This Year I'm Having My Freshmen Do POT

Four reasons to have students rolling in papers.

Posted Aug 19, 2014

Did you really think I meant …. that?  Nope. I’m referring to paper assignments for my seminar for first-year college students, “How to Think Like a Psychologist.”  POT refers to “Proof of Thinking.”  

I want my students to learn how to think—critically, empirically, and ethically.  To help students accomplish this goal, I assign POT papers rather than giving tests (except for the open-book final).  POTs are 1-page papers that students write about each reading assignment they do. Here are my reasons for having students write POTS instead of taking tests:

First, one of my principles is that the best way to learn a skill is to practice it. Having students write on a regular basis gives them more practice than occasional tests.  Second, writing is a good way to “learn by assessment”:  Students get more immediate feedback about how they’re progressing in the course. They turn them in that day the readings are due.  Then we have lots of options about how to use the papers.  For example, students who wrote great papers can teach their colleagues.

The third reason for POT papers may be the most important:  POTs change the way students read.  It’s a much different experience to read while thinking, “How am I going to use these skills—what might a write about?” than to read while thinking, “How many pages left?”  Or, “I’ll read this now, but I don’t really have to learn it for three weeks when the test comes.”

Here some of the major points on the assignment sheet I give to my students:  

  • POT papers are short (1 page max) papers that demonstrate that you are practicing critical, empirical, and/or ethical thinking based on your assigned readings. You will demonstrate that you have tried to use the skills you read about (or viewed) for that day
  • You will write 18 POT papers, one for just about every class period for which you will do assigned reading or viewing.  
  • “Demonstrate” means that you need to use the skills assigned for that day, not just summarize, react, or question.   
  • You can use your new skills in relation to (a) other readings from the course, (b) something you’ve read for another course, (c) something you’ve read in the popular press or the internet, (d) issues you are facing as a student, or (e) something else. 
  • These papers are short, but they are NOT informal.  You need to write clearly and precisely.  (If you cannot convey your ideas, why bother having them?)
  • Think of it this way:  Let’s say you read an instruction manual that teaches you how to put together a scale model of an airplane.  You could do any or all of the following: (a) You could tell me that you’ve read instructions about how to build a model airplane. (b) You could summarize the instructions. (c) You could tell me that you now know how to construct an airplane. (d) You could tell me that you found the instruction manual very interesting.  NONE of these show that you can use the skills of building a model airplane.  What you need to do is turn in a model airplane!
  • POT papers are academic papers, not opinion pieces.   
  • The best POT papers go beyond simple, sweeping statements or stories about your life.  Take risks to see if you actually understand what you’ve read and can apply it.
  • Rough drafts of each POT paper may be more than one page.  Then you can edit your drafts down to get the best of what you're thinking into the final paper.

I recommend that students write POTS while not under the influence of POT. Even here in Colorado.


Mitch Handelsman is a professor of psychology at the University of Colorado Denver and the co-author (with Sharon Anderson) of Ethics for Psychotherapists and Counselors: A Proactive Approach  (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010). He is also an associate editor of the two-volume APA Handbook of Ethics in Psychology  (American Psychological Association, 2012).

© 2014 Mitchell M. Handelsman. All Rights Reserved