The ultimate undergrad assignment?


Engaging students in and outside the classroom is hard. Much of this is due to the challenge of making class concepts relevant and applicable to students’ lives. This year, however, I discovered policy briefs. And I think they might be the holy grail of student assignments that can, and should, be used in any discipline. Here, I’d like to tell you about my experience and why you should use policy briefs.

The problem with traditional assignments

There are many, depending on what exactly we’re talking about. For now, think multiple choice tests, short answer tests, or even essay exams. The kind that require memorization rather than real understanding.

They all have their place. I still use them, actually. Mostly in large classes. The argument I hear in favor of them is “there are factual things that students have to know before moving on to bigger concepts”. It fits well in line with Bloom’s taxonomy and progression of learning. The other side of this, however, is that it isn’t engaging. Some students thrive on the memorize->spit it back out on a test->forget it the next day format. It’s what they know. But there are other ways of applying Bloom’s taxonomy. Enter problem-based learning.

Problem-based learninglogo_pbl2

Problem-based learning begins the learning process by introducing an authentic, real-world problem. Students are then charged with solving this problem. What the problem is, how it is structured, and what the solution is depends on the course and specific learning objectives. The big picture idea, though, is that by giving students an authentic problem to solve, they are more engaged in the learning process. This method has been around for quite some time (circa 1960s) and is gaining lots of traction at the secondary and post-secondary level. In fact, entire schools are beginning to structure their curriculums around problems as opposed to subjects, such as the Casco Bay and King Middle Schools in Portland, ME and a new university being founded by former MIT Dean Christine Ortiz.

For those of us who are still figuring out how to transition to problem-based learning amid the old model, however, there are still significant challenges including the time it takes to create, facilitate, and evaluate such problems. How does one engage students with real world problems but within the traditional model of education? Enter policy briefs…

What is a policy brief?policy-brief-2010-06-cover-

Simply put, a policy brief is a summary of a problem, written for a specific audience, with specific recommendations to solve the problem. I used a policy brief this semester for the first time and plan to use them in many more.

Purpose. At its core, the purpose of a policy brief is to objectively inform an audience about a problem, the underlying causes of the problem, and analyze and offer specific policy solutions to the problem.

Format. Ranges from 1 to up to ~12 pages. I stuck with 2 pages, including references, tables, and figures. Single spaced. 1 inch margins. 12 point font. Includes the following sections:

Executive summary. 3 sentences. What’s the problem? What’s the underlying cause of the problem? What’s the policy solution?

Background. What is the scope and severity of the problem? What are the contributing factors to the problem? What policy solutions currently exist and how have they been working?

Analysis of policy options. At least 2 options.

Policy option 1: Do nothing. What are the pros and cons of doing nothing?

Policy option 2: Do “x”: What are the pros and cons of doing “X”

Recommendations. Based on your objective analysis of these policy options, what do you recommend and why?

Style. APA. Evidence-based, no-nonsense, no fluff. All factual claims must be supported with evidence. Written for a lay audience.

What are the pros of policy briefs?

There are many, but I think they are best summarized as follows:

Length. Writing skills are important. Every student should know how to write by the time they leave college. I spend a lot of time teaching students how to write. I used to think that it wasn’t my job, but it is. Nobody else is going to do it. The biggest challenge for me, tho, is grading student writing. Especially when the paper is 5, 10, or even 20 pages. It’s just too big for most students to handle. You end up getting 15 pages of watered-down fluff with a few credible facts sprinkled in. Ain’t nobody got time for that.ace-every-essay-assignment-with-less-substance-more-fluff.w654

The policy brief I assigned this semester was 2 pages. Tops. With references. I had students write their executive summary as the first assignment. 3 sentences. And I graded the bejezus out of it. Tons of feedback and suggestions. I even cancelled class to have individual meetings. Why ask a student to write 2 pages if they can’t write 3 sentences? Students learned right off the bat what the expectations were.

We then progressed onto rough drafts, had more meetings, and did a graded peer review. In the end, I found that it wasn’t necessary to write a long paper. There is so much crammed into this one document that there’s no need, and keeping it short helped me focus on the quality of the writing, which was critical for this assignment.

It’s evidence-based. This isn’t creative writing. It’s all about the evidence. If students made a factual claim and didn’t back it up with evidence, I crossed it out. I told them “if there’s not evidence to back this up, then you haven’t said anything”. With a paper like this, there’s simply no room for fluff.

It engages students with the ‘real world’. Policy briefs require students to know about a problem, but also the larger context and factors that contribute to the problem, including policies. There is no way a student can write a successful policy brief without this understanding.

Students select a problem either from a list of one’s that I supply or something that is personally meaningful to them. The course that I taught was about the impact of social relationships on health and physical activity. I wanted to support students’ interests and gave them great flexibility with their topics. As long as there was a sensible connection between their proposed policy/problem and social relationships, I gave it the green light.

Students were then challenged with researching their topic, including the problem, the cause of the problem, and related policy solutions. In almost every case, they didn’t know where to start. The first thing I recommended was that they use Google. Likely due to a failure of our own, many students still do not know how to conduct a thorough Google search and vet sources. This assignment was a great for honing these skills.

The second thing I recommended was to contact someone at an advocacy organization. Many of them did. Some did not. And it showed. The #1 thing a student learned by contacting an advocacy organization was what policies to advocate for. Without this knowledge, there is no way they can write a successful policy brief. Engaging with their community, state, and federal policy leaders and advocates was not mandatory, but was in the students’ best interests. This engagement greatly improved their briefs and, at the same time, saved them a lot of time and energy.

Adaptable. I’ve only done this once, but it’s easy to see the utility of the assignment across disciplines. Biology? Write a brief on evolution and education policy. English literature? Write a brief on the importance of funding the arts. Psychology? Write a brief on access to mental health services.

Not enough time to focus on this in your course? Well, maybe there should be. Make your content matter at the policy level…

Democratic. If the goal of higher education is to churn out more informed, dynamic, and effective citizens, as John Dewey and many other believe it is, then there is unlikely a better activity in which to engage your students as in the advocacy process.

What are the cons of policy briefs?

I’m still waiting for end of the semester teaching evaluations to learn more about this, but the big one so far is…

Lack of civics background. Not surprisingly, students did not have much of an understanding of basic civics. We dedicated two weeks worth of time to talking about the policy making process and how policies directly and indirectly impact health and physical activity.


Look into using policy briefs in your class. The benefits to your students and to YOU are many. Forcing yourself to make your course content and research relevant in the policy sphere is becoming (or already is) essential.

An outstanding resource on writing policy briefs can be found here, at the Women’s and Children’s Health Policy Center at the John’s Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

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