Author: Alice Robison

Profile: Moore's Psychology 411

Professor Colleen Moore packs a lot of communication assignments in her Psychology of Environmental Issues course. In fifteen weeks, students write seven short papers, complete four oral presentations, and research and write a term paper that is sequenced into five separate stages. Because Moore’s syllabus is so packed, I wondered how she is able to maintain high standards while managing the work load. I discovered that many factors contribute to the course’s success: limited enrollment, a careful sequence of written and oral assignments, and Moore’s conviction that students learn more in a Writing-Intensive learning environment.

In Psychology of Environmental Issues, students investigate the ways that scientists disagree about the psychological impact of certain environmental events. Moore is convinced that this intimate, writing-intensive setting is ideally suited for a seminar discussion that is centered on scientists’ ethical debates and decision-making criteria. “Writing gives them a deeper understanding of the material. They’re not just looking for key facts,” she insists. “A writing-intensive course design lets them do that in a way that a traditional lecture course can’t.”

Limited Enrollment and High Expectations

In order to create this learning environment, Moore has lobbied her department to keep enrollment low, no more than 18 upper-level students (mostly psychology majors). “That allows us to do some things that even an increase to 25 would prohibit,” Professor Moore notes.

Professor Moore is able to set the bar high for her students. “I tell students that I have high expectations and they just simply rise to the task,” she says. Though as I learned more about the syllabus’ sequence of written and oral writing assignments, it became clear that Professor Moore does more to help students succeed.

Variety of Written and Oral Assignments

Students are asked to complete a series of short papers based on course readings and discussions, and Moore offers a variety of options. “I try to construct writing assignments so that each student might write something quite different,” she says. Moore believes that giving students several assignment options forces them to think independently. But there is an added benefit: “It keeps me entertained while I’m reading.”

The first short writing assignment asks students to write a synopsis of a news report on an environmental issue. Then, students comment on whether the news item included sources of scientific controversy. Subsequent oral and written assignments ask students to conduct library research. Their task is to find published empirical research on the psychological effects of environmental events like pollution, the use of pesticides, or human exposure to chemicals. Students then provide written and oral summaries and commentaries on the articles and evaluate researchers’ treatments of environmental and psychological controversies.

When students present orally, they do so in pairs. Moore believes that presenting in pairs encourages students to consider many sides of a debate, evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of competing arguments. It also teaches them to work together, which prepares them for the peer-review writing workshops they’ll do for the term paper. “We’re building an academic community in this class,” she adds.

A Sequenced Term Paper

The second half of the semester is devoted primarily to the term paper assignment. Moore expects students to turn in parts of the paper in stages, beginning with a topic statement and progressing toward paragraphs, drafts, and finally, the polished paper. The second half of the semester is devoted primarily to the term paper assignment. Moore expects students to turn in parts of the paper in stages, beginning with a topic statement and progressing toward paragraphs, drafts, and finally, the polished paper.

Moore argues that the multi-stage term paper design adds to students’ learning in a significant way. “I don’t think the kind of thinking that we want in papers can happen even in a two-draft type of thing, where you write a draft and then revise it. You’re going to end up with your same impulsive thoughts from the first time merely stated better. If students actually work with the material over a longer time they start to think.”

The Reflective Paragraph

After students have selected a topic of research, Moore asks them to turn in a working bibliography and a short paragraph that discusses a possible thesis or controlling argument for their papers. Also, students add a second paragraph that reflects on the research and writing process thus far. This second paragraph is meant to tell Moore about any struggles, barriers, or confusing elements of the research process that students are encountering.

Moore also acknowledges the challenges and complexities of research projects, and points out that allowing students to ask for help ensures that they are making progress. “The reflective paragraphs are very helpful because students are liberated to say, ‘this isn’t going as well as I want. Help!’” Moore uses those reflective paragraphs to guide students toward better or more useful research.

The Writing Process: Asking for Help

The next step for students is to submit a partial draft along with another reflective paragraph. Moore admits she receives a wide array of submissions. “They turn in a variety of things. Usually I get a section. Sometimes I get some introduction and then a section that summarizes the research they’ve done.” Moore tries to be flexible, realizing that students vary widely in their approaches to the writing process.

Moore sees her role at this point as that of a guide within the discipline, teaching students how to write according to the conventions of her field. She also points out that because students are given plenty of opportunities to ask for help, this exchange of ideas can be a great deterrent to plagiarism. During this part of the process, students frequently ask Moore how to cite research properly.

Peer Review

Next, students turn in an entire draft of their papers on a class day dedicated to a formal peer review exercise. Moore generally doesn’t comment on this piece of writing, choosing instead to allow students to act as each other’s interested readers. After collecting and redistributing the drafts, Moore gives students focused directions for the peer review process. “I tell them to attend to the depth of analysis and help the author go beyond fact-telling,” she says. “Are the concepts being explained or just jargon-parodying? Are there misunderstandings of issues that the author seems to have? Are there places where you can do some mind-reading? Are there places where you can see what the author is trying to say but is not quite saying it?”

Peer review helps students realize when they’re failing to follow through on promises or answer questions raised by the research. But Moore expects that her students will provide more than a critique: she wants them to go beyond sentence-level corrections and provide substantive suggestions for improvement. Admittedly, this something that Moore confesses is difficult for her as a reviewer. “As a faculty member I struggle—and I still struggle—with giving feedback on writing that goes beyond, ‘this sentence is awkward, there’s a grammatical mistake.’ And I think I’ve proved over the years it still is difficult to give good feedback.”

In the days leading up to and surpassing the formal peer review session, students present their research orally in a series of 15-minute student-led discussions. Moore feels that this is the best way for them focus their arguments and to benefit from each other’s knowledge. “Without term paper presentations,” Moore says, “I find myself thinking ‘these are really good papers. I wish the other students could hear about them.’”

It’s Not Easy

When asked about the benefits of teaching a writing-intensive course like this one, Professor Moore points out that committing herself to teaching with writing is not always easy. “Reading students’ papers is not what’s built into the reward structure of our university,” she says. “But it’s what the taxpayers expect us to do at this university. They expect us to teach our students.” Beyond that, Moore makes a comment that is familiar to most experienced writing teachers. Says Moore: “The reward of [this class] is that you get to know your students. You bring students along. You bring out the best in them.”

To view Professor Moore’s syllabus for Psychology of Environmental Issues, please visit her website:


Used with permission from the University of Wisconsin Writing Across the Curriculum Website.

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