Student’s panic every time I give them an “open ended” prompt; they’ve even written it in their reflections:

“In high school, it was always obvious what the teacher wanted. Maybe there were a few options, but you always knew what the teacher wanted you to say, research some sources that say X and then fill-in-the-blank. That’s why I think this open ended prompt was so uncomfortable. We’re not expected to be that independent as students. I usually just want the teacher to tell me what to write and I’ll write it.”

When we don’t require students to learn how to select and rigorously investigate their own interests, then I think we might be depriving them of one of the most satisfying experiences of the scholar’s life: inquiry.

The prompt for the Literature Review essay I use in English 1A begins, “In this assignment you will write about something that genuinely interests you. The more personally intrigued you are with your topic, the better this project will turn out. If you’re bored – that’s your own fault.”

Every quarter, though, I still have one or two students who need some guidance in finding out what actually interests them. Even when the question is open-ended, some students still remain obsequious to what they believe the teacher wants. In two different classes I had two students writing from a nearly identical question, something like, “What’s the most current research (2013-2015) on new cancer therapies?” When I asked one of these students why he was writing about this, he just shrugged his shoulders, I don’t know, it seemed like it would be easy. Turns out he was super bored and couldn’t even begin to pretend he was interested in the dense medical jargon of the prose. When I asked the other student, she said, “I have breast cancer, so even though these science papers are really hard to read, I really want to know what they’re saying.” Her interest was palpable. And, after just a little prodding, it turns out the former student was actually really interested in “The most current psychology and neurology research looking at flow state experiences in extreme sports athletes.”

I understand why we, as teachers, avoid these prompts. Who knows what the students might come up with. A colleague of mine who also uses an open-ended prompt tries to restrict anything too ridiculous, “You may not write about aliens, ghosts, or conspiracy theories.”But I have a sneaky way of allowing even the most bizarre. Instead of limiting the topics a student can write about, I limit the kinds of sources they can include. The lion’s share of the citations (8 out of the 10 required) the student uses in the literature review must be peer-reviewed, academic articles from the Foothill library database. This ensures that no matter the topic, the resources will, for the most part, be responsible. (It turns out that even with aliens, ghosts, and conspiracy theories, thousands of academics have widely published fascinating papers).

What I don’t leave open ended, though, is the way they will end up writing this paper. First, they have to book a meeting with one of our librarians on campus. Secondly, I don’t only require students to read peer-reviewed, academic articles, they also have to imitate them. They perform rhetorical analyses of their favorite articles, explain how they tick, and then plan how they will incorporate similar features into their own essays.

I’ve only been doing this for a few years, and as scary as it might seem, hundreds of my former students have performed the task admirably. When they come back to see me in my office, now they even feel a little disappointed when a teacher gives them a “fill-in-the-blank” research paper.


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