Saturday, December 14, 2013

Response to a Facebook post by a whiney instructor complaining about student writing.

Okay, I’m not an English prof, and especially not an adjunct trying to make a living by teaching three or four sections of beginning comp and getting paid peanuts at some institution trying to be the next MIT or Cal Tech. But if I were in that situation, and if my idealism was under serious assault by all those factors that can make college teaching such a frustrating occupation (smart phones, MOOC, the Internet in general, Google, etc.), and if I really wanted to try to produce semi-literate kids who, after all, may well get elected Attorney General, Governor or President decades hence, here is what I would do:

(1) Set a standard grade for every paper. Let’s choose 100 points.
(2) Provide a set of writing guidelines at the beginning of the semester (the contract).
(3) Budget one class day a week for in-class extemporaneous writing, a full class period on some really challenging subject with students not really knowing in advance what that subject will be (but maybe having a little bit of a hint). At least three full pages of longhand gets students the first 25 points out of the 100. I’d probably start this activity the second Monday of the semester.
(4) Depending on the size of the class, one could either take up these papers and give them up to 20 points based only on the amount of writing, or do that as students left. That same paper, the hand-written version, is due the next week along with a typed, double-spaced, version. The combination is now worth the next 25 points.
(5) I’d budget about 10-15 minutes of class for self-correction: “Okay, take off 4 points for every place you’ve used ‘it’s’ when you should have used ‘its’ . . .” etc.—going through some common grammatical issues and having students deduct points from their own grade for each violation.
(6) The last 50 points is awarded when you get (a) the original hand-written version, (b) the version corrected/graded in class by students following your guidance, (c) a completely clean and corrected, typed, version, and (d) a one-page, typed, double-spaced, self assessment of this whole exercise.
(7) I would also do all this activity on a contract basis, so that grading, points, and expectations are spelled out. According to the contract, any grammatical errors in the self-assessment, or mistakes that you would have marked had you “graded” it yourself, will automatically cost the student 25 points. So if you screw up the self-assessment, the most you can get on a paper is 75.
(8) I would offer some bonus points at the end of the semester for a portfolio that includes all these writings along with a three-page self assessment of what the student believes he/she has accomplished by doing this work.
(9) If I found something truly wonderful, I’d give some bonus points on a paper. You don’t have to say anything about these bonus points; the students will talk about these points among themselves so that before the semester is over you may get a chance to deal with the finer points of writing, and thinking, that produced the extra points.

I know, this approach to writing and grading student papers seems like a complicated one, but it’s not, really. You’re using class time instead of your own time, which on an adjunct’s salary is a legitimate approach. This approach also puts students into the role of instructor, although they are teaching themselves. Instructor “grading” actually consists of determining whether the students did what they were supposed to do, to the extent expected, according to the contract. What are you accomplishing through the use of such an approach? I predict that by the end of the semester, at least a certain (hopefully satisfying!) fraction of your class will be looking at their own work in a far more critical way than when they started trying to fulfill the contract.

I used the contract plus done/do over approach in large general biology classes for decades until the Internet got up and functional. At that point, those papers got so boring that I stopped the practice for a couple of years. After that, I went to a Friday extemporaneous writing (15 minutes on a prompt) plus the kind of follow-up as described above. I was very happy with the results; the handling of those papers consumed about 6 hours a week (~250 students) although I had an assistant who handled the hand-written versions and gave that preliminary grade based only on the amount of writing.

If anyone wants a copy of a portfolio from one of these classes, send an e-mail to If you go to and click on the educational resources link, you’ll find quite a bit of information about field-tested assignments intended to fulfill the intent of our general liberal education requirements.

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