Thought Essays

In his Freshman Seminar, Professor John Dowling assigned both basic textbook readings and supplementary readings.  Since students were to lead the discussion of the supplementary readings, John ensured that they would have something to say by assigning weekly 1 page "thought essays" that required students to draw on ideas from the readings.To do the "thought essays," students were given a prompt that addressed the main topic, and students were expected to respond by drawing on ideas from the course.  While the prompt would sometimes require specific answers or scientific ideas, the assignment got them thinking beyond the science and applying scientific concepts.  Some weeks the prompts lent themselves to diagrams, such as the week that asked about plasticity in the young brain.  The "thought essays" were due prior to class, so that John could read them, and if something really struck him, he would read it in class to spark the discussion.  The "thought essays" were effective in enabling the students to engage in a self-directed, meaningful discussion.  These assignments were graded with a check, check plus, check minus system.

Examples of prompts included:

  • "Almost everyone agrees the 'War on Drugs' is a failure.  Should we legalize drugs?  If so under what conditions, if any? In your answer say something about the nature of drug addiction" for the week on the War on Drugs.  That week, the supplementary piece reviewed the history of addiction to opiates.  
  • "Is a frog conscious? In your essay, indicate why or why not."