Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Prepping students for class discussions

Thanks to a lot of help from geobloggers and other friends, I was able to give my students some interesting examples of proposals yesterday. Tomorrow, I'm hoping for a good discussion of the various ways that proposal-writers pitch their ideas to people with money. I've told students how to write proposals before - for eight years, actually - but I'm never fully satisfied by what goes on in class. I've told them about the typical structure of an NSF grant, but none of my most recent grants (from a local non-profit and from the college's small pot of money) have followed that model, and neither have successful student grant proposals. So I'm trying to have a different discussion this time, and I need the students to read and think about the proposals if the discussion is to be useful.

I am terrible at leading discussions. If the students come into class ready to ask questions and argue, things go well; if they aren't, I don't know what to do. Sometime in the mid-90's, I got a useful suggestion from Barb Tewksbury at a GSA workshop: give the students some kind of pre-discussion exercise, something to focus their thinking. Not the discussion questions themselves, but some kind of springboard. (There's an explanation of one technique for doing this at SERC: Just in Time Teaching.) But I'm not very good at applying the advice.

This semester, I want to make better use of all the writing examples I've collected, so I'm trying to do various pre-discussion assignments. In this case, I wanted students to read both the calls for proposals and the proposals themselves, so I asked students to think about the audience, and look at what was included or left out of each proposal, and then to look at the proposal's structure. When we get to class on Wednesday, I'm going to pair students up - each proposal (or set of short proposals) was read by two students - and ask them... something. Maybe, rather than asking them the same questions I asked as preparation, I'll ask something different: who is the audience for each proposal, what does the audience care about, and how does the proposal sell its idea to the audience. There are six groups of proposals total, so there should be time for each of the teams to report back and for the class as a whole to try to make generalizations.

I didn't ask the students to write anything down before class, and that may hurt the discussion. (If the students have to turn something in, even if it's just part of a participation grade, they're more likely to take the assignment seriously.) I thought about doing all this online - I can set up discussion boards in our course management software - but I decided not to. (I like the idea of online discussions, but my students don't all have good internet connections at home. Things that work where students live in dorms with wifi don't work so well for rural commuter students who have dial-up, if anything.) So we'll see whether I made a mistake by not planning any kind of obvious accountability into the pre-class assignment.

I hope I learn something from this - my own ideas about what makes an effective proposal are as vague as definitions of obscenity: I know it when I see it. At the very least, maybe my students will learn to recognize what works before they send off a proposal that doesn't.

(Of course, the best way to teach students to write is to make them write (and give them lots of feedback), and believe me, there's plenty of that in this class. I'm just tweaking things to try to make it more effective.)


Chris Nedin said...

You might want to get them to provide a brief synopsys of the proposal to see if they, and through them the rest of the class, understood what was being proposed, why, what was to be done, and the expected outcomes.

This would then lead into discussions of how a good proposal is one that allows the reader/assessor to quickly understand the proposal and its implications.

And then on to what elements are needed to build a good proposal.

It would be useful to have proposals from different disciplines, because not every grant will be an NSF grant.

Some bad examples would also be useful, especuially to show how difficult it can be to assess an application if you can't understand it.

Kim said...

Chris - that would be a good idea, except that the students are college juniors, and in some cases haven't taken a class dealing with the topic, or haven't covered a particular technique in class. (This is a writing class, and there aren't any specific upper level geo prerequisites.) I've found that the students at this level get hung up on jargon, and miss other aspects of good or bad writing because they don't know all the words. I think that grad students could gain a lot from looking at proposals in that way, though.

For this exercise, there's only one NSF proposal in the mix - the others include USGS mapping grants, grants from non-profit organizations, and grants to support undergrad and grad student research. It's not a complete set of all the different types of grant-making organizations, but it isn't bad. It's probably less limited than the examples that most grad students see.

And it might be good to show them some bad examples, but I don't have access to as many. (Asking people to give me examples of their bad writing is awkward, and I'm not allowed to keep or share copies of proposals that I've reviewed. I've shared my own early drafts of things in the past, as examples of what not to do, but the exercises haven't worked well.) It's a good reason for people to agree to review grant proposals (or better, serve on a review panel) early in their careers, though, because there is a lot to be learned from badly written proposals.