This is a continuation of issues raised in the last two threads.
I give three critical papers as assignments throughout a semester. They are a major component of the final grade. These papers have a 1000 word maximum limit (no minimum). For the 1st paper, the assignment is to construct an argument using only two premises defending an assigned conclusion, for example, ‘professions should hold their members accountable for their actions’ or ‘the father should not have killed his child.’ As part of the assignment, after the argument is constructed the student is to take the premise that states what we should do and defend it using either a utilitarian of Kantian perspective. They are instructed not to defend the conclusion of their original argument, but only to present a reason why the normative premise might be true. In class we go over numerous examples of how to construct arguments and how to identify the normative premise. Of course, by the time they are asked to utilize a normative perspective these perspectives have been well-covered in class and through other non-graded writing assignments that they get credit/no credit depending on whether or not they do them. I offer to review their introductions/thesis statement and argument before they turn the paper in and to offer suggestions if there are problems so they can make corrections. I even put an example of how to set up the discussion with a sample introduction/thesis and sample argument on BB for them to refer to when writing their introduction/thesis and argument.
One would think that with all the preparation and guidance that the students would do very well on these papers, but historically the 1st papers are an utter disaster. This semester, of the 106 students who received grades, 43 of them received a D or F. There were only 8 A’s. The main reason for the failure is that they did not do what the assignment asked of them. Now this will change and the 2nd and 3rd papers will be vastly improved. But how do we account for this poor performance. (By the by, I had the same results when I gave exams instead of critical papers and handed out review question from which the exam was to be taken 1-2 weeks before the exam.) It is not that they are stupid because the vast majority of them who got D or F will end up getting C or B on the next paper.
I suggest that the reason why students perform so poorly is that they do not know how to learn! They do know how to take tests (that is what they have learned in middle and high school), but that requires a vastly different set of skills. They do not understand that learning is an on-going process and that one has to practice as part of learning. I am beginning to think that we do our students a disservice by giving them a syllabus that covers every contingency and by given them review questions before exams. I have had students ask me for review questions for all the exams including the final exam at the beginning of the semester. They want to know what they will be tested on so they can focus their studying. But is that learning? I think not, but I do not have the answer. I am perplexed and a bit frustrated, but I do keep searching for the best pedagogical approach.