Achieving Success in Advancing Student Writing in the Humanities—Sheyda Jahanbani (2010)

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A history professor revises the history capstone course to help a diverse group of students, some with not much experience writing research papers, gain confidence in their own abilities as researchers and writers.


—Sheyda Jahanbani (2010)

Portfolio Overview

History 696 is the capstone course for the senior history major. Its rate of student success was traditionally low, especially for what was supposed to be the culminating experience for history majors. In revising this course, one of my main challenges was the intimidation factor of students being faced with a 25- to 30-page research paper that demanded tremendous self-motivation and creativity. Thus, my main goals in this course revision were to:

  • provide students with the help they need to devise research topics that they find intellectually compelling;
  • integrate research and writing tasks more effectively to diminish the intimidation factor of this assignment; and,
  • create a collaborative learning environment where students could rely on one another for moral and intellectual support.

I divided the course up into two main segments. The first focused on the process of “doing” history. During this period of the semester I modeled for the students the methods historians used to develop theses based on examination of both primary and secondary texts. Beyond the material benefits of this process for the students’ own upcoming projects, it also allowed me to assess students’ abilities before they began the real work of research and writing.

The second segment of the course was based on the idea that “writing is thinking.” In support of that idea, I used a combination of library workshops, collaborative writing groups and extensive drafting and revision projects. The whole process demanded a great deal of time and attention on my part, but ultimately proved worthwhile for the students.

During the first semester I taught this course using the revised model, no student received a final grade lower than a B. During the spring 2010 semester, most student grades were higher than a B. In addition to earning higher grades, students reported that they liked the format of the course and felt much more confident in their abilities by the end of it.

Taking greater account of student interests and increasing the focus on revision resulted in a number of positive outcomes. Student grades rose on the whole and, perhaps more importantly, students gained confidence in their own abilities as both researchers and writers. This course revision taught me that, while my expectations for students may always be a little too high, my primary task as a teacher should not be to lower those expectations, but rather to seek out ways for students to meet them.


History 696 (pdf) is the capstone class required for all history majors. In this course, seniors research and write an extensive research paper. The course provides an opportunity for students to demonstrate the skills that they have developed over 27 credits in the History department. Students with vastly varying abilities take 696. Only a small minority of students will come to 696 with deep knowledge in a given area of history and significant experience with writing research papers. The majority of students who take 696 come to the course after having taken a somewhat odd mélange of history classes often covering very different topics. This group will likely not have written more than one or two eight- to ten-page research papers in their prior academic careers. In rare but particularly challenging cases, students will come to 696 without ever having written a long research paper before at all. Thus, the pedagogical challenge of the class is to both develop and reinforce skills of advanced historical research and writing for students with oftentimes widely different levels of experience.

I chose to workshop this course at CTE’s Best Practices Institute in 2008 because I found it difficult to obtain written work from students that met the basic expectations I established for the class. Indeed, rather than serving as a victory lap after their four years at KU, History 696 had become a course in which too many students seemed to barely limp over the finish line to their degree. After my first semester teaching the course, I realized I would have to make a choice: either redesign the course to achieve better results without lowering standards or significantly alter my expectations for student work. I chose the former path. In this portfolio, then, I want both to document my teaching and to demonstrate the success I have had with developing a versatile course curriculum around a significant student research project.

Whether students have written research papers before or not, one of the most significant obstacles to success in this course for all students is the intimidation factor of being faced with a large (25- to 30-page) assignment that demands significant self-motivation and creativity. This became clear to me in my first semester teaching at KU, when I was confronted with 15 students who all feared the proverbial dragon that “History 696” had become in their imaginations. My experience with that course demonstrated that even students who may excel at following clearly-defined guidelines or responding to an instructor’s prompts often flounder when charged with the task of finding a research topic and pursuing that topic for the duration of an entire semester. My response to this challenge was to redesign the course to:

  • provide students with the help they need to devise research topics that they find intellectually compelling;
  • integrate research and writing tasks more effectively to diminish the intimidation factor of this assignment; and,
  • create a collaborative learning environment where students could rely on one another for moral and intellectual support.

At the outset, I will say that this course demands a great deal of contact time with students. Managing the class time more effectively was one of the first priorities of my redesign. To that end, I divided the course into two parts. First, we have a reading-intensive part during which we meet weekly as a class to discuss assigned readings. This is the period during which I model and highlight the methods of historical research and writing. The second part of the course is focused on individual student projects and is built around independent research and writing time for students. During this period, we meet very rarely as a class. Instead, I devote my time during those weeks to individual student meetings interspersed with one or two class meetings focused on specific activities like peer review. Thus, I spend the majority of my instructional time modeling the methods of historical research, commenting extensively on student work, and meeting with students one-on-one to provide guidance and answer questions. When I teach 696 now, I always schedule extra weekly office hours and accept, at the outset, that there will almost always be a line outside my door. So far, however, I have seen direct results from this kind of time investment.

“Doing” history

For the purposes of modeling historical research, I focus the readings on a key event that serves as a touchstone for the period. In this case, I use the Cuban Missile Crisis. This event allows me to address many issues and themes that students may wind up using as background for their own projects, which must focus on a post-1945 topic that relates broadly to the history of the United States in a global context. I use a custom course reader to provide students with crucial context for the time period and to expose them to the kinds of sources they will be seeking out in their own research. As I lead the students through an examination of the Cuban Missile Crisis, I use the experience as a way to model the types of questions a historian asks using a broad variety of both primary and secondary sources. The ultimate goal of this process is to show them how a historian develops a research question, researches that question, and then develops a thesis based on that question.

Specifically, we start with a dramatic film made quite recently about the Cuban Missile Crisis. It is a cheesy film, but it gets the basic historical narrative right. Moreover, as I’ve discovered, many of my students derive their interest in history through television shows or movies, so I find this a particularly useful place to begin. After watching the film, we analyze it to explore the concept of historical memory. This gets the students thinking aloud together for the first time and it also gives me a valuable opportunity to judge how well the individual students in the class can think critically about primary sources.

Over the course of the next few weeks, we read a selection of secondary sources that address topics, including U.S. foreign relations during the Cold War, the political and social changes precipitated in the United States by the Cold War, and the evolution of “atomic culture,“ which spans everything from science fiction to the history of post-war American fashion. None of these sources directly addresses the Cuban Missile Crisis. But, the point of all this reading is to model how one could place this very specific event from 1962 within a much larger context to explore different historical developments.

After reading secondary sources, we spend some time studying primary sources specifically related to the Cuban Missile Crisis. Each student is responsible for bringing a relevant primary source to class (I use an online subscription database for this assignment, which also exposes students to the process of searching for material through the KU Library website). Students are supposed to bring this source to class having already analyzed it. They then present the sources to the class. The best part of this activity is that the students do not know ahead of time that they are going to have to present, only that they need to have analyzed the document before coming to class. After some initial trepidation, the students in my last two semesters of 696 really got into this assignment, to the point that they were actively helping each other perform a fuller analysis during the presentation, often using contextual information they’d learned from our secondary source analyses. The most important thing that happens during this activity is that the students work through these sources collectively in search of new insights, which sharpens their analytical skills and reinforces the approach they need to bring to the sources for their papers individually.

I also use the primary source project to get a more nuanced sense of which students are comfortable using primary sources and which are not. A surprising number of students are very uncomfortable with sophisticated primary source analysis and focus their analysis almost exclusively on questions of “bias.” More often, they use sources to “prove” that they didn’t “make something up.” Teaching them how to derive the argument of their paper from their active interpretation of primary sources is a serious challenge, and this class session provides me with an opportunity to push them in their primary source analysis, again modeling the way historians approach primary sources when interpretation—rather than verification or corroboration—is the main objective.

Finally, in this first phase of the class, we read one secondary source that explicitly addresses the Cuban Missile Crisis so students can see how historians use sources that the students are familiar with to produce an argument about an interpretation of the past. I want students to see the way professional historians use primary sources with which my students are familiar to make arguments about the past.

While students have noted that there is a significant amount of reading in this class, they begin to see the value of the kind of modeling I’m doing throughout the first half of the course. I model the skills of reading and analysis that students will be deploying in the pursuit of their own research. This is also an opportunity to teach them how to research more efficiently. For example, early in the semester, I give them a handout on “gutting” a book (pdf). They’ll need to read plenty of secondary sources for their paper, but when they see a 300-page book they tend to panic because they think either they’ll need to read the whole book or they won’t read any of it. I’m trying to give them some advice about a happy medium between the two extremes. They learn how to approach a book with a very specific question in mind and “gut” it to find the answer. They practice this skill with our class readings in the first part of the course.

This first phase of the class achieves many goals. It allows me to assess student abilities in time to help them as they devise their own projects. It helps me refresh their research and reading skills by modeling the steps of historical research. It helps build a sense of community in the classroom that I can draw on later in the semester. And, it provides students with valuable historical content, which they can use to devise their own research projects.

Writing is thinking

When I think about the intellectual process of history, I think about a line that one of my graduate mentors repeated to me ad nauseum: “writing is thinking.” History is a writing discipline not just for the purpose of communicating interpretations but also for the purpose of figuring them out in the first place. Historians start with questions, collect evidence, and then work to determine how the evidence answers our questions. Sometimes, the questions themselves change through the process of research. Students in 696 are, in general, incredibly uncomfortable with this process. Indeed, I have discovered that students in 696 are usually intent upon developing a thesis statement very quickly, and they are hesitant to refine that thesis even when their evidence points them in different directions. I have to reiterate throughout the semester that they should not (that they cannot!) start thinking about a thesis until they have done their research because historians don’t just “make arguments” about the past based on opinion; we derive interpretations from primary sources, following a methodology. I emphasize then that the development of a thesis will actually happen during the writing process. The notion that their papers are truly works-in-progress really disoriented some students in 696 during the first semester that I taught the class. In order for students to be comfortable with this process, then, I discovered that more time and effort needed to be spent helping students devise historical questions before they launched into their research.

To that end, to meet my first goal for the class, I now spend more time helping students identify topics about which they already have intellectual questions—topics about which they are genuinely enthusiastic—at the beginning of the semester. I take an active role in assessing individual student interests and helping students turn their interests into researchable paper topics. I have incorporated a survey (pdf) of student interests into the course, which seeks to gauge, in an informal, conversational style, the kinds of topics they have shown sustained enthusiasm for throughout their academic careers. I use this as a platform from which to meet with students to discuss potential topics. I then require students to meet with me one-on-one before the first substantive assignment for the course is due. During these meetings, the most common comment I hear from students is that they never realized they could turn something they were actually curious about in their “real lives” into a research topic! We use this as a basis to devise research questions.

From this point, relying on library area specialists and on initial research help from me (I give them the titles of one or two secondary sources to get started), students begin finding secondary sources and identifying potentially useful primary sources for their papers. I have also incorporated both a customized library training session for the class and individual meetings with area specialists in the library into this stage of the course so that students can obtain ample support in the early stages of their research. Students then develop a research prospectus in which they are required to identify one or two overarching research questions. I actively discourage students from developing a thesis at this stage to prevent them from becoming intellectually closed-off to the unexpected directions in which their research might take them. Instead, they focus on generating research questions and identifying primary sources that might help them answer those questions. The students are urged to use the prospectus as a “road map” for their own research.

My second goal for the course was to break the assignment down into several discrete parts. I did this to diminish the perception most students have that writing a 30-page research paper is an overwhelmingly difficult task that should strike fear in the heart of the senior History major. Instead, in this course, students are required to turn in a written assignment each week, many of which can be used as building blocks of the eventual paper. For several weeks in the middle of the semester, we do not meet as a class in order to free student time up for independent research, and these writing assignments are particularly useful during this period—to keep students on track and ensure that I have some sense of their progress. I spend this time reading and offering substantive feedback on student assignments.

The week after their prospectuses are due, for example, students turn in a research report in which they are asked to explain, in some detail, exactly what they have done during the week to move their project forward. I urge them to adopt a journal style and to use this as an opportunity to confront the work they have—or perhaps have not—done on their project. This has proven to be a useful “wake up call” for many students.

At the eight-week mark, I require a 15-page “rough rough rough” draft, a draft I’ve encouraged students to think of as “mental vomit.” Students are encouraged to approach this draft as part of the intellectual process of doing history. That is, they are using the process of writing the draft as a way to work out their ideas and discover their thesis, something fiction writer Annie Lamott emphasizes in her writing how-to book Bird by Bird. I have students read a short passage from Lamott’s book so they understand the point of the exercise. With their 15-page draft, students should be working to make sense of their sources and beginning to think about a thesis. Writing really is thinking at this stage of the process, and they begin to see that for themselves by going through this step. In addition to the intellectual benefits of this assignment, it works to give students a sense of accomplishment at the midpoint of the semester. For the remainder of the course, we work on revising and expanding these drafts until, finally, they have a polished 30-page paper with a clear thesis supported by primary source evidence.

In Spring 2010, I added one more element to the revision process in service of my third goal, which was to create a collaborative learning environment in the class. This class, which is small (15-16 students) and populated entirely by History majors in their senior year, offers a unique opportunity to build an intellectual community. I found a valuable blueprint for doing this in Wendy Laura Belcher’s book, Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks: A Guide to Academic Publishing Success. I became acquainted with Belcher’s book in the process of pursuing my own research and thought I’d play with some of the strategies Belcher suggests for professional academics in History 696. One of Belcher’s writing strategies that I integrated into the course was the formation of writing groups. Students were placed in groups of three that I created based loosely on paper topics. As Belcher suggests, I asked students to make a weekly commitment to meet with their groups, so that a missed meeting or a failure to take other people’s work seriously resulted in a nominal “fine” that the students themselves identified at the outset (most chose something like a round of beers or $5 Starbucks gift cards as the penalty). Students were also encouraged to identify something they would reward themselves with if they met their goals. Each week, I gave the groups a specific task to work on such as sharpening their introductions, integrating their primary source analyses into their narrative sections, etc. I didn’t monitor the work that the students did with their groups (as they’re meeting outside of class) but was able to glean, from conversations with individual students, if their groups were active or not. Much to my surprise and satisfaction, students seemed generally very engaged in their groups and developed a sense of loyalty to the members of their group that really revealed itself as they moved towards the subsequent draft stages.

One of the other things that Belcher articulates in her book is the necessity of carving out time for writing every day, even if you can spare only 15 minutes. After the students turned in their rough (rough rough) drafts, we talked as a group about approaches to writing and what it means to be involved in an ongoing writing project. I urged them to use Belcher’s pre-printed weekly schedule and block off time in the week ahead for writing. The idea of writing every day was initially off-putting to some, who insisted that they didn’t have 15 minutes a day to work on the project. I sat down with these students and went through their schedules to help them find those available minutes (even if it meant that they cut out time at the gym!). Several students commented on how much more manageable this made the task of revising their drafts.

Peer & instructor feedback

After the 15-page draft is turned in and after I have provided students with my feedback, they are required to draft a five- to seven-page introduction to their 30-page rough draft. As we discuss in our writing class, this is the point at which students need to be able to turn the answers they have discovered in the process of researching a historical question into a thesis statement. I use the class session to make everyone construct a sentence that explains what he or she is writing about and why. They will eventually revise these sentences into their thesis statements. Using the computer and projector in my classroom, I ask people to volunteer to put their draft thesis statements on the projector, which allows the whole class to refine and revise them together. Again, we as a class are modeling the process that individual students will go through as they revise their thesis statements. After this class session, I also make myself available in office hours to workshop thesis statements with individual students along the same lines. Turning in an introduction also forces students to plan out the overall argument and trajectory of the paper. I don’t mandate students to make outlines, as not all students work well from formal outlines, but writing a substantive introduction at this point in the semester forces students to outline their papers even if they don’t know they’re doing it.

The next assignment is a complete draft of their paper. To promote reflective learning practices among the students, I require that they give their papers a provisional grade based on the rubric I hand out at the beginning of the semester. I want to get a sense of student’s expectations for themselves as well as for them to carefully read and digest the rubric. This draft often represents a significant revision from their previous draft, and it is to this draft that I give the most attention regarding structure, analysis, and writing. I comment extensively on these rough drafts, both in the margins and in summary comments that comport with the expectations I lay out in my Final Paper Rubric.

While I am reviewing these drafts, students are engaged in an in-depth peer review process with the other students in their writing groups. Each student reads and reviews two papers. Having been disappointed in peer review in the past—specifically in my first semester teaching 696—I devised a very detailed peer review process that gives students clear instructions, prompts, and a grade for their work as peer reviewers. Up to this point, students have not received grades on their work, but I introduce grades here to elevate the importance of the assignment and reward students for taking it seriously. I emphasize the importance of this assignment not just as a service to their peers but also as an essential tool by which they learn how to revise their own papers by improving their sensitivity to problems with structure and writing. In service of this goal, I give two worksheets to each student, a reader response sheet (pdf) and a peer review worksheet (pdf), which are due two weeks after they turn in their rough drafts. The worksheets provide students with specific prompts and help them get a clear sense of what peer review actually entails. To reduce the burden on me of helping students with writing mechanics, I focus the peer reviews primarily on the quality of student expression and on writing mechanics. This gives us a good opportunity to discuss writing issues as a group both before and after students do their peer reviews. At the end of the two weeks, we meet to discuss the peer reviews. I then grade (pdf) these sheets and student comments on their peer’s drafts. Since imposing this format, peer review has become one of the most valuable aspects of my course for student learning. I have been consistently surprised by the seriousness with which students approach this task if given reasonably detailed guidance. And, students have commented that they benefited from peer reviews more than in other courses. The writing groups that I experimented with in Spring 2010 only enhanced this assignment by laying a foundation for intellectual community that made peer review even more effective. Altogether, this has been one of the most successful revisions I have made to the course, and I’ve translated what I have learned about designing effective peer review in 696 to other courses with writing assignments. In office hours, I ask students to work through their peer reviews in addition to my comments and look for overlap between the three critiques they receive.

From this point onwards, students begin the final revision process to transform their rough drafts into polished final papers. They embark on this process with extensive comments from me as well as detailed peer reviews. While we do not meet as a class during this period, I meet with students individually throughout these three weeks—often more than once and for more than just obligatory check-ins. I use these consultations to discuss major problems with sources or analysis as well as writing issues, and I aim to provide students with specific guidance, not just criticism. Students keep meeting with their writing groups during this period, as well, and I have heard that writing groups re-read drafts throughout this critical stage of the course. In this period, I also direct students to the Writing Center for help on specific writing issues. At the end of this period, students turn in a final paper as well as a self-evaluation based on the rubric. I ask them to give themselves a grade based on the rubric. This offers students one last opportunity to evaluate their own work in relation to the expectations I laid out at the outset of the course.

The rubric (pdf) that I have designed for the course gives students a very clear picture of the ideal senior thesis in History. I want them to get a sense of the components of a successful research paper and begin to think explicitly in terms of these components from the beginning of the course. I go over the rubric on the first day of class and repeatedly refer to it in class discussions and in one-on-one meetings with students. I also have students evaluate their own papers based on the rubric at each stage of the writing process so they can chart their own improvement and so I can be sure they understand my expectations very clearly. The rubric places particular emphasis on research and analysis, two essential aspects of a research paper in history. This rubric plays an important role in helping me meet my goals for the course by:

  1. rewarding creative research, which students are more likely to do if they have a topic that they are genuinely interested in learning about;
  2. making expectations clear so that students are not intimidated by the project and can, instead, make informed decisions about how to prioritize their own time on the assignment; and, finally,
  3. emphasizing the importance of good writing which, through peer review, serves as an undertaking students can work to improve upon collaboratively.

To demonstrate the effectiveness of the rubric and class structure, I’d like to turn now to specific student work. I’ve examined the work of two students, each of whom benefited from a different aspect of the course:

Student 1, a non-traditional student who had faced a number of obstacles during his time in college and who was fairly ambivalent about his major, took the revised course in the Spring 2009 semester. He ended up benefiting greatly from both the initial interest and topic exploration and the scaffolded structure of the assignments, earning a B on his final research paper and an A in the course.

Student 1 was a particularly interesting case, because he had entered KU to become a doctor and had wound up, for various reasons, as a somewhat reluctant and uninspired history major. He was a non-traditional student with a full-time job and a long daily commute, so the constraints on his time were significant. This student was really struggling in college and was deeply concerned about passing 696. As I recall, he had never written a research paper before. He came into the class with no clue about a possible topic. In the first few weeks of class, through consultation and the student survey, it became clear that this student really wanted to deal with something related to the history of medicine. After discussing some of the classes he’d taken in his major, it also became clear that he had a relatively good handle on 20th century American military history. Through our consultations, Student 1 decided to write about the history of mobile surgical units in the Korean War. He wrote a solid paper that garnered a B. Coupled with his truly outstanding participation in class and on peer review (high A’s), Student 1 received an A in the course.

Let me say at the outset that I am highlighting this student’s work not because it is the best student research paper I’ve ever read but rather because this was a student who entered the class with very low expectations for his own success and who, I think, really benefitted from the revisions I had made to the course to achieve my three major pedagogical goals. In the semester before Student 1 entered my class, students who fit the same profile struggled, and, indeed, often failed, to research and write satisfactory papers. By the end of the second semester, I was heartened to see that students who might have been marginal in the class before could now write papers that met the basic standards for the capstone project in our major and that gave them an opportunity to demonstrate the skills they had learned in their four years at KU. Let me narrate Student 1’s assignments to explain how I think this worked in this case.


Student 1’s prospectus (pdf) lacked an explicit statement posing an over-arching research question, but it demonstrated the student’s genuine enthusiasm for the topic and the fact that he was already thinking like a researcher. By the time he turned in his prospectus (a month into the class), he had done enough secondary source research to identify some changes over time regarding his topic, most notably the fact that MASH units deployed in Korea represented a new approach to the problem of providing medical care on the battlefield. Student 1 also articulated a compelling question about the problematic notion of the “benefits” of war. After I reviewed his prospectus, I met with Student 1, and we discussed his lack of a research question. In this consultation, he worked to articulate a question that he would seek to answer using his sources.

Research report:

Student 1 demonstrated, even in the conversational tone of his research report (pdf), that he was prioritizing his time and actively making choices about his sources. He was thinking about the necessity for primary sources in his paper and even articulated his sense of some of the weaknesses of the sources he has chosen. He also nicely identified and communicated his own personal goal—he wanted to understand something about the men and women who served as MASH medics. Again, this gave me a sense of confidence that Student 1 was going to do the work he needed to do without a lot of prodding and nagging. He had chosen a paper topic about which he actually wanted to know something for his own personal edification. I considered this a promising sign.

15-page draft:

Student 1’s first draft (pdf) demonstrated a significant amount of knowledge about the subject of his paper. Although he relied heavily on one primary source, he did some good analysis of the source, even using the narrative of the memoir as an object of analysis/interpretation. He also did a fairly solid job of providing the reader with historical context, something that his peer reviewers later noted. Student 1 organized the paper into sections, which indicated to me that he was thinking about structure even at this early stage. The draft also served as an opportunity for him to work out his ideas. On the last page of his draft, after wandering around a bit, Student 1 also identified the key contributions of his paper: that the advent of MASH units in the Korean War reduced the percentage of battlefield fatalities from those in previous conflicts and that the “MASH units allowed for improvisation and development of several medical techniques that would be used for years to come.”


Student 1 did not take the assignment to craft an introduction very seriously. He came to my office hours to explain the status of his project and describe his vision for the paper and discuss his revised thesis. During this meeting, Student 1 articulated his thesis and explained that in addition to documenting the effect of MASH units on lowering battlefield casualties, he wanted to address the legacy of the MASH units for innovation in American surgical medicine. We talked about the extent to which he would need to add a section on this in his final paper.

In this case, then, even when a student did not fulfill the expectations of a portion of the assignment, scaffolding the final paper provided him with an impetus to come talk to me and do some serious thinking about the status of his project. While, ideally, students will complete this portion of the assignment, even when they don’t, they still benefit from the step. (Incidentally, to improve this aspect of the assignment, I have built into this stage of the class a very useful reading about how to approach the task of writing introductions. The reading comes from Jim Cullen’s Essaying the Past: How to Read, Write, and Think about History.)

Full rough draft:

Having developed a solid sense of his thesis, Student 1 added an entirely new section to his rough draft about the improvisation of Army surgeons in MASH units. From my comments and those of his peer reviewers, Student 1 made significant revisions to the paper after this stage to better integrate his thesis throughout the paper. He remedied problems with passive voice, weak topic sentences, and a few other mechanical issues.

Final draft:

Because of some tragic computer woes, I sadly don’t have a copy of Student 1’s final paper. But, I do have my notes on that draft. While the final draft was far from perfect, it did meet many of the elements of a B-range paper according to my rubric. In terms of research, Student 1’s research, while limited in the paper to predominately one primary source, was good. He derived much of his interpretation from his source instead of using it to merely corroborate information gleaned from secondary sources. He was also very aware of the limitations of his sources and addressed those limitations in his final draft. Student 1 also did a remarkable amount of secondary source research, which is reflected in his command of the material. In terms of analysis, Student 1 derived his thesis from evidence.


Student 1’s experience in History 696 was successful largely because the course design was geared towards helping him identify a topic that genuinely motivated him to research and write and giving him a very clear sense of how to turn his enthusiasm into measurable progress towards completion. Student 1 clearly wanted to share the story he had become familiar with about these medical professionals in Korea with other students and with me. By placing so much emphasis on developing a topic, I think that I enabled this student to achieve success in a class that intimidated him. He left KU with a sense of the skills he learned in his major and with tangible evidence that he could deploy those skills in pursuit of a level of understanding that he wanted to achieve about a given subject. I think that without the opportunity to develop a topic that interested him and without a scaffolded assignment that gave him low-stakes benchmarks to meet throughout the process, this student might not have succeeded in a course as demanding a 696.

Student 2 took the course in the Spring 2010 semester. Though he struggled at first to organize his many ideas and to begin working, he ended up earning a B+ on his final paper, largely due to his active participation in his writing group.

Student 2 declared his interest in law school early on and so we discussed legal history topics after he filled out his student survey. He was interested in World War II and Nazi Germany. We discussed the possibility of writing about the Nuremberg Trials. He didn’t know very much about international law or the history of human rights, though, so writing on this topic would be a major undertaking for Student 2. After some preliminary research, he decided to pursue this topic. The paper required an enormous amount of research. I was worried at the outset that the student did not seem fully aware of the scope of the project. His preliminary work seemed patchy at best. However, the collaborative aspects of the class, particularly the writing groups, really motivated this student. He wound up writing a high B+ paper.

As in the case of Student 1, Student 2 did not write a perfect 696 paper. But, he did find a topic that he found compelling and took advantage of instructional support offered by the libraries to get on the right track with research. He also put in serious work during the revision stages of the paper, demonstrating the utility of breaking the assignment down into discrete steps. More than this, however, I include Student 2’s work because I believe that Student 2’s success in the class is directly attributable to the opportunities for collaborative learning that I have now embedded in my course design. The writing groups in particular motivated Student 2. As he later wrote, “I was at the meetings we had every week and always was involved in discussions about our papers and the class. I gave good feedback to my group and felt like I was helpful to their final products. I love meeting with the group and am glad we did this.” While Student 2 faltered a bit at the beginning, it is clear to me that the writing groups helped him get back on track and ultimately produce a solid research paper.


Student 2’s prospectus illustrates a common problem with student research projects: scope. He had identified a topic that interested him and had done a bit of preliminary research but really had no sense of how to turn this vast topic into a researchable project. However, writing the prospectus did give him an opportunity to throw lots of ideas out onto the proverbial table. After I read the prospectus, we met for a long session in which we discussed ways to narrow down the topic and identify sources. Rather than having too few ideas (as happened with many of my students in this course before I revised it), students in the revised course often have too many ideas. Considering how difficult generating a research topic can be for students in 696, I think this indicates that my process for identifying possible research topics is effective. Having to write five plus pages on the topic—often with very little research up to that point—serves to help students narrow their topic considerably and lay out a feasible research strategy.

Research report:

I was quite concerned when I read Student 2’s research report. Quite frankly, he seemed to have done very little work. Again, however, this step gave me a pretext for asking him to come to office hours and discuss his progress. These routine “check-ins” serve as a very useful “Warning system” for me about a student’s progress or lack thereof. In the case of Student 2, he had already begun to take advantage of instructional support from the libraries. In our meeting, I was also able to impress upon him the necessity of getting to work. It is worth mentioning here that relatively soon after this assignment, I created the student writing groups. Although Student 2 was a little undisciplined at first, I think that embedding him in a collaborative environment with implied expectations from his peers served to get him back on track.

15-page draft:

Student 2 really benefited from the process of writing a 15-page draft (pdf). He took the assignment very seriously and used it to work through the various ideas he had encountered in his research. Through the process of writing this draft, Student 2 began to focus more on the role of the Nuremberg Trials in laying conceptual origins of crimes against humanity. He also decided to integrate an analysis of the legacy of Nuremberg on the concept of crimes against humanity in international law in the postwar period. We discussed possible case studies, and he proceeded to research various options. He again took advantage of instructional support from librarians at Watson and discussed his options with his writing group.


Student 2 used his introduction (pdf) to present his new case study for the legacy of Nuremberg, the Rwandan genocide of 1994. Although Student 2 did not develop this case study in his introduction, he began to think about how to integrate this new research into the argument he had identified in the process of writing his first draft.

Full rough draft:

I present Student 2’s rough draft with comments (pdf) to make my participation in this phase visible. I give very explicit and detailed comments on this draft for each student—indeed, this is where the majority of my grading time goes in the class. In my experience, the success of scaffolded assignments is predicated upon providing students with meaningful feedback throughout the process. While I try to keep comments on the other elements of the final project down to a minimum, I spend considerable time and energy on this draft. I comment on writing issues in the margins for the first five pages of the draft and then try to restrict my comments to the substance of the paper. At the end of the paper, I offer a paragraph of substantive critique, as well as a paragraph that aims to help students identify and resolve writing problems.

Final draft:

Student 2 made major revisions in his paper along the lines we discussed after I read his full draft. He improved his analysis of sources, he highlighted his argument by sharpening his topic sentences, and he reorganized the paper to support his thesis more effectively. Student 2’s final paper (pdf) was particularly successful in the area of argumentation. He articulated a clear thesis that he developed throughout the paper. While the writing is still a bit rough here and there, the final paper demonstrates Student 2’s commitment to improving his prose. Having completed each element of the project, Student 2 turned in a paper that he felt good about and that demonstrated skills of historical analysis, argumentation, and generally effective writing.


Student 2 really benefited from the collaborative learning environment embedded in the course structure. His writing and analytical skills matured over the course of the semester and served him very well in another advanced course he subsequently took with me. Although Student 2 seemed to lack motivation at the outset of the class, the structure of the course, particularly the enforced deadlines and one-on-one attention, kept him on track, allowing him to successfully complete the course and acquire more advanced critical thinking skills.

Embarking on an almost wholesale revision of this course was a time-consuming project but one that has reaped tremendous rewards. While I will certainly still tinker with the course here and there, I’ve been very pleased with the improvements I’ve seen in the quality of student work in my revised 696. In the first semester, teaching in a more conventional mode (in which I spent much less time on developing topics, gave students more freedom, and imposed far fewer levels of scaffolded work), I had three students in the course who failed to complete the assignment altogether. Three more received C’s on the capstone assignment of their college careers. According to my colleagues, these were not unusual statistics. The next semester I taught the course—after revising the course structure—all students completed the course and the lowest grade I gave was a B. This was a significant improvement. In Spring 2010, all students completed the course and the majority of students received grades above a B. And, I achieved this without lowering the standards for the assignment one bit.

I have received positive feedback from students about my revised 696. They seem particularly excited by the time I devote to devising a topic and the guidance I offer in turning something they are interested in into a researchable topic. I think that one thing I’ve really taken away from this experience is that we often spend too much time focusing on performance instead of on helping students be creative and imaginative. I really have learned from and enjoyed the time I’ve spent finding out what students are interested in and helping them turn those things into substantive research topics. I have also received positive feedback from students about the intensely scaffolded assignment. Several students noted, after completing the first draft, that they felt so relieved that they had 15 pages of writing down on paper. This, they noted, made them feel more confident about their ability to succeed on the final assignment and inspired them to spend more rather than less time working on it. It also helped them to understand how vital the revision process is to any writing project. They now seem to understand that revision is part of the process, something I stress from the very beginning. By the end of the course, the idea that “writing is thinking” was absolutely engrained in their minds. Judging from my experience in Spring 2010, the infrastructure of this course now meets—indeed, it exceeds—my goal of creating a collaborative learning environment. By the end of the semester, students had created a palpable sense of community among one another, relying on each other for input, advice, and moral support as they completed their individual projects.

In summary, as an educator, I have had to accept that my expectations may always be a little too high for my students. After all, it is still quite hard to get an A on a 696 paper in my class. Yet, what the process of revising this course has taught me is that I needn’t focus so much on lowering expectations but rather that I should think more creatively about how to help students meet those expectations by building a path to success into my course design. While I cannot devise a pedagogy through which every student taking this course can complete their capstone assignment with glorious success, I wanted to design a course that provided a diverse community of students with an opportunity to recognize what they have learned in four years of training in the humanities by putting their skills to use to some successful purpose. In this course, I have now achieved that over-arching goal.