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Collaborative invention: working with research topics

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Author: Christine Alfano

Activity brief description:  For this activity, students write their topic on a worksheet (provided below).  The worksheet then rotates around the room, with each student who receives it given a different task to complete in relation to the topic (i.e., suggesting ways to narrow the topic, asking factual questions, asking conceptual questions, suggesting sources or examples).  At the end, the original author receives the sheet back from his/her classmates, along with the "gift" of their feedback, to help guide his/her narrowing of the topic.  If the sheet is circulated among a research group or peer group, you can then have follow up discussion where the group can elaborate on the feedback to the author.

Course: PWR 1 or PWR 2

Activity Length and Schedule: The activity takes about 30 minutes total, with some possible extra time if you want to have discussion among students and/or reflective writing by the author.  It works well at any time that you're hoping to have students narrow their topic.  I use it between the TiC and the RBA in PWR 1 and about a week after the research proposal in PWR 2.  I usually do this activity at the moment where I'm going to shift the discussion to developing research questions.

Activity Goals:  Through this assignment, students will 

  • explore ways to narrow their topic
  • start to formulate research questions
  • consider ways to focus their argument through specific examples and sources
  • begin to understand how their audience might react to or understand their topic
  • participate in evaluating topics and "gifting" others with peer feedback

Activity Details:

  1. To begin, this activity, I start by framing it in terms of the fact that we're a writing community and that talking with others about our work can give us greater insights. If I'm organized enough, sometimes I put them in groups of 5 (rearrange the tables so they're in those groups) and do this activity with them circulating it around just their group of 5.
  2. I distribute the handout and ask them to put their name at the top as well as their tentative topic. 
  3. In terms of tentative topic, I caution them not to write a hypothesis or tentative claim -- that they shouldn't have developed a claim anyway before they start hearing what their sources have to say.  I advise them just simply write out their topic as a phrase.  I might write one on the board to model (Violence and videogaming; edugaming; how simulation is used in surgical training)
  4. ROUND ONE.  I then direct them to pass their worksheet to the right.  I give the round one collaborator around 3 minutes to jot down subtopics related to their classmate's topic in the far left column of the worksheet.  I usually model what a subtopic looks like, drawing off one of the main topics that I wrote on the board, jotting down 3 or so subtopics that I've prepared ahead of time, and then giving them time to do the same.  I emphasize that they only need to focus on that far left column ("subtopics") -- that they shouldn't jump ahead to the other columns.
  5. ROUND TWO.  After 3 minutes, have them pass the worksheet to the right again.  I explain what I mean by a "factual research question": one where you can look up the answer, usually in a reference source or a book (this allows me to just plug reference sources again as a way of getting background -- feeds into our discussion related to the library workshop of different types of sources).  Again, I provide examples on the board, this time of 1-2 factual questions for the model on the board -- something with a clear answer (How many M-rated violent games are produced every year?  When was the first time that game violence was correlated to real in person violence?).  Then, I give them 3-5 minutes for this round and tell them that they can fill in more subtopics if they want, but their primary purpose is to write out factual questions related to their classmate's topic -- things they need to know to really understand the topic. If they're focusing their questions on a particular subtopic, I ask them to draw a circle and an arrow to show which one they're focusing on -- using the model on the board as an example.
  6. ROUND THREE.  After 3-5 minutes, I call time and have them pass the worksheet to the right again.  At this point, I talk about the difference between a factual question (one that has a definite answer) and a conceptual one (one that is more open to interpretation and analysis). I give an example: What constitutes an acceptable level of violence in a videogame?  To what extent does playing violent games correlate to performing violent acts in real life?  I tell them that they can fill in more subtopics and more factual questions, but their main goal is to focus on conceptual questions.  Again, I encourage them to indicate (through circles, arrows) if their question is related to a particular subtopic.  Again, I tell them not to jump ahead (though they've usually gotten the hang of things by now).  I give them about 5 minutes for this round.
  7. FINAL ROUND:  They pass the worksheet to the right a final time.  This time, I tell them that they can fill in additional subtopics or questions if they want but that their main priority should be to fill in ideas about methodology, case studies, examples -- What are the concrete ways that someone could write about this topic so it's not too broad?  Sometimes students get stuck on this one -- for instance, they don't know enough about violent games to know which ones would be good case studies. I encourage them to think about methodology then and to brainstorm what they think they would need to see in a research essay on this to make them feel like it was well-researched and persuasive.  What types of research or evidence?  Case studies? Data? This sometimes takes up to 7 minutes (you have to see how you're students are doing with it at this stage ... they might take less than 7  minutes, but bear in mind that as they're working with this column, they're also reading over and processing all the information in the earlier columns too.
  8. [OPTIONAL ADDITIONAL ROUND: Sometimes when I have time or it works with the trajectory of the class and the ways in which I want to build their search strategies, I might do one final round where I ask one more student to look at the worksheet and then search a possible source for the author and send it to them via email with a quick note as to why they think that source would be helpful.]
  9. After the final round, the group returns the worksheet to its original author.  At this point, I frame the feedback as a "gift" from their classmates, underscoring the generosity that underlies a writing community such as ours.  In an ideal world, if I had them sitting in those groups of 5, I'd then give them a little time (after they read through it quietly) to chat with their groups about their topics. If they're not in groups, I usually ask the students to read through the feedback and then do a brief freewrite in which they reflect on what they take away from this invention activity and their next steps in relation to narrowing their topic and conducting research.

Additional Notes: After this session (or in the second half of class), we begin a more formal discussion about how to develop effective research questions to guide research.