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April 12, 2018

Developing career-ready skills may not be top of mind for all first-year students, but it is for Wilfrid Laurier University instructors Amali Philips and Iga Mergler.

Philips and Mergler teach AN100: Cultures Today, an introductory anthropology course focused on the different ways people go about being human. Each term, students participate in a community action project organized through the Center for a Public Anthropology, a U.S. non-profit organization that encourages anthropologists and their students to address public problems.

The two-part community action project, led by esteemed anthropologist and university educator Robert Borofsky, is designed to engage students in current issues in anthropology while developing critical thinking and writing skills. More than 3,500 university students from across North America participate in the community action project each year.

During the first part of the project, students write a 700-word opinion editorial, or "op-ed," in response to a current topic in anthropology. In the next part of the project, students are required to assess four other students’ op-eds and assign a grade using the centre’s evaluation grid. Respectful and constructive feedback, as well as a rationale for the final grade, is provided to each op-ed writer.

Philips and Mergler say the community action project not only supports course curriculum, but offers an opportunity for younger students to begin building a toolkit of transferable skills.

"Students are building critical thinking, writing and communication skills during the course of this assignment,” says Philips, who leads the course’s classroom offering at Laurier’s Waterloo campus. "These are skills that will serve them well in the future."

Creating Critical Thinkers

The community action project asks participating students to take a stand on a particular anthropological issue in their op-eds. During the 2017-2018 academic year, participating students were asked to argue for or against a common set of regulations approved by research ethics boards to ensure that research subjects are treated ethically while maintaining investigators’ freedom of inquiry.

It’s a complex topic that presents students with various pros and cons to consider in the writing and evaluation process. Developing critical thought, a skill at the assignment’s core, is one that will benefit students well beyond their undergraduate studies.

“By understanding how anthropological research can affect its subjects, students are forming their own opinions about research ethics and whether or not scientific research should be regulated,” says Mergler. “Critical thinking is a skill valued by employers. By providing students with opportunities early in their studies to exercise critical thought, we are helping to create skilled thinkers who are able to understand the issue and make an informed decision.”

Communicating with Purpose

The community action project’s op-ed assignment teaches students how to write with appeal and create an emotional connection with readers to persuade them about an argument. A good op-ed does this in a limited word count, making structure, evidence, organization and word choice critical.

Philips and Mergler leveraged the expertise of James Southworth, a consultant in the Writing Centre on Laurier's Waterloo campus, who led students through a series of in-class workshops about the essentials of op-ed writing. Southworth says op-eds are valuable assignments that offer students the opportunity to develop practical, real-world communication skills.

AN100 student Megan Lepoudre agrees, adding that the assignment also boosted her self-confidence.

“The skills and methods learned in James’ preparation sessions helped me feel more comfortable with what I was writing. I felt confident about the assignment because I was prepared for it, which made the whole process easier for me as a first-year student.”

Offering Constructive Feedback

Southworth also dedicated in-class instruction time to teaching students how to offer critical but constructive feedback. Following the same criteria used for writing the op-eds, students evaluate how well other students crafted their arguments as part of the peer assessment process. Students graded op-eds for clearly stated opinions, thoughtful persuasion, well-organized evidence, appropriate tone and clear writing.

“The ability to effectively give and receive feedback are important skills in the workplace, but they often get overlooked in the classroom,” says Southworth. “Students regularly receive feedback from their professors but don’t have an opportunity to provide feedback to their peers. Having the opportunity through the op-ed assignment helps students develop specific communication skills that are transferable to the workplace.”

The scholarly contributions of Laurier students participating in the community action project have not gone unnoticed.

Thirty-seven op-eds submitted by students enrolled in AN100 during the fall and winter semesters received top scores from peer evaluators. Students received certificates of achievement signed by Borofsky during an in-class presentation.

“To receive recognition for their work encourages students to use the skills they have learned with confidence and fosters a pride in their work," says Philips.

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