A Short Writing Assignment for Introductory Courses and Beyond

02 May 2017 7:44 PM | Anonymous

A Short Writing Assignment for Introductory Courses and Beyond
Mitchell M. Handelsman
University of Colorado Denver


I don’t want to be a downer or anything, but I have a lot of problems in my teaching. Among them:

  • Getting students to do the readings
  • Getting students to think
  • Getting students to think about the readings they do
  • Wanting to have students write in meaningful ways
  • Having too much work to do
  • Getting bored reading papers that all say the same thing
  • Having student read without being accountable until the test, which may be weeks away (Handelsman, 2016)
In this essay I describe an assignment that solves, or at least addresses, these problems. I have students write very short papers about their reading assignments in which they do more than summarize or question. To get a sense of the assignment, imagine that you are an introductory psychology student, and you read this in the syllabus:


Processing and Reflecting on Psychology (PROPS)
  • Actors need props, right? If you want to act like a student, you need PROPS!
  • PROPS are short reflections on—and explorations of—your reading. They can be as short as a few sentences and no longer than 1 page. You will process (do something with, reflect on) at least 2 major concepts or key terms from the material you read. Here’s what I mean by processing:
    • You can ask and answer a question about what you’ve read.
    • You can differentiate key terms from each other, or show how you might remember them.
    • You can generate a couple of new examples of a couple of key terms.
    • You can relate the concepts to material from other modules, courses, or experiences.
    • In general, you can do anything beyond just questioning (e.g., “What does the hindsight bias mean?”) or reporting (e.g., “The psychoanalytic approach deals with unconscious material.”).
  • I assign PROPS to encourage you to:
    • do the reading (Course Goals 1 and 2) and do it actively (Course Goal 3).
    • practice active learning skills (Course Goal 3), such as self-reflection, applying, and elaborating.
    • come to class, and come prepared to work (Good for ALL course goals!).
  • Logistics
    • You will write 15 PROPS this semester. At the top of each, put your name, the date, the module covered, and the number of the PROP (e.g., the first prop you submit will be “PROP 1”).
    • PROPS need to be typed, double-spaced, 12-point font, 1-inch margins, no longer than 1 page.
    • You can hand in a PROP any day for which there is a reading assignment. The 2 (or more) concepts you process must be from the reading assigned for that day.
    • You can only hand in 1 PROP per class.
    • You have some choice about when you hand in PROPS, but I encourage you to start soon!! If you wait until the beginning of March, for example, you will have to hand in a PROP every class period.
  • Grading
    • You can earn 2 points for each of your PROPS. You will earn 2 points for showing that you’ve done the reading and are doing something more than reporting or questioning 2 concepts. You will earn 1 point if you hand in the PROP on time but have not processed or reflected actively upon 2 concepts.
    • I don’t grade PROPS on accuracy, but on activity! You are rewarded for taking risks and trying to learn.
  • Hints
    • The best PROPS are those that help you answer test questions by going beyond simple, sweeping statements or stories about your life. Take risks to see if you understand.
    • Use the language of psychology. Show that you’ve done the reading (Course Goals 1, 2, and 4).
    • If you discuss personal experiences, do more than tell a story:  show explicitly how the concepts apply your experience. For example: To say that you use coping strategies and tell a story about one of them is not enough. To show why some of your strategies are problem-focused and some emotion-focused is better. To relate your coping to some other information in the book, like speculating on some biological, social, or psychological factors in your coping, is wonderful!
    • PROPS can demonstrate that you appreciate the complexity of human behavior (Course Goal 2) by avoiding simplistic and extreme statements. For example, instead of, “I find it interesting that most fields of practice use the scientific method.This means that psychology is no different than any of the other fields of study in the world,” this might be better: “Many fields of study use the scientific method.Thus, psychology shares one characteristic with fields like biology and physics.In other ways, of course, psychology is different from other fields.”

By the way, here are the course goals that the assignment refers to:

I teach this course so you can:

  1. Learn major concepts and findings in psychology.
  2. Appreciate the complexity of human behavior.
  3. Develop and practice more active ways of studying and learning, including writing to learn, active reading, reflection, participating in class (individually and in groups), and more effective test-taking skills.
  4. Appreciate how psychologists think; e.g., how they use scientific methods to study behavior.
  5. Develop the ability to meet deadlines and follow directions.
Students can earn a total of 400 points in the course; thus, these papers represent 7.5% of the final grade. Of course, the relative weight of the assignment is up to you depending on your goals. In my course, students earn 300 points for test performance and the rest for two larger papers in which they process at least three concepts across at least two chapters. One of these papers can be revised, and one can be an expansion of a PROP.

     I used to have students submit hard copies of their PROPS at the beginning of class, to encourage attendance. Recently I’ve been having students submit these types of papers on our LMS a few hours before class so I have the chance to read at least some of them before class (Handelsman, 2014). This gives me a chance to address misunderstandings and tailor exercises to incorporate students’ efforts.

     You can adapt this assignment for other courses and purposes (Handelsman, 2014). For example, you can specify additional elements for one or more of the PROPs, such as having students apply concepts from the text to an outside reading, an upcoming presentation, or previous PROPS. You can increase the number of concepts as the semester goes on. In upper-division courses you might specify the type of higher-order thinking you want students to do.

     Although the final product is short, I find it helpful to let students know that they may need to write much more than one page and then edit it to show me their best work. Here is the way I often explain it:

“A one-page paper is like a traditional five-page paper with the extra verbiage removed. In high school (or other college courses), you sometimes spend the first four of the five pages summarizing what you’ve read. Then, you have a page to go and you don’t have anything else to summarize, so you say to yourself, ‘Let me just mess around and throw in something from the previous unit that seems to relate.’ It’s on that last page that you actually do something with what you’ve read. That’s what I want! I don’t need the summary. So you may have to write all those pages, but cut out the first ones and polish up the part where you’re thinking!

 Of course, there are still problems with this assignment (What kind of academic would I be if I didn’t see problems?):

  1. There is not enough opportunity for students to revise their work, and I do not spend enough time on grammar, style, and other aspects of writing. In my defense, I want freshmen to have ideas. Once they have something of their own to say, they may be more motivated to learn how to share their thoughts in effective ways.
  2. I still have a lot of reading to do. However, PROP reading is more interesting than reading a bunch of summaries, and the short length makes grading easier. And, of course, the assignment fits my short attention span.
  3. Students can still read the first paragraph, or any paragraph, of a chapter and write something that would work. But I figure that even a little effort is better than nothing! They still have more of an opportunity to think and read differently (Hanelsman, 2016).

I hope you see some of the advantages of this assignment and ways to adapt it to your own course objectives. And forgive me for taking more than a page to explain it.


Handelsman, M. M. (2014, August 19). This year I’m having my freshmen do POT: Four reasons to have students rolling in papers [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-ethical-professor/201408/year-im-having-my-freshmen-do-pot-0

Handelsman, M. M. (2016, September 28). Reading with purpose, or purposes [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-ethical-professor/201609/reading-purpose-or-purposes




Mitchell M. Handelsman, Ph.D., is Professor of Psychology and CU President's Teaching Scholar at the University of Colorado Denver, where he has been on the faculty since 1982.  Dr. Handelsman has won numerous teaching awards, including the 1992 CASE (Council for the Advancement and Support of Education) Colorado Professor of the Year Award, and APA’s Division 2 Excellence in Teaching Award in 1995.  He has co-authored three books, Ethics for Psychotherapists and Counselors: A Proactive Approach (2010; with Sharon Anderson), Ethical Dilemmas in Psychotherapy: Positive Approaches to Decision Making (2015; with Samuel Knapp and Michael Gottlieb), and The Life of Charlie Burrell:  Breaking the Color Barrier in Classical Music (2015, with Charlie Burrell). He is an associate editor of the APA Handbook of Ethics in Psychology (2012). 


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