I’ve been teaching a 200-level evolutionary medicine course at my university for four years. Each year I try something a little different to give students more ways to express themselves and to demonstrate their understanding of the material. But these changes have always been within the realm of assignments they and I can easily recognize as college-level coursework: reading responses, group work, presentations. Even as I’ve felt I was being innovative, I was still operating within the confines of work where I thought we all had similar expectations and familiarity.

And yet, I was frequently disappointed in the quality of the work.

The students at the University of Illinois are very bright, and those that have taken my evolutionary medicine course are no exception. So why did we have such a hard time matching our expectations?

The main pedagogical issue causing all of this was that last semester in particular I assigned way too much, without giving students a clear sense of the purpose of the assignments or how they integrated into a broader perspective on the topic. In my head, it made sense to assign two writing assignments a week, among other things, because writing is a thinking process and I wanted to get students to think. To them, the assignments were torture because they had to come up with things to say twice a week.

It was interesting to notice in the style of their assignments that this was the case – they weren’t taking on the assignments to process the material, but to fulfill the assignment and try to say things in the manner that would give them full credit. They thought I was looking to evaluate them on whether they were saying the right things, whereas I was looking to evaluate whether they were actually engaging.

Certain kinds of structures within school system and in the ways in which college students are prepared (or not) to take on what we faculty see as college-level work are part of the reason students write for performance (points or a grade) rather than mastery (engagement or understanding). But I can’t hop in a time machine and undo a minimum of eighteen years of priming for performance-oriented work.

So, even though it is usually wise to change only one major thing in a course per semester, I’m changing two.

Peer and public engagement

I want my students to engage more deeply and regularly with each other, and I find too much group work during class annoys students. I don’t recall how I ended up there last week, but I read this Profhacker post about blog assignments from the summer. The author, Profhacker regular and associate professor Mark Sample, is using the post to describe some of his weariness with blog assignments, and solicit thinking from his peers. However, since I have only used blog assignments a few other times, and in very different ways, my interest was piqued. What I love about the assignment Sample details is that he has given different roles to students in order to achieve his objective of getting them to engage with each other.

So, I’ve borrowed this assignment, with very little tinkering. My students’ reading responses this semester will be blog posts, and you can find them here. Most of their introductory posts are already up, and some of the reading responses too. My main objectives, which I’ve explained to my students, are that I want them to engage with each other, but also with the wider material out there on evolutionary medicine. There are many great anthropology, biology, and medical blogs that intersect with our course material, and having them integrate that into their understanding of the readings will make them better scholars.

I am also excited by the ways writing for a broad audience will change how they think about their assignments. I’ve warned them that I’ll be writing about and tweeting their posts from time to time, and I hope some of you will join me over there in engaging with them in the comments. We’ve discussed the loss of science sections from newspapers, and modern issues in science communication, and so these problems should be on their minds as they grapple with the readings.

The 80/20 rule

The other pedagogical goal I had for the class was to get them to become more internally motivated, and develop some interests and expertise in material relevant to our class. I’ve always liked the idea of incorporating the 80/20 rule into the classroom (80% assigned work, 20% relevant but self-directed work), but wasn’t sure how to do it in the classroom. What I finally decided was that, because this is a MWF class, I’d allocate half of most Fridays to 20% time. What this means is that 20% of their in and out of class time should be devoted to pursuing their own interests relevant to the course, as opposed to just doing the assignments I create and assign.

In order to keep students on track, I plan on having them submit some progress reports along the way, and do a final presentation of their work at the end of the semester. The presentation can capitalize on any expertise they had coming into the class – they can do a skit, write a blog, create a video or podcast, do a powerpoint or write an essay. Or they can do something I haven’t even thought of yet. I’ll be evaluating them on whether they’ve achieved their own goals that they outline in earlier progress reports, and how well they’ve advanced their knowledge.

I have reason to be excited about this crop of students. Already several have stayed after class to share with me their topic ideas, and I can tell they’re enthusiastic. Perhaps my favorite moment, however, was when I joked that playing World of Warcraft probably wouldn’t be an acceptable way to use one’s 20% time.

Not an hour after that class, I received an email from one of my students. It contained this link, and the words:

Challenge accepted.

Of course I had to tweet what he had found, which led to a number of other people getting excited, and my learning about another incidence of disease spread in gaming situations, which I emailed back to him.

Perhaps we’ll be learning more about epidemiological modeling of infectious disease via gaming? Or maybe this will get this student going in a completely different direction. Some of my other students are very interested in global health issues, health disparities, race and gender, and antibiotic resistance.

This assignment could totally flame out. Or it could lead to some amazing projects. I’m pretty sure we’re all going to learn a lot along the way, regardless of how these assignments end up looking from a traditional perspective. I know our chances for success are pretty good though, because I can tell these students are game for something a little different in the classroom this semester.