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Traditional academic papers often undermine motivation by failing to show students the real-life applications of their subject. But with a little thought, you can craft assignments that add pizzazz across multiple areas of study. These activities provide students with opportunities to think more critically, analyze cases, recognize the impact of technology on their field, engage in ethical issues, and get more excited about the subject.  

Sell It

It is not just kids who continually ask “Why?” It is essential to let others know why they should be concerned about a field of study to generate motivation. The “Sell It” activity has students inform others about the relevance of an area. Students create a poster, brochure, flier, or some other visual to teach others something important related to the field following a 3/3/3 protocol. The visual should include a minimum of three statistics, three graphics, and three credible scholarly source citations. They then use a free digital poster creation service such as Canva to develop and display the work. Sample topics include sexual assault awareness on college campuses for a criminal justice course, creative healthy living strategies for a health and human performance course, the benefits of composting for an agriculture course, and smart investing for a finance course.

Ethical Nightmare

As educators, we prepare our students to face tough ethical decisions within their professions. The “Ethical Nightmare” assignment has students locate an ethical case in their respective fields, provide a summary of what occurred, identify why the situation raises ethical concerns, rate the severity of those concerns, summarize the final outcomes, explain whether the final decision seems appropriate, and propose one additional solution or outcome that the participants might have chosen. Newspaper or other media outlets provide ample fodder for ethical conundrums in any profession. Sample topics include a social worker dating a client, an accountant overlooking suspicious ledger entries during an audit, a psychology researcher switching participants in an experiment to influence the outcomes, an engineer minimizing the scope of a structural problem to avoid construction delays, and a safety officer doctoring fire alarm testing records to ensure regulatory compliance. These investigations help students see why their profession has ethical principles and how they play out in practice. 

Case Analysis

We cover theoretical principles in our courses because they apply to practice. Normally, we introduce the principle by covering it first, and then illustrating it with examples. But students will be doing the opposite in practice: encountering the example first and then identifying the theoretical constructs that apply to it. This can be the hardest move for students to make, and studies show that students often have trouble picking out the right theoretical principles for solving a problem. The “Case Analysis” assignment provides students with experience connecting theory and practice by giving them a situation and asking them to identify the right principles for addressing it. Students are also asked to list three unanswered questions or concerns related to the situation. This forces the student to ask what types of information are missing to properly address a situation. For example, a criminal justice instructor could provide a summary of a child sexual abuse case and ask students to apply theoretical perspectives to explain why the victim may have been a target and why the offender may have engaged in the acts. The description can be deliberately sketchy to force students to ask for more information, such as the backgrounds of both parties. 

Letter to the Editor

The “Letter to the Editor” assignment helps students see the relevance of a topic by having them provide an argument to a layperson for devoting attention to it. The student jumps into the role of a concerned citizen, consumer, or customer by writing a letter to the editor to argue for action on an issue. Students can be asked to actually send their letter to a news source to see if it gets published, further generating enthusiasm for the assignment. Plus, students need to ask themselves what they have learned in class that goes against common belief in order to identify topics in need of public enlightenment. Examples include a criminal justice student writing to advocate for a change in a victim's rights law, a history student advocating for a memorial to recognize an important historical event in the area, and an agriculture student writing to clarify the effects that certain agricultural practices have on the food supply.

Technology Push

The “Technology Push” allows the student to promote a piece of technology that is new to the field or may be appearing in the near future. The student creates a visual to demonstrate the technology and explain its benefits, drawbacks, and feasibility. This visual can be a video hosted on YouTube, or a combination of text and imagery hosted on a website such as Google Sites or Padlet. Examples include new telemedicine techniques in criminal justice and new teaching devices in special education. 

These simple assignments add practical application to online courses with technologies that are easily accessible to the student, and are a win-win for instructors and students alike! 

Amy Nemmetz is an assistant professor of Criminal Justice at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville.