Jennifer Smith

The goals of my work in WID are as follows:

  1. to develop informal writing exercises that foster critical thinking (for students)
  2. to establish useful brainstorming steps into the paper writing process (for students)
  3. to maintain or even reduce the amount of grading (for me!).

I was drawn to WID because I wanted to reflect on and improve the way I teach the Introduction to Anthropology class.  I love teaching this class and in many ways it is my favourite to teach.  It covers all sorts of topics and perspectives and I am most pleased when students come away with the ability to think critically and anthropologically about topics including (but not limited to): our human ancestors and the science behind evolution; and, cultural similarities and differences of peoples today.  While pleased with many aspects of the introductory class I felt that, somehow, I was missing an opportunity to get students to practice their thinking skills independently and that I was missing an opportunity to show students how useful an anthropological approach is to understanding complex issues in our society and beyond.

I have chosen to focus my WID portfolio primarily on developing informal writing assignments that foster discipline-specific thinking skills as well as critical thinking skills more generally.  I have also focused, though to a lesser extent, on formal assignment design particularly in regards to the addition of drafting steps (brainstorming and thinking). Of note is that while (like all WID fellows) I was looking to improve the learning process for both students and myself I was not looking to add to my marking pile or to add more work to the busy 4-4 teaching load we teach in the Social Sciences.  All pieces presented here have not added to my marking load and in some cases have even reduced it.


Part One: Informal Writing Assignments 

 Over the course of my WID semester (Fall 2015) I experimented with a lot of different informal writing exercises that count for participation marks.  I now assign 8 – 10 participation exercises over the course of the semester and I keep the top 6 – 8 grades.  This means that students who do not do well initially or who miss a class or two have the chance to get their full 10% for participation in the class.

Formerly I had a number of in-class assignments that I collected regularly and calculated at 1% each. I would, for example, hand out a question sheet for a film or topic covered that day in class and collect it at the end of that class. These handouts would generally have questions about the content of the film clips or class content and occasionally a “what did you learn that you didn’t know before?” reflection question.  While I feel this is a fine way to calculate the participation mark I had a feeling that students were doing very little work out of the classroom.  So during my WID fellowship I decided to play around with these participation assignments.

There are two key characteristics to the informal assignments presented below.  Firstly, they are completed as homework and as of next semester will be uploaded via the Lea platform with a deadline of the start of the class.  Secondly, I shifted the focus of these exercises away from being almost exclusively about content to being about thinking and applying the content covered in class and in readings. In other words, I designed these informal assignments so that students “do” anthropology and/or “engage” with anthropology.  I want students to have opportunities to be active rather than passive in their learning (see Bean, page 151)!  I have been very happy with the results and student response has been very positive.  I will share four examples below.

To shape the development of these exercises I draw heavily on Chapter 8, Designing Tasks to Promote Active Thinking and Learning, of Engaging Ideas by John C. Bean.  In this chapter Bean offers strategies for designing critical thinking tasks.  I will link to various ideas with each example provided below.


  1. Fieldwork Observation Exercise

The first participation exercise links to one of the first classes in the semester where we discuss how anthropologists gather data and what kind of data we use.  For this exercise students do an hour-long observation in a cultural environment that is different to them. Students are to go alone and to complete the participation assignment. The participation exercise is quite structured with boxes to fill out designed to coach students through this (probably) new experience.  I add a reflection at the end where they talk about their own feelings relating to this exercise. This exercise also helps students to understand how we obtain evidence/proof in anthropology and offers an opportunity to teach differences in terms of what “counts” as evidence in different fields (see Bean, page 60).

Most students have reported this short assignment to be lots of fun (a common response is “it was actually interesting and fun”) and also different from more traditional homework.  On the day that this is submitted I have them tell each other about their experiences.  Beyond helping them to start understanding how anthropologists gather data it is particularly good for exposing them to what it feels like to be “in the field”.  While a short assignment I feel it goes a long way in that students start to see and understand how anthropology works.

LINK 1 Fieldwork Observation Exercise

  1. Understanding Hijab/Niqab Exercise.

This participation exercise links to the religion unit which is a part of the exploration of social/cultural anthropology.  One of the goals for my WID semester was to find ways to link current events to course content.  With the political climate in Quebec in wake of the proposed “charter” relating to religious symbols in spring 2015 and the niqab discussions that accompanied the 2015 federal election I saw fertile ground for using anthropological knowledge (and an anthropological approach) to help students deepen their knowledge (and for many, confront their bias) about this “hot topic”.

Bean, drawing on Kurfiss explains how problems/questions/issues can be “the point of entry into the subject and a source of motivation for sustained inquiry” (page 150).  Key concepts in anthropology such as ethnocentrism and cultural relativism are easily put to use with this topic/current issue as students can use what we have learned in class to deepen their knowledge about something many of them know little about. Further, Bean (still drawing on Kurfiss) highlights that “using content rather than simply acquiring it” is a great strategy for fostering critical thinking.  I think this participation exercise is a great way to use the anthropological approach to understand this contemporary issue and ultimately it helps many of them overcome their own misunderstanding and judgment of women who wear the veil. In short, putting anthropology to use helps them to formulate and develop their way of thinking.

For this participation exercise students are to read a chapter entitled “Is the Practice of Purdah and Wearing Hijab Oppressive to Women or an Expression of Their Identity”? By Shirley A. Fedorak and then to listen to an episode of The Current entitled “2 niqabs and a hijab: 3 Muslim women talk about the face covering.”

This is one of my favourite assignments to read.  Students are very forthcoming and open about what they thought before this unit and what they think now.  Non-Muslim students tend to discuss how they were misinformed and how embarrassed/angry/frustrated they are that they didn’t learn this before.  It is really exciting to see them so engaged and interested in “the insider perspective”.  Of note is that I (obviously) have had some Muslim students.  It was interesting to see their interest peaked.  Many of my Muslim students expressed how glad they were that we covered this in class and they also reported enjoying both the reading and the podcast.  Many students identified the religion unit as one of their favourites.

LINK 2 Understanding Hijab/Niqab Exercise


  1. Understanding Arranged Marriage Exercise.

This participation exercise links to social/cultural anthropology and is a part of units relating to marriage and family. This assignment links well with the hijab/niqab participation assignment as it is flexing the same anthropological muscle so to speak (studying and understanding the insider point of view).   This exercise is similar in design to the previous in that it strives to get students to start with an issue/problem (their feelings towards arranged marriage) and to use anthropological concepts/tools to help them understand something new (outlined by Bean on page 150).

For this assignment students are to watch the film Some Kind of Arrangement which is available on the website (link in attached exercise). Many of my colleagues show this film as well and it is indeed through them that I came to know of this film myself.  Students love watching this film!  The three individuals featured in the documentary are young Canadians who are looking to find a marriage partner through an arranged marriage.  The documentary does an excellent job of showing how this experience is different for everyone and especially good at highlighting the role of choice in having an arranged marriage (another similarity with the hijab/niqab exercise – importance of choice!).

Bean suggests critical thinking can be developed by having students explain course concepts to new learners (page 152).  This helps students to “escape the student-to-examiner role” as they become the “teacher” (page 152). The last question in this participation exercise requires students imagine that they come from a society that prefers love marriage (this is the case for most, but not all, students).  Then, they are to outline five key points they could use to convince their parent(s) to allow them have an arranged marriage.  This requires students to put themselves in the position of being a “teacher” rather than a “learner”.  It also has them practice identifying what it may feel like to be an insider in this situation. This type of exercise is similar to Bean’s “thesis support assignments” (page 152) where students need to “defend or attack” (page 152) a certain position.  While we wouldn’t “attack” a cultural tradition in anthropology I think that for students it must feel rather uncomfortable to shift their perspective to “defending” a cultural practice they may have initially found bizarre/new/unfamiliar.  This is also similar to Bean’s “assignments requiring role-playing of unfamiliar perspectives” as outlined on page 156.

Of note is that there are usually a few students in each class whose parents have had an arranged marriage and that some students plan to have an arranged marriage themselves.  It adds a rich element to group discussions when students can share their own experiences knowing that students should react in an open and understanding way.

LINK 3 Understanding Arranged Marriage Exercise


  1. Understanding Archaeology Exercise.

The last participation exercise I will include here relates to the unit I teach on archaeology which is one of the four fields of anthropology taught in the introduction class.  One of my goals with WID was to develop some exercises that have a focus on Indigenous content.  I was thrilled to find this film (which I found looking through course outlines at the Yukon College in Whitehorse) entitled Kuwoot yas.ein: His Spirit is Looking Out from the Cave (link in attached assignment).

This 30-minute film documents an archaeological dig in south east Alaska (very close to north west British Columbia).  It not only looks at what was found (human remains) and what is learned from the discovered bones (that humans have occupied this area for over 10 000 years) but also looks, perhaps more importantly, at the interactions between the scientific community and the Indigenous peoples living in the area.  This film offers great opportunities to discuss complex and contemporary debates about things like repatriation of remains, the ethical responsibilities of scientists to local communities as well as links between oral traditions/stories and scientific findings.  In short, this is an excellent intro to archaeology.

I ask three reflection questions at the end of this participation assignment.  These exploratory questions model Bean’s “semistructured tasks” and are essentially “out-of-class writing probes” (Bean, 131-134). I enjoy reading these questions most as they can show not just if the student has absorbed the material but if they are able to think more broadly about the entire course.

LINK 4 Understanding Archaeology Exercise


**A note about the workload: how to grade these assignments

As mentioned above I was interested in developing tools that facilitated students’ critical thinking and in developing tools that would not add to my marking workload.  To grade these assignments I use a system similar to Bean’s “check/plus/minus” scale (p. 142) which is a 1-2-3 system.  Students get a full three points if it appears as if they have tried (sometimes this is in the quantity of what is written, sometimes not), they get 2 points if it’s okay, one point if it is poor and a zero if not handed in.  In a class of 38 students there are usually a couple of twos and the rest threes.  I often do not read them completely but scan a little to see if they are touching on key points.  If I am in a rush, I go through a pile of 38 in about 10 – 15 minutes.  What comes clear, however, is how useful this thinking time is for students AND how much they enjoy this writing.  Their ideas are often well developed and I am most often impressed with what they write.  One of Bean’s recommendations is to have an online forums so that students can read each others (Chapter 7 and page 209).  This is too much of a time commitment for me with four courses and up to 160 students per semester.  Instead, I will sometimes show students an example of a well written response in class and have them discuss with a neighbour in class or reflect on their own on how they could improve their own writing.  This gives them exposure with minimal monitoring/checking/work for me.  Having them submit via Lea makes it easy to hang on to the great examples to show future students as well.


Part 2: Brainstorming Steps during Paper Writing (aka No More Outlines!)

 It was so refreshing to read about why assigning outlines doesn’t work!  To sum up Bean’s perspective (page 18), requiring an outline essentially requires that students have already thought through what they want to write and know what they want to say.  While an outline isn’t inherently problematic what is often missing when teachers assign them is any focus on the messy thinking steps involved in writing (brouillon in French – see page 18 in Bean).

The exercise is very visual.  There is a circle on a page and students are to divide the circle into the key points they want to make in their paper (the body paragraphs).  I find students often know what they want to say (the body) before they know why they want to say it (the thesis).  As such, they work through a visual diagram of the body of the paper and then move on to linking the key points to an overarching argument/thesis.  The exercise ends with three draft thesis statements.

I have found that this exercise very useful.  I generally hand this out in class and have students work on it for the last 15 minutes (or so) of class.  I invite them to ask me questions if they are unsure of what to do.  They bring the completed exercise to the following class and, in mini-groups, look at what other students have done.  I have been very happy with the results which include, but are not limited to, students being able to:

  • identify quickly and easily if they are confused with the assignment/task;
  • pinpoint the key themes of their paper as well as the key concepts they will be using;
  • figure out early on that their thesis is strong, weak or that they don’t know how to write a thesis; and,
  • easily look at each other’s work.

An added bonus is that when students come with questions about their paper (be it the body, the thesis etc.) to office hours, we work directly with this exercise!

As such, I have done away with assigning outlines and have moved towards brainstorming exercises that students complete during their research/writing process.  I assign this exercise below as a part of paper/essay/formal assignments.  I usually modify the blurb to match the given assignment.  Below I have attached a generic version with no course-specific-blurb.

LINK 5 Brainstorming Exercise


**A note about the workload: how to grade these assignments

In an effort to keep the grading manageable I choose to assign the brainstorming steps but I don’t necessarily mark them.  For example, in Introduction to Anthropology, I assign the brainstorming exercise below and tell students I will collect it.  In reality, however, I assign it and then don’t collect it.  I initial the work on the day it is brought into class and then ask students to attach it to their final work when submitted (brainstorming steps are usually worth about 20% of the paper).  This way they can keep working on their paper without interruption and can benefit from the thinking/brainstorming/brouillon process being underway and I check if it was completed when marking the final work. 


Last Modified: September 26, 2016