This assignment is used in our first semester required freshman seminar course. Each year, we select a book—the “common read”—set in a foreign country, to be read by the entire freshman class. To help students make a connection to the country we are studying, students must complete an I-Search project that relates to a social issue in the book. The I-Search approach was developed in the 1980s to encourage student-centered inquiry. The assignment is a group assignment and has several parts. Students must create a research question related to the issue they chose, submit an annotated bibliography from their research, create a multimodal presentation based on the research which explores the chosen issue, and write a reflective essay about what they learned. The annotated bibliography is assessed using the Inquiry and Analysis VALUE Rubric, the multimodal presentation is assessed using the Modified Integrated Communication Rubric, and the reflective essay is assessed using the Social Responsibility VALUE Rubric.
Background and Context
This assignment was designed for our freshman seminar course. It is a one-hour credit course with two hours of contact per week. As it is part of our core curriculum, all students are required to enroll, typically the first semester of their freshman year. We have approximately 1,400-1,500 freshman, and our seminar sections are capped at 30. Each seminar is part of a larger learning community. For some sections, this means the entire class is composed of biology majors who are taking freshman seminar, biology and chemistry together. Other seminar sections are composed of students with various majors who form a learning community simply because they are taking freshman seminar and history together.
The assignment has both group and individual components. The research question and multimodal presentation are group assignments, while the annotated bibliography and reflective essay are individual. The I-Search topics, which are self-selected, are always generated from the common read, which changes each year. Although students must generate topics from the common read, they have choice within that parameter, empowering them to write about what they find interesting. The common read is always set in a foreign country. Students do not necessarily have to research something from the country in the book, but they do have to choose an issue that arises in the book. For example, when we read a book about a North Korean defector, some students chose human trafficking as their issue, but the researched the impact of it along the Texas/Mexico border. For students who are enrolled in a seminar section with other students with the same major, they often choose a topic that is related to both an issue in the book and their major, but this is not a requirement.
Each year, we assess critical thinking, social responsibility and communication. We created this assignment as a semester long integrated project that could be used to assess all three. We designed the annotated bibliography to be assessed with the inquiry and analysis (critical thinking) VALUE rubric; the multimodal presentation to be assessed with the modified integrated communication VALUE rubric; and the reflective essay, which is done in a series of journal entries throughout the semester, to be assessed with the social responsibility VALUE rubric. All of these are attached.
Alignment and Scaffolding
The assignment is semester-long and is fully integrated with our common read book, which we use as our text. Students learn how to read critically, and analyze international geopolitics, historical events and current social issues. They are introduced to fundamental research skills such as how to create a research question, how to utilize the library databases, and how to critically evaluate sources. Additionally, students learn how to work in a team and polish their presentation skills. Because our students are first-semester freshmen, they typically will have minimal preparation for the assignment; it is designed to be entry level.
The assignment is meant to prepare students for future courses. Our university’s current QEP (the Quality Enhancement Plan we design as part of regional accreditation) focuses on critical thinking and undergraduate research, and this assignment gives students a foundation in both. Because it is our QEP, students will need these skills in the majority of classes they will take going forward. Additionally, we have a second required freshman seminar course in the spring. It is called the Signature Course and carries four credit hours. In this course, students must build on the research skills they learned in the first course. To this end, students present a research project at our First Year Experience Research Symposium held in May of each year.
We began the I-Search project in the fall of 2016. When we began assessing, we noticed most students were scoring on the low end of the rubric, especially in critical thinking and social responsibility. Although we were concerned, our thinking was that the students were simply at that level in their educational journey. However, after I attended a LEAP Texas workshop in the summer of 2017, I realized our students were scoring low because the assignments were not written in such way as to allow them to reach higher scores. As a result, I rewrote the annotated bibliography assignment and the reflective essay. As a result, the quality of my annotated bibliographies definitely increased. I was not satisfied with the quality of the social responsibility reflective essays, but I believe this is a result of instruction and not the assignment or rubric. In the future, I will need to provide more direct instruction as well as time for critical analysis when asking students to compare the United States and the country in which the book is set. It seems that students hesitate when asked to think critically about their own country. Despite my dissatisfaction, when I submitted my reflective essays to LEAP Texas to be scored, the results were as follows:
Highest possible score 16;
Overall Mean 11.4.
Our overall percentage by rubric (overall mean/highest possible score represents the average performance on the rubric or the percentage of the artifacts that met the expectations of the rubric) was 71%. In contrast, the overall percentage for all the schools that participated in the workshop was 66%. In other words, our students scored higher on our social responsibility rubric than did students from other participating schools using their social responsibility rubrics. Considering that all of our respondents were freshmen, the overall results were better than expected.
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