A great technique to focus students is to give the final assignment well in advance of the deadline, and even before the teaching for it has occurred.
By asking students to consider the question without prior knowledge, we encourage creative responses – precisely the sort of original thinking loved by examiners. The main pitfall of such creativity is an irrelevant response, or even ideas that are just plain wrong. However, because the student goes on to study the issue before writing their response, they are encouraged to remain flexible and reconsider their original response frequently. Ultimately this contributes to the development of what our parents often claim we lacked as teenagers – common sense.
Common sense is simply the application of prior understandings into a new context. Young people are still establishing these understandings and so they sometimes land on a misconception through no fault of their own. When this happens after a round of instruction it can make students feel stupid and a failure. It’s precisely the lack of any prior learning that allows them to be flexible and confidently let misconceptions go.
A good example is an in-class essay. The essay title can be shared, and students create possible responses. The teaching then frames the essay, resulting in a clearer essay plan that will incorporate the clearly important ideas (they were taught in class so they must be important, right?). Meanwhile, as ideas are taught in class, students will be checking against their own ideas to develop more complex responses.