Sandboxes May be Hazardous for Your Health: Structure and Freedom in First-Year Seminars

This is my first year teaching a ‘skills module’.
It was inevitable I was going to make a few mistakes.
I should have known better.
I did know better.
And yet…

Let me start at the beginning.

For those of you who play video games, you may be familiar with the concept of a sandbox, a virtual environment that allows the player to explore and interact with his or her surroundings in an unstructured way. There is usually a storyline as well,  but the player is under no obligation to follow that storyline alone. He or she can just enjoy the immersive environment as they see fit. That is, until the giant wasp gets you.

You see, sandbox games are generally speaking an illusion. You are given a fairly wide berth to explore the landscape and interact with the people, but not an infinite one. For example, in Fallout: New Vegas, you start the game being able to see Las Vegas in the distance. Given enough time, you could theoretically just walk there and complete the game. But what fun would that be? So, instead, if you venture too far outside the story’s parameters, a giant wasp descends from the sky and murders you. The same is true of games such as Grand Theft Auto. Sure, you can steal a car, rob a bank, run over a few people and take their stuff (if you are into that sort of thing) but, if you try to leave the city a fleet of FBI or military helicopters will descend. They never tire, never run out of fuel, never lose track of you. Freedom is an illusion.

This has always annoyed me about video games. I don’t like the illusion of freedom. I either want a straightforward cinematic story or a complete sandbox. This is not true of education. In 2004, Mayer wrote an excellent piece for the American Psychologist explaining the limitations of constructivist teaching methods and the difficulties associated with a true sandbox learning environment. In sum, if students were given the appropriate tools and materials, their constructed understanding of concepts and skills was better than if they had just been told the correct answer. However, students left to construct knowledge in a complete vacuum did far worse than those in either the spoon-fed or partially structured learning environments.

From my own experience, I knew this to be absolutely true. Students, no matter how clever or motivated, cannot simply construct the knowledge that Waterloo was in 1815 from thin air. But somehow, when it came to writing and research skills, I had not fully interalised this concept, with unhappy results for my students.

This week, my students and I were meant to discuss the idea of reading for argument; that is, how to read scholarly work not only for facts and figures but also for the historiographical argument the author was trying to prove (and if they were at all successful). I knew that such a discussion between first-year students could not possibly last 90 minutes;  I know for a fact that senior researchers wouldn’t be able to stretch it out that long. Instead, I planned three 30-minute discussions.

  1. Open-ended discussion about the reading: What did you think about the books and articles you read? What sort of evidence did you get from them?
  2. Task and discussion about applying the reading: How would you combine the material from the different pieces to form a single argument?
  3. Open-ended discussion about reading:  How did you take notes? Were the pre-seminar questions easy to answer? Would you do things differently in the future?

It all went horribly awry; and I blame myself entirely for the confusion.  The first discussion was far too open-ended. The students weren’t entirely sure what I was getting at.  I tried not to lead the discussion too aggressively. I didn’t want to just give them answer. I wanted them to suggest the purpose and practicalities of reading for argument. None of them did. In retrospect, I am sure several of them did read for argument rather than just facts, but I was being so vague in my discussion prompts that they had no idea what answer I wanted, and so generally just stared at me until I relented and explained what I meant.  After about 5 or 10 minutes of perplexed stares I gave up and moved onto the task.

I separated my students into groups of four, attempting to make sure that, between them, the had read at least 2 of the 3 suggested readings for the week. I then gave them the following instructions:

Using at least 4 facts and 2 opinions, write a paragraph for an essay with the following thesis: What it meant to be working class fundamentally changed in the post-war period.

After 20 to 30 minutes of small-group discussions, in which I popped around from group to group, asking follow up questions and advising on structure, we reconvened as a large group. I didn’t make them read their paragraphs out and I simply moved into the final set of questions, beginning with: What was difficult about writing that paragraph just now?

In fairness to my poor confused students, I did receive some very good responses at this stage. They explained that there was some difficulty combining the various sources (check) and that they hadn’t really taken any notes on opinions, so they didn’t have many to use (check). But at that stage the conversation went dry.  I quickly explained some tips and tricks on reading for argument and let them depart. I am sure they got something out of the afternoon, but not as much as I had hoped.

Luckily for me, I had a second chance.  Two days later I taught another group and threw all prentice of freedom out the window. Learning from my mistake, I structured the session into far more bite-sized tasks, each with a very clear goal.

  1. Full-group discussion of ‘How did you read chapter / article?’ and ‘Were you able to answer the questions we set for you?
  2. Detailed demonstration (via computer projector) of how to find an author’s thesis statement and article outline and how to use that to read for argument
  3. Full-group discussion of ‘How did you read chapter / article?’ and if they were looking for our questions or what the author wanted explain.
  4. Separated into pairs for four subtasks (given separately):
    1. Compile a list of 3-4 facts from the secondary reading (with an explanation from me as to what counted as a fact)
    2. Compile a list of 2 facts from the primary sources
    3. Compile a list of 2-3 historiographical opinions or arguments (with an explanation from as to what an opinion was)
    4. Write a paragraph according to a very precise recipe:
      1. Topic Sentence
      2. Opinion that supports or opposes the topic sentence
      3. Why you agree or disagree with the opinion
      4. Fact to support topic sentence
      5. Explanation of why the fact is valid / trustworthy
      6. Fact to support topic sentence
      7. Explanation of why the fact is valid / trustworthy
      8. Fact to support topic sentence
      9. Explanation of why the fact is valid / trustworthy
      10. Concluding sentence, showing how all three facts and opinion fit together to prove topic sentence.
  5. Individual presentations of paragraphs, for which I gave suggestions on what they could have done if they had had more time.
  6. Full-group discussion of how the writing process went.

This class took the same 90 minutes but went much, much smoother. Students understood at each stage exactly what I wanted them to do, but they were still discussing and compiling their own research with very little direct input with me. At the end of the seminar, we had an extremely fruitful discussion about the differences between high school essay writing–in which, one student insightfully noted, the teacher had ‘done all the work for them’  in compiling sources–and university writing–in which they will almost certainly have gaps in their evidence. Most students disliked my recipe for paragraph construction, but agreed that the would have to reconsider how they read and took notes in the future. Overall, a great success.

The students in my first seminar are just as clever and hardworking as those who were in my second. The only real difference was the size of individual tasks I assigned and the degree to which I gave students instructions before they attempted the task. I had been purposefully unstructured the first time through to allow students to fail, and to learn from those failures, rather than just be told  ‘how to read a book’. However, I soon realised that students could not possibly fail at a task that was never fully explained. They could only be stung by a random giant wasp. And that was hardly fair.

 *Image courtesy of Larry Wilder

2 thoughts on “Sandboxes May be Hazardous for Your Health: Structure and Freedom in First-Year Seminars

  1. Brilliant piece on sandbox teaching by @mhbealsreading. for #uccmadah #dahphdie pedagogy option

  2. Great post on teaching academic reading and writing.

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