A Sequence of Formal and Informal Assignments

Colleen Moore
Before and during the time her students begin work on their 10-15 page research papers, Professor Colleen Moore assigns eight shorter papers that encourage students to engage in critical thinking, careful reading, clear summarizing, and in-depth analysis. Moore's sequence initially builds from informal to formal writing and from simpler to more complex rhetorical tasks, enabling her students to practice and build their writing skills. While students are researching and writing their term papers, her assignments push students to stay engaged in the writing process and make it possible for her to give them feedback on their work in progress. Note also her very clear and explicit instructions and goals for students in each assignment.

Course goals:


  1. To learn about some of the ways in which environmental hazards influence psychological functioning.

  2. To learn about how our own attitudes, beliefs, values and actions directly and indirectly create pollution or damage to the sustainability of the natural environment.

  3. To improve your written communication skills. This is a writing-intensive course.

  4. To improve your oral communication skills.

  5. To improve your library research skills as a citizen-scholar.

Writing Assignment No. 1

This is an informal in-class writing assignment. The goal is to get you to think clearly about an issue so that our class discussion of the issue will be better.

Write clearly and in complete sentences so I can read it out loud to the class.

1. What is pollution? (Give your own definition.)

2. Give an example of a type of pollution that you think has had an influence on you. How has it influenced you?

3. What is the source of that kind of pollution, and how might it be reduced?

Writing Assignment No. 2

1. Find a newspaper/news magazine report about some kind of pollution or an environmental issue.

2. Write a brief summary. In particular, what are the effects of the pollution on: (a) people, (b) other living things? Are psychological effects mentioned, even indirectly or by implication? If not, speculate about psychological effects.

Writing Assignment No. 3

This is a typed formal writing assignment. Length should be 2-3 pages double-spaced. One goal is to gain skill in summarizing the findings of a published psychological research study. To write an effective summary you need to understand what you read. In addition, you need to decide what the most important aspects of the methods and results are. A second goal in this assignment is to learn to think critically about original psychological research. Every scientific study has something wrong with it. When you critique a study you need to pick out things about the methods and results that are important for the conclusions that are drawn from it.

1. Write a summary of the study you read. If the paper you read had more than one study in it, choose one of the studies to describe.

2. Critique the study, and perhaps suggest improvements that could be made. Do the conclusions follow logically from the methods and the results? For example, are there serious validity problems in the measures that were used? Are there leaps of logic between the results and the conclusions? What extensions of the research would be helpful to support the conclusions?

Writing Assignment No. 4

This assignment will be graded on a 10-point scale.

It is easy to criticize others, but difficult to do better oneself. One goal of this assignment is to think more clearly about what you wrote before. Part of writing involves clarifying one's thoughts so that they can be expressed coherenlty to someone else. By taking one of your own previous criticisms or suggestions and expanding it into a proposed study, you will have to think through the basis of your criticisms and suggestions more carefully. A second goal is to learn to coordinate research ideas with a conceptual or theoretical framework. What does a propose study actually test?

a. Pick one of the criticisms or suggestions for improvement that you made in the assignment due Sept. 24. Restate the basic idea as clearly as possible.

b. Use that criticism or suggestion as the basis for a proposed study. Briefly describe what the sample would be, what variables you would measure, how you would measure them, and why you would measure those particular variables. Explaining "why" involves explaining the logic behind your study in a clear step-by-step fashion.

c. Analyze the logic behind your experiment using the conceptual model of the effects of pollution. (A good proposed study would test the strength or direction of influence of variables in the conceptual model.)

Writing Assignment No. 5

Goals of this assignment:

This assignment requires you to integrate ideas from two separate research areas. It also requires you to apply the concepts in the two research areas (social dilemmas and risk perception) to an environmental issue.

Our discussion of social dilemmas emphasized the idea that many environmental problems can be considered to be social dilemmas for which some of the negative outcomes are delayed. Dawes's article concluded that the following factors are important in getting people to "cooperate" rather than "defect" in social dilemmas: (a) extent and certainty of one's knowledge of the events that will occur for both oneself and the society as a result of cooperating vs. defecting (the "payoff" structure), (b) whether one's responses are made public, (c) the amount of communication among the "players," (d) social norms and expectations of others for one's behavior, and (e) what a person thinks others will actually do.

Our readings on risk perception concluded that risk perception is influenced by variables such as: (a) "framing," or whether the event is considered to be a "gain" or a "loss," (b) the degree to which the event has characteristics such as voluntary exposure, chronic and cumulative, fatality, immediate, delayed, controllable vs. uncontrollable, new technology vs. established technology, known effects vs. unknown effects, effects on future generations or the planet, etc., and (c) the cultural characteristics of the person (such as income, education, ethnicity, gender, social power).

Choose an environmental issue. You may use the issue about which you wrote for a previous assignment, or an issue in the text or readings. First describe the ways in which the issue can be considered to be the result of a social dilemma. Be specific about he what the "payoffs" seem to be for "defecting" vs. "cooperating." Second, describe the role risk perception processes might have in perpetuating the social dilemma. ("Risk" can refer to any outcome that has some uncertainty involved in it.) Third, suggest two ways to increase cooperation and decrease defection; one suggestion should be drawn from an aspect of the research findings on social dilemmas, and one from research on risk perception. Be specific about how your two suggestions relate to the research finding on social dilemmas and risk perception.

Writing Assignment No. 6

Write a sentence or two describing your term paper topic. If you have found some readings on the topic, include those references also. If you are deciding between two options for your term paper, then describe both ideas that you are considering. Describe the format that you would use according to the term paper assignment handout given previously.

Writing Assignment No. 7

The goal of this assignment is for you to write a "module" about something that will fit into your term paper later, with revision of course. This will get you started actually writing something relevant to your paper, and the thinking that is required for the writing will help you make progress on your paper.

Option #1: Write a summary of an article that you read for your term paper. Also turn in a bibliography of 8-10 sources you intend to use in your paper.

Option #2: Write an introduction section to your term paper that describes the topic, type of evidence and sources you will use, the controversies or theories involved, and the conclusions toward which your paper will point. Also turn in a bibliography of 8-10 sources you intend to use in your paper.

Writing Assignment No. 8

The goal of this assignment is for you to begin to organize the information that you have gathered for your term paper. More progress now, less panic at the end! Also, this will give me a chance to give you some feedback on what you think the overall content of your paper will be.

--Write an outline of your term paper in as much detail as you can at this point.
--Include an updated bibliography.
--After writing the outline, write a paragraph or so commenting on your outline. Where are you uncertain about the organization? Do you have some material for the paper that you think belongs in the paper but you don't know where it goes? In other words, comment on the difficulties you are having. I will try to provide some help in solving those difficulties.