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:

Students are ill-prepared for college-level writing

12 Data Points Detailing The Crisis Of Poor Writing In America

Report: U.S. students lack writing skills

High Schools Set Up Community-College Students to Fail, Report Says

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.

Featured Image Concussion Mechanics, by Patrick J. Lynch, medical illustrator.

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JoDee is an adjunct faculty instructor of astronomy and physics at various colleges around her hometown in the midwest. When she is not trying to get her cat, Pixel, off of her laptop she is observing variable stars and researching black holes.


  1. May 14, 2014 at 2:45 pm —

    There’s huge variation in the level of education students get between and even within schools. Student’s cheat, some only getting a passing grade because the teacher doesn’t want to deal with them for another year. STEM isn’t immune. As a calculus TA, I saw students who could barely do basic algebra, or in one case, couldn’t even plot points on a coordinate plane.

    There’s no way you could teach your students to write a good paper while still covering all the science you need to cover in your courses. Perhaps you could give them a little more supervision without too much increase to your work load. I would suggest making them turn in outlines to be graded maybe 4 weeks before the paper is due. Then make them get their rough drafts signed off from the tutoring center 1-2 weeks before the final papers are due. (In my experience, peer review isn’t sufficient.)

    • May 14, 2014 at 2:57 pm —

      Thanks for the comment. I have a friend who teaches math and he has said those same things you stated in your comment. It is scary isn’t it? Also,I have thought about doing outlines and rough drafts. I have not implemented the idea because I figured this is stuff they should know but I think I probably will in the future.

  2. May 14, 2014 at 7:41 pm —

    I feel that I really learned how to write scientifically from writing introductions to my zoology lab reports in my freshman year of college. There was one every week and the introduction was a page of background on the topic of the lab not including citations. They had to be grammatically correct, cited correctly, academically honest and written as an academic paper and not in a chatty voice. The professor made sure that there was a science literate person in the writing lab every week, and made sure we knew when that person worked. Once when a student complained about a grade, the professor just stared at him and said I didn’t see your name on the writing lab sign in sheet and walked away. I am very grateful to that professor who gave me that opportunity. So maybe, especially in freshman level classes, a series of short one page papers at the beginning will give you students the time to learn the expectations. Then when they have had time to fail and learn from a small assignment hit them with a bigger one. You could do this in the same time frame. First 3 weeks of class they have to write a 1 page paper each week in addition to their regular work. Once they are in the rhythm a 5 page paper can be easily done in 5 weeks.

    • May 14, 2014 at 7:51 pm —

      I learned how to properly write scientific papers from my modern physics lab in my sophomore year. I think my prof. had stock in a red pen company. However, I learned how to write research papers in all their MLA glory in high school. That is why I am surprised at what I am seeing. Also, your idea about doing short papers to learn expectations is a very good idea.

  3. May 14, 2014 at 8:42 pm —

    The skills your describing closely resemble the common core state standards. I think you would enjoy reading through the scientific literacy standards, at least. As a high school science teacher who has worked closely with college chemistry freshmen cohorts, I am always looking for ways to incorporate reading and writing in my chem classes. I ask them to justify an observation or prediction almost daily. Rarely do I assign an entire research paper, but I often fold into assignments writing portions that help them develop the fundamental skills you describe.

  4. May 16, 2014 at 9:41 am —

    Situations like this are one of the reasons I’m very concerned about the current educational trends pushing STEM at the expense of the liberal arts. After all, scientists use language too!

    I’m actually starting to think what we actually need are philosophy requirements–and not just for undergraduates, but in high school too. Students shouldn’t have to rely on their English teachers (and the horrid five-paragraph essay) in order to learn how to build and analyse arguments.

  5. May 20, 2014 at 12:53 pm —

    The issue of science communication is one close to my heart and paycheck (my duties include teaching science writing skills to students and faculty). This spring marked my first time teaching a semester-long class, to students in an associate’s degree program who had to take a college composition course before being admitted. I’m probably going to write a whole post on the experience, but suffice it to say that I was rather surprised at what they did not know going in to the semester and really curious to wonder what those earlier composition classes involved. I decided to mark up the papers as if I were editing them for a journal so they’d know what was wrong but focusing the grade more on whether they demonstrated the relevant information skills (citing references, using different types of information appropriately, and so on).

  6. May 21, 2014 at 1:10 pm —

    Please don’t lower your expectations!! Students can rise to high expectations, and I suspect your students just need more guidance than you’re giving them. I’ve had some success with getting students to write in calculus classes at the community college level. I think it helps to remember that while this stuff is in Common Core, most of these students are not products of Common Core and won’t be for a while yet. Most of them have likely just answered problems from the text books. If you’re lucky, some of them will have done science projects involving significant writing, but that’s not a given. Where I am, I know many parents who have said their kids didn’t do any research papers during high school. My middle school child has done some, but the requirements have varied quite drastically from teacher to teacher. He has not had to do one this year, when he was supposedly taking high school level courses.

    What I’ve done is give the students an open-ended problem with some very specific requirements attached as to format. Usually these requirements include creating a document for some sort of layman, a technical document, and a requirement for visual representation of some sort. Students often have to do some sort of research in determining their solution to the open-ended problem. So…it’s not a straight-up research paper, but it covers some good skills. The different parts of the project each have a specific audience the students have to consider when they’re writing, which I find helps them immensely.

    I would like to suggest the following in addition to the other wonderful suggestions given by others. First, your description of the assignment is quite broad. I’ve found students often have difficulty understanding what sort of topic is appropriate for the scope of a paper. Personally, I would either let them choose from a specified range of topics or make them go through some sort of topic approval process early in the timeline. Doing this before the outline and other responsibilities would help you understand where their thought process lies. It may require actually meeting with you. In addition, your students may be unfamiliar with using an academic library or doing more academic research, which may work a bit differently than what they’re used to. You might want to instill some sort of check-in with your campus librarians — talk to them about what resources they can and will provide, etc. They might even be able to provide some sort of check-in process where they okay resources for appropriateness and the like, providing assistance for those students who might need it. If you’re grading grammar and the like, make sure it is clearly marked on the rubric as a certain percentage of the grade. Similarly, proper citations in the desired format (give examples!) should be worth a specific percentage of the grade. In my experience, if you don’t give a rubric telling what is desired, students tend not to think that spelling, grammar, proper citation, and the like are important because it’s not an English or humanities class.

    I wish you better luck in the future in getting good results from this sort of assignment. Just remember — luck favors the prepared. 🙂

    • May 22, 2014 at 8:24 am —

      Thanks for the comment. I actually did give them a rubric with everything I expected on it and I did give them a specific range of topics (I might not have wrote that in the post.) They did not go into the assignment cold they new what was expected of them and they still did appalling. I think a lot of them are lazy and they need to get a fire lit under them. Ah well the semester is over now I can decide whether I want to do this in the fall.

  7. May 21, 2014 at 2:44 pm —

    Science writing is definitely a learned skill, but I can’t say that it is always a good one to have. To publish a paper in a peer-reviewed science journal, you have to suppress every desire to actually produce a product that makes for enjoyable reading. After a career in my field of research, I must reach the tentative conclusion that I am a significantly less interesting and readable writer than when I was in my 20’s. Don’t believe me – reread the last sentence, please! So when I grade essays by my students, I forgive them their chattiness and BFF stylings. Let them be interesting for heavens sake. Being that I am dealing with UCLA students there are some issues that may crop up for you, but that I don’t have to deal with much. They know how to use spell check. They know how to change a cut-and-paste job enough that plagiarism detectors will give them a pass. Where I still give a double palm slap to the forehead is that many of my supposedly very accomplished students don’t know how to construct a persuasive argument or how to deconstruct someone else’s, no matter the style of their writing. They have difficulty in every aspect of the scientific method; from what is a scientific hypothesis to how controlled experiments differ from anecdotal observations. The fault is not in the students intellectual abilities. Instead, it lies in years of education that focuses far more on knowing facts than on the process of how we got to ‘know’ in the first place. The optimist in me says its never to late. Your efforts to salvage minds does pay off. I can’t tell you how often that students after going through a quarter with me, will tell me how much they have improved in THINKING about science. And how happy that makes me! Keep fighting the good fight!

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