount of help.
posted by brainmouse at 9:36 PM on November 23, 2009

Is there a library where they could be learning basic research skills? I was out of school for a while and a bit rusty on research techniques when I went back but the library at my university has a bunch of really good resources, both in person and on-line. Can you send some of your students to a research skills course?
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 9:36 PM on November 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

How about checking with your university's student services? Many universities offer free workshops for students on university skills such as academic writing, time management, note-taking, and research.
posted by Xianny at 9:43 PM on November 23, 2009

And I've offered to do go over their reports before they hand them in officially (if they hand them in to me by this Wednesday), so I can help prevent the epic fails ahead of time.

Warning: be very, very, very clear with them what "go over their reports" means. They may assume that it means "I will read through your draft, pick out EVERYTHING you need to change in order to get an A, and give you explicit instructions on how to perfect your report so that it gets an A." If this is not what you intend, be as clear as possible about what kind of feedback you will give. You might say something like, "I will pick out the biggest strength and the biggest weakness, but the rest is up to you," or "you may bring me your paper with the sentences you are most worried about highlighted. No more than four sentences. We will go over those together."

The potential pitfall here is that if you skim a paper, say "OK that looks fine" (because it doesn't look like an EPIC FAIL), and then later give the same paper a less-than-A grade, students may be hurt and angry because in their minds, fine = A and what was the purpose of having you look at their paper if you weren't going to tell them every little thing they were doing wrong? Or if you read through the papers and give suggestions for revision, students may be upset if they (think they) have made all the revisions and they still get a less-than-perfect grade.

That said, consulting on a draft can be a great way for students to learn; the process of considering alternative approaches and working through the revisions will stick with them more than the marginal comments they get back with a grade. Just be careful about what expectations you set up.

A few of the students have been coming to me for help on where to find some of their information, and this is the point where I'm having some difficulty on how to handle this.

A couple options: 1) refer students to your university's reference librarians; 2) devote 20 minutes of class time to talking about research sources. You can poll students out loud to find out where they've found information so far, and the less-adept students may get ideas from the more-adept ones.
posted by Orinda at 9:58 PM on November 23, 2009 [5 favorites]

Send your students, assignment in hand, to the library reference desk. This is what librarians do.
posted by bluedaisy at 10:11 PM on November 23, 2009 [6 favorites]

This advice is applicable to your appointment next year and not your current situation.

I always prepare a handout on conducting research for papers and include it in the syllabus packet for my sections. I also find the necessary time to go over the handout and ensure that the students know what a peer reviewed source is and have some idea of how to use the library search system and google scholar, separately or in conjunction. I encourage the students to ask the librarians for search assistance if they are having difficulty, and point them to research strategy seminars held at the library.

The first quarter I taught, I was totally blown away by the number of students who thought that a peer reviewed source was one with more than six pages or had seemingly not tried out the library search system despite having been on campus for several years. Some of the worst ones have been from professional or research track hard science degrees like chem E. Something about the way these degrees are structured allows some students to avoid doing library type research for several years of their degree.
posted by Derive the Hamiltonian of... at 10:23 PM on November 23, 2009

Send your students, assignment in hand, to the library reference desk. This is what librarians do.

Excellent advice. I'd also suggest contacting the library reference team and giving them a head's up. Depending on their resources (in the form of librarian availability) they may be able to prepare some research guides specific to your course or otherwise have some ready guidance specific to your students. They can't (and won't) "do their assignment for them," but help develop your students' research skills.
posted by GPF at 10:35 PM on November 23, 2009

Lots of excellent advice here.
Also check with your colleagues to see what the standards of the department are. Practices vary widely across fields, universities, and especially between countries! Checking with local colleagues is best if you can. How important is it to the department that they learn these material-locating skills in your course?
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:38 PM on November 23, 2009

For future terms, I would suggest you spread out the work a little more. If the class is just 2/3 tests and a large paper, it means that a lot of the grade rests in the result of that one paper, and if these students aren't confident about paper writing, this could cause a lot of heartache at the end of the term. Some students won't realize that they're not going about it the right way until it's too late.

You had them write memos--were those graded? What kind of feedback did you provide, apart from style guidelines?

I would think having sub-assignments throughout the term would help you approach these problems in steps more digestible by people who haven't done large paper work. Start off by having them choose their petrochemical of choice early in the semester (after you've given them some information about various classes of petrochemicals, so they can have some idea of what the options are). Then have them get you a list of sources, providing some number that you think would be a reasonable starting point. Give some vague ideas about how to research things in the library and online (maybe 20 minutes in a lecture, or a handout, or both). Then have them create that memo, and then go further into an outline and a draft. This will give more occasions for you to see how they are progressing and help you figure out which students are falling behind. It isn't bad to help some students more than others, as long as you're helping them learn to use things on their own later and not just handing them the answers.

If a first-term 3rd year student really hasn't had much chance to write technical papers of this length, I think you should give them more guidance. Some people are really awful at doing in-depth analysis and for some it's second nature.
posted by that girl at 12:22 AM on November 24, 2009

What GPF said. I'd guess you can find a subject specialty librarian who'd be happy to work with you, possibly giving a lecture during class time on library resources/search skills.
posted by cestmoi15 at 5:14 AM on November 24, 2009

I agree with that girl. Even in classes I ultimately do well in, I still stress out a little when there's only one graded written assignment - I don't know how the teacher grades or what to expect so it makes working on the paper that much more difficult. It will help if there are a few (at least one other) shorter written graded assignments, so that they can get a feel for what you're expecting. (It's not clear if there are already from your question.)
posted by Solon and Thanks at 5:45 AM on November 24, 2009

A general rule of thumb for our department is that we only do for a student what we would be willing to do for the entire class. So things like looking over or pseudomarking a draft of a paper/lab report (if the draft isn't actually an assigned task) is generally not done, but answering specific questions about how to approach the research process is ok.

I usually require students to outline for me what they've already done to answer their question, if they haven't done the basics, then I give them a few pointers on where to start and tell them to come back if they're still having trouble. If a student has really put in a good bit of effort but is still not getting things, that's when I look to help them more than I would on average. Sometimes I'm really shocked by how certain students will expect or need answers to be spoonfed to them, so I try to make sure they've put in some effort before I start giving them substantial help.
posted by dnesan at 5:57 AM on November 24, 2009

if some of the students found these resources on their own, then all of the students should know about it. Students should learn as much from their peers as they learn from you. For specifics of your preferred content, style or other quirks, you should be clear up-front and offer feedback at every opportunity; but for questions not specific to your field/topic, like "how to write a paper" or "how to do research" (questions of method, not content) they should learn from each other, from the librarian, or from their composition teachers. Stick to your specialty.
posted by Chris4d at 6:15 AM on November 24, 2009

Well, most fortunately, this is a small special elective class with only 13 students. Had it been a bigger class, I agree it would have been prudent to discuss researching this paper in depth earlier on. The size is also why I was ok with looking over their papers before they officially handed them in.

The memos were graded and handed back halfway through the term, they got started plenty early. The intention (which I was pretty clear on) was to have them outline their papers and find themselves a good handful of references to get started, to get a sense of the magnitude of the report. I took that opportunity to make sure the students knew how to properly reference their sources in a paper, check the quality of their references, and also to point out that Wikipedia is not a valid reference for a university paper (a handful had included it). I didn't really grade based on quality of writing as the memos were rather densely packed with info... like an abstract, basically.

For the paper, they were provided with general guidelines early on - format, expected chapters (as appropriate), etc. I've made sure to address the questions asked in class, discussing what the general contents of the chapters should be. I've conveyed the importance of writing a well-rounded, well-discussed paper that stays on topic (as a guide to sift through the information and find the still-missing info therein). And I'd have to say that by now they're decently informed of how to do a literature search.

Is there anything I'm really missing here? Any advice on what to tell them regarding the grading scheme and the like?
posted by lizbunny at 6:55 AM on November 24, 2009

The only thing I can see here that might confuse them at this point, assuming that they have a grip on literature searches and organization, etc, is the fact that the memos weren't graded based on quality of writing, but seems like more on the information that they contained? I could see my students assuming that since one assignment was evaluated based strictly on content, everything else would be too, and they could basically just throw grammar and voice to the wind (Even more in your case, since this is not a liberal arts course). I think that's definitely something that you'd want to be clear about. I don't know whether you use a rubric to grade papers, but one thing that's worked for me in the past with communicating expectations is to give them a copy of my rubric in advance. Either that, or I put it in a handout form that breaks down exactly what I'm looking for and how each aspect is weighted. For instance, accurate and well-researched information is X%, referencing sources properly is X%, correct grammar is X%, etc. This can also help you to draw the line as far as what you will provide extra help with and what they are expected to do on their own/with the help of the library/with the help of your school's Writing Center (assuming that there is one). You can tell them, okay, I'm willing to work with you on this and this, but that and that you are responsible for outside of class.

I could not agree more with orinda - "be very, very clear about what 'going over their reports' means!" In my world, if they come in for extra help it means they have a substantial part of the work done, and it also means that they have *specific* questions about their progress, preferably in writing, when they sit down with you. This will help both you and them use that time most efficiently, and it will also prevent the nebulous "can you look at this for me?" situation. Believe me, "have I cited this source correctly?" is a far easier situation to deal with than "how's this paper?" Ultimately, I think the students get more out of this too - it forces them to evaluate their own work before someone else just kind of does it for them. I hope this was helpful, and good luck to you and your students!
posted by lucky25 at 8:08 AM on November 24, 2009

At our University (I work in the Engineering library as a matter of fact) we librarians are more than happy to create search tutorials, tailored research guides with resource starting points, or come in and talk to the class for approximately twenty minutes to an hour about how and where to research. We do it all the time, and information literacy instruction is one of the directions modern librarianship is headed, so I'm sure people will jump at the chance to get some for their resume. Your library's website should have a listing of various subject specialists. Even just giving someone's name out in class as the person to go to for research questions takes some sticky responsibility off of you, and creates a life-long research skill that any Eng grad student will need to get sooner or later.
posted by itsonreserve at 11:47 AM on November 24, 2009

Adding, after noticing your title, that in all my workshops, I've never met a kid who learned search tactics in high school like they were supposed to. Hell, no one even taught them to me until I got to library school, I had to figure it out as an undergrad on my own. You will become a professor they infinitely like if you help them with this. Trust me.
posted by itsonreserve at 11:49 AM on November 24, 2009

One thing I would caution you about is that students are notoriously poor planners. Given a semester to do a single project, among courses with multiple projects and earlier due dates, they will take a "closest-deadline first" approach. Hence "all-nighter" is a common phrase among term papers. There's documented research that shows students, given a single due date for all course work, don't pace themselves but instead turn it in until the last minute. Poor graders!

A simple proposed experiment: At the start of every class, hand out a piece of paper and have students anonymously report two things:
1. The number of pages they've completed
2. Their estimate of the class average number of pages completed

It can be embarrassing to admit you've slacked off, so make a big show of anonymity. Instruct them to fold the paper in half when they're done, then collect them all at once. Shuffle them around before placing them in a spreadsheet where you can quickly drop in these self reported numbers in class. You can show the average pages completed to students along with the average prediction. You should prepare your own estimates in advance, and see how your expectations compare with student's performance and expectations. As 3rd year engineers, taking a moment to teach time management, planning and performance metrics will be invaluable.
posted by pwnguin at 12:54 PM on November 24, 2009

does your institution have a writing center? they can be a great aid to you. let them know you're sending students their way and email them a copy of your assignment materials, plus note any specifics you've given the students in class that aren't on the handouts.

reference librarians: yes!

probably for next term: a class session devoted to peer editing session. this is more a help for the editor than the editee, as it gives them exposure to what others are doing, what sorts of things they've included, how they're presenting the material, both bad and good.
posted by miss patrish at 3:57 PM on November 24, 2009

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