Check It Out by Checking It Off

April 3, 2009

Ah the essay exam! Few things strike more fear into student hearts than being charged with the task of demonstrating that they can assemble concepts, facts, and analysis into a coherent narrative. In future columns I’ll explore ways to reduce student anxiety over writing, but first things first — let’s address professor dread. After all, once the essay is done the student hand-wringing ends and yours begins.

Let’s put aside romantic notions that each of us is Mr. Chips, that every essay is a joy to read, and that our only life goal is to toil selflessly so that all students maximize their potential. You could do take that approach — for the year or two before you broke down like a knock-off Rolex. It would be better for both you and your students to develop a system to grade essays quickly, efficiently, and effectively.

Assuming you know how to design good essay questions, give serious consideration to assigning shorter ones for all your classes that are general education requirements, most of those that are introductory-level, and even electives open to students who have not taken the writing seminar specific to the major (generally the junior year in most schools). The reason for this is obvious: You cannot assume that all students have the skills to write a decent essay. Keep the essays short — four to six pages is plenty — to preserve your sanity. A few essays really will send you into paroxysms of Mr. Chips-like joy, but the vast majority will fall into the falling categories: competent, pedestrian, minimally proficient, and “Linear-A hasn’t yet been translated.” I’ve taught at colleges whose test scores would be the envy of most, and a few in which students would struggle to spell “S.A.T.” The one thing all have in common is that their faculties complain about poor student writing skills. If students struggle to produce four pages of readable prose, why on earth would you want to read 20 pages?

It is your responsibility to help students develop writing skills, though the key word in this sentence is “help.” One of the things Mr. Chips got woefully wrong was thinking that everything was his responsibility. Professors can unwittingly do too much for students; we are analogous to the enabler to the alcoholic.

More often, though, we’re worse — we take so long to return essays that we’re just the lousy SOB who sat on the papers all semester and handed them back when it was too late to do anything about the low grade slapped on the top. Before you assign an essay three things need to be in place:

1. Your expectations need to be spelled out in detail.

2. Students need to know your grading criteria.

3. You need a plan to return the papers promptly.

My advice on expectations is akin to that of writing a syllabus: Spell out what you want. If students can only use a particular style sheet, tell them which one. If you require them to use primary sources, say how many. Don’t assume that they’ll know that a title page, bibliography, and endnotes don’t count towards the four page minimum, that they’ll stop at the end of six, that they’ll double-space, or that they’ll use a 12-point font. If you want them to use examples, say so. If a thesis statement is required, tell them. [See appendix for example.]

After you’ve done that, become a minimalist. Develop a grading checklist and either post it to your course Web site or physically hand a copy to each student. Tell them that it is their responsibility to read it and to raise any questions they have regarding it. If you hand hold like Mr. Chips you actually do students a disservice. Maybe a few students don’t know what the word “syntax” means or can’t tell MLA from APA; it’s time they learn.

The checklist is your ticket to efficiency and speed. I used to be one of those profs who wrote reams on student papers. They’d give me the equivalent of a grocery list and I’d return it with War and Peace written in the margins. There are several things wrong with this approach. First, it just takes too long. So too does writing the same thing on each student paper. The key to a good checklist [see appendix] is to list things germane to most essays and tick the ones that apply to individual papers. I don’t correct spelling, grammar, typos, fragments, or syntax errors for students; I merely circle and/or note them and it’s their job to figure out what was wrong. For many students this inspires them to master writing rules they’ve long ignored.

Second, writing too much disheartens most students. Maybe you wanted to know about every nuance of a debate, desired ways to rethink a point, and longed for a suggested reading list. You weren’t typical; most students just want the grade and a reason for it. I still write marginalia, but my final comments seldom run more than a few sentences that strike to the heart of what was good and what was lacking.

Third, if you’re not Mr. Chips you’re not The Miracle Worker either. Assume for a moment you’re one of the weak students who can’t write well. You hand in your best effort and it comes back with comments lengthier than your submission. It documents dozens of things you’ve done wrong. What would you do with this information? Where would you start? Why not just give up? When you encounter a hopeless essay the most merciful thing you can do is give it the grade it deserves, but the nicest thing is to go sparingly on critique. List just two or three things the student needs to work on immediately. Let’s be blunt: If the student doesn’t correct the basics first, the rest is moot.

Finally, immediate feedback is better than extensive feedback. You’ll hate me for this, but with the exception of long research papers there’s little excuse for not getting essays graded and returned within a week. (If you have teaching assistants, impress this upon them as well.) The checklist and limiting comment allows me routinely to turn around 60 papers in a week. You can too. Best of all — they’re done and you can get on to the important task of helping students who want your assistance and will take the self-empowering responsibility of seeking it.

Two final notes: The essay instructions and check list I’ve attached are appropriate for the humanities; you should adapt these in ways that make sense for your discipline. In the “Additional Comments” section, force yourself to lead with a positive comment even if you have to invent one. Students are more amenable to working on problems if they feel they’re doing something right.

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