CIPs Teaching Tips – Spring 2013 #13 “Are your prompts and assignments more or less developmentally effective?”

According to the Sunday, April 14, 2013 issue of “Education Life” in the New York Times, “the Common Application has overhauled its essay prompts. The most popular option — write on a topic of your choice — is being eliminated. Instead, students will find prompts … designed to help them find focus and to encourage more personal reflection.” This is, of course, news that affects applying students and admissions officers, but those of us in the classroom can learn something from it as well.

Though the essay prompts provided are open enough to provide room for students to use their own voice and to formulate and convey their own opinions, they are also focused enough to help students  grasp what is being asked of them. This is extremely effective with prospective students and also with first year and sophomore students. Why? Because these students need guidance to build an idea. They need “representations” of concepts in order to grab hold of an abstract thought. Developmentally many of these students, no matter how bright, still have to work hard in order to apply abstract thought. These “representations” become a kind of abstract concrete for them to latch onto and use to build meaning.

Here’s an example of one of the prompts:

Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?”

This might not seem that guided, but it is much more guided than asking students to write “about themselves.” It also provides more focus than asking them to “Describe a time when you challenged a belief.” The second two sentences in the prompt act as building blocks. They help students to latch onto experiences, memories, or emotions they already possess in order to begin to construct their response.

The librarians will tell you how first and second year students come looking for sources about topics as broad as a particular era in history. Often this is because these students are not yet familiar with how to research well, but sometimes we do our students a disservice. We treat them as if they are graduate students. We expect them to be able to abstract and connect in ways that they truly have not learned yet. They are bright enough; they simply are not cognitively advanced enough.

This upsets many of us. We expect them to be ready. We might even demand they be ready. How can we reach them if we don’t meet them where they are and then propel them forward? When most of us went to college, it was filled with the best of the best. These were usually students who were bright and also the cream of the crop, as in, the most cognitively advanced. Many of our students will not be as cognitively advanced as we were when we entered college until their senior year, or perhaps not even until they graduate. More students go to college now than in years past. This means that the average level of cognitive development has changed.  Just because some of your students are as advanced (notice I did not say “bright”) as we were in undergraduate or even graduate school, this does not mean that they all are.

Some students aren’t motivated. Some are lazy. Some are struggling to understand what you want from them. They feel stupid. They probably aren’t. Help them out. Meet them where they are. Don’t “dumb down” your courses; remember, these students are bright. Rather, design your prompts and your assignments in a manner which helps them to make connections and create ideas. Give them the building blocks they need. Then go ahead and grade the hell out of whatever they build.

Here’s to another good year done and an even better one to come,


NY Times article cited:

CIP, Center for Instructional Practice

Resources and support for every cycle of teaching…

Contact Director Cinse Bonino for a one-on-one CIP instructional design session:

Email: or Phone: 802 651 5965 Skype: cinse.cip


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