Dr. Tamara Fudge
Professor, School of Business and Information Technology, Kaplan University
There are some nice benefits to allowing students to pick their own topics for papers. First, there tends to be a lot less complaining about having to write in the first place. Also, the teacher doesn’t have to read through dozens of papers that cover the very same content.
However, when students pick their own topics, they tend to write mostly about things they already know instead of investigating new concepts. They tend to use familiar sources instead of learning how to research or might even skip using source material altogether. Some students will try to re-purpose previous papers (most schools have rules against doing this) or at least cannibalize old ones.
“Professor, can I send in a project proposal I did for a real-life client?”
“Can I just show a website I built for my cousin instead of doing the coding assignment?”
“Is it okay to send in the paper that Professor X said was so good in my other class? ”
“I know you wanted me to research, but I wrote from my own experiences. I hope that’s okay.”
Professors and tutors often hear questions and statements like these from students. Where’s the learning?
Part of the problem is that students need motivation. It is not always enough to explain course objectives or spend time in seminar talking about the relevance of the topic to real-life application, although these are important. Sometimes we just need to allow for some options (“Enhancing education”, n.d.). Consider the following:
- Offer topic options that can fulfill the same requirements. For example, instead of having them write about how they would develop a network for a particular business, give them three scenarios from which they can choose. In a health class, give the students a list of diseases; they choose one to research.
- Offer formatting options, if you can make the grading rubric work for both. For example, allow students to choose whether to write an APA paper or present their findings in a PowerPoint.
When students are given some options, they are more likely to feel like they are in control of their learning, even if they didn’t get to write about their favorite topic. This positivity will likely be reflected in their research and their final product.
I should provide a disclaimer: not all assignments need to offer options. But placing some control in the students’ hands now and then can make learning a little more interesting. With a little creativity on our part, there are ways to avoid their complaint of not being able to pick the topic themselves and along the way provide a little more motivation for learning.
Enhancing education: Solve a teaching problem; students lack interest or motivation. (n.d.). Retrieved from Carnegie Mellon University Eberly Center for Teaching Excellent & Educational Innovation: https://www.cmu.edu/teaching/solveproblem/strat-lackmotivation/lackmotivation-01.html