A for Content . . . F for Form

It’s term paper time. Actually, it was time last week for term paper drafts in two of my classes. Unfortunately, six students had draft grades below 50 (three below 40). The thing is: Their papers were actually quite good with respect to content. The students had clearly conducted their research and presented interesting information and analyses. But the papers had 50 or more errors in spelling, grammar, punctuation, citations, and reference formatting.

The drafts were supposed to be proofread and in decent shape. The students knew that they can gain back only half the subtracted points through revisions. I also encouraged students to show me their drafts before submitting them to catch problems early on. None of the six students did. They also didn’t go to the Writing Center, although I reminded them several times of its existence.

The classes are capstone courses in communication studies, where the focus usually is on oral communication. The six students’ presentations were quite good, and their course grade, as a result, may be in the C or even B range (despite the paper).

With the courses being capstone courses, most students are seniors; for some, this is their last semester. I am trying to determine how students have been able to get to the end of their college careers, without being able to write adequately.

There is a model of writing learning goals that requires specific evaluation standards (e.g., “students will be able to . . . with 80% accuracy”). If not all students can reach this goal, then the instructor failed (due to inadequate teaching skills or standards that were too high).

My questions:

Do students get to their senior year without adequate writing skills because instructors tend to focus on content, not form?

Should we simply disregard the few students who perform very poorly?

Should we perhaps make it a prerequisite that inadequate writers visit the Writing Center once per week (i.e., without a record of WC attendance, the students won’t pass the course)?

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3 Responses to A for Content . . . F for Form

  1. Tomasello says:

    The term paper: the Sisyphean task.

    I get the idea that our students think of each field of study as a separate track, and see each paper as a discrete task, an obstacle that exists for a finite period of time, a road-block on the way to Xmas and summer vacation. I’ve sometimes forced myself to take time from my capstone lesson to actually teach them something practical, for example, to give the “The True Meaning of the Apostrophe” mini-lecture, in hopes they’ll finally understand that it’s all about missing letters and not an arbitrary sign often followed by the letter “s.”

    I fear, however, that each writing assignment, each paper, is ultimately seen by most students as a new labor, unconnected to the last, free-floating in this academic space, intellectually isolated from any other experience.

    Maybe teachers in all disciplines should engage in more meta-teaching, telling students what it is they’re learning and why, giving that little lecture about grammar, imparting simple tricks of the trade (either/or, both/and, not only/but also, etc.)

    I hate sending kids off to the Writing Center like it’s a methadone clinic.

  2. Sarah says:

    I’ve had the same experience with my grad students who are working professionals with solid college backgrounds (e.g., a B.A. w/ a 3.5 GPA)… Much of it comes down to time (e.g., some of them work 50 hours per week and have kids – they allocate a few hours per week for several grad classes!) Now my big dilemma is whether to devote class time to proof-reading, peer-editing, and other things they “should” be doing outside of class. Last week I had 27 grad students checking each other’s papers and references… Is that the “right” way to spend class time? What about the type-A students? They end up spending tuition money to teach/police other students… hmmm…

  3. susan chambre says:

    I also like to have students hand in drafts but tell them what the grade would be, rather than grading them.

    It must be very time consuming and frustrating to correct grammatical errors. I sometimes correct just the first paragraph or first page. I also go to websites explaining common grammatical errors (like number and amount). I agree with Sarah that time is a major issue and with Tomasello that students don’t transfer their learning.

    But, I applaud you Elizabeth on taking the time to read drafts. This gets students into the habit of thinking of paper writing as a process that shouldn’t include last minute research and writing.

    Perhaps your students are freshman. I find the writing quite good in my capstone Sociology course but also must admit that issues of form and format (e.g. citations) still need work.


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