Warning: Grading Essays May Cause Concussion
I have a dent in my forehead. It keeps getting deeper every time I assign a paper to write. This semester the dent has a bruise and my desk almost has a hole through it. Okay, I jest a little bit but there was definitely some forehead to desk moments this past weekend while grading research papers.
Surprisingly, I like to make my students write. I think it is very important for them to be able to communicate their thoughts through the medium of writing. I figure if they cannot organize their thoughts to be able to explain a process or a concept then they do not fully understand it. Plus, at some point in their professional lives they are going to have to write down information in some coherent structure. I want them to practice these skills while it does not mean it may affect their livelihood. So, I assign papers from time to time.
This semester I assigned a research paper for one of my astronomy classes. The requirements were not harsh just five pages on a topic in astronomy of their choice (a list of topics was given), make sure to use three reputable (not wikipedia or woo woo) sources, and always cite text lifted from others (plagarism is bad m’kay). A rubric was given to them so they understood how the papers would be graded and they had about eight weeks to finish the paper. In addition to this they were told that I would be more than happy to read rough drafts or even help with outlines. I even reminded them of the help they could receive in the academic skills center where they have tutors for just this purpose.
Fast forward eight weeks. The papers are turned in and are ready for my purple pen of doom. After class I stroll over to the science department prep room and I sit down to begin grading the papers. It takes just one paper and about twenty seconds for my head to be planted firmly into the desk. The papers are awful. Let me describe how awful. There is one paper that is just one run on paragraph for five pages, another paper that copied and pasted directly from wikipedia without bothering one citation, one that misspelled every other word including the whole title, and I cannot tell you how many papers sounded like a text I might receive from a teen talking to her BFF.
The list of grammatical errors was vast but the plagiarism was even more shocking. There were plenty of places where it was obvious that many students do not understand when or how to cite a paper. I had students try their best to figure out how to cite and I got streams of url addresses in quotes or parenthesis after sentences. However, the number of papers that did not even try to cite anything was alarming. I would say that over half of the papers I received had some plagiarism somewhere in the paper. Shameful.
My first reaction was to dump them all in the shredder and spend precious class time discussing the finer points of how not to plagiarize, how to cite, and how to re-read the paper you write before you turn it in. I thought maybe I should make them re-write the papers. However, there is no more time left the last class meets this week. So, I graded them and there were a lot of unhappy students when they got them back.
Maybe this was a bad idea?
I have in the past talked to a few co-workers about how they handle giving students papers to write. The answer was a unanimous “DON’T DO IT!!!!” Everyone I talked to said that they learned a long time ago that giving papers as an assignment was deadly and that the crap they got back was not worth their time so they stopped doing it.
Hold on! Wait a minute!
These are college students. Students who should have gone through years of English education in high school at a minimum. I am not expecting Shakespeare out of these students but I am expecting coherent sentences and proper writing practices. I would say the level of writing that I receive is probably on the order of 5th grade at best! How are these kids graduating from high school without the ability to put together sentences into organized paragraphs.
Meanwhile, it seems that the colleges that I teach at do not place an emphasis on writing skills at all. A number of my colleagues would rather just ignore the problem for ease of their own job instead of trying to figure out ways to help alleviate the problem. There is even whispers of instructors being told that student writing skills do not matter and we need to relax our standards in this area. I mean they have spell check right and isn’t that all that matters.
I know that I am not the only instructor of higher education that has run into this problem. I have read a number of other education blog posts that are full of the same comments that I have. Below are a collection from the last few years that you may find interesting:
What is the solution?
I really do not know. The only thing I can think of is that education is focusing its attention in the wrong direction. I know STEM is very important right now and as a college science instructor that makes me happy but maybe education is focusing on the wrong acronym. Maybe the focus should not be in the form of distinct subjects but perhaps a set of skills used in all subjects. Maybe this should be the focus:
1. Critical Thinking Skills
2. Problem Solving Skills
3. Communication Skills
It does not make a really snappy acronym but what it does do is address what the finer points for every subject should be. All of STEM is important but without the ability to communicate efficiently then what good is anything that is taught to the student. Sure they can figure out how to calculate the velocity of a ball rolling down a hill, but can they explain this process in a coherent organized manner. If they cannot then what is the point?
Something has gotta change. Maybe it will start with just one lonely astronomy instructor not lowering her standards for her students. Maybe if the expectations are high and the assignment is restructured to help guide the students toward that expectation then maybe at least 120 students a semester will progress to become better writers and communicators. Maybe it is all a pipe dream.