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The problem with short essays

At the moment I am around half way through reading about ninety exam papers. As usual, students have to write an essay based on some texts they were given earlier, and as usual, assigning grades to these essays is a headache for all concerned. In particular, I find it hard to give grades for organisation, which is a problem given how teachers of academic writing obsess about essay organisation.

You would think that compared with the nebulosity of argument and the nit-picking of language, grading organisation would be a doddle, and when grading something like a term paper, it often is just a matter of skimming through and checking off points: “Has it got a thesis statement? Are there discernible sections in the body? Do paragraphs have one clear idea? Are sentences and paragraphs linked appropriately?” The problems come with the kind of micro essays students produce in exams. You can’t expect students to write more than a thousand words in two hours, and you would be unwise to look for more than about 800 words, especially when they are not native speakers and probably aren’t used to writing with pen and paper. (When I made students write an essay draft in class a few weeks ago, and told them they had to do it on paper, they looked at me in shock and disbelief.) This means that when it comes to paragraphing, students are in a double-bind. Paragraphs in academic papers can vary widely in length, but on the whole they tend to be around 300 words long. (One of these days I’ll do some serious word-crunching and come up with figures for different disciplines.) This means that in an 800-word essay, if you allow, say, 150 words each for a very short introduction and conclusion, all of your body could be contained in two paragraphs, or one at a pinch. This is the kind of thing that causes wailing and gnashing of teeth on the part of writing teachers. On the other hand, if you stick to the laudable principle that one paragraph equals one idea, and you have enough ideas in there to develop your argument adequately, your paragraphs will be too short. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

Incidentally, a similar problem applies to citation. We expect students to cite copiously, but how many citations can one reasonably get into an 800-word essay? A lot of teachers (I’m not sure why) tell students that they shouldn’t cite in their introduction or conclusion, so again we’re down to 500 words. If you have more than three or four citations in 500 words, there is a risk that your essay will be dismissed as a summary of the texts, but if you don’t do this, you may be accused of inadequate citation. (Experienced academic writers have a knack of sprinkling citations throughout their text like fairy dust, but first-year students are not up to this.)

When all of the above facts are taken into consideration (as my students love to say) it looks like we have two choices. Either we stop judging short exam essays by the rhetorical standards of proper academic papers, or we stop trying to assess academic writing by using short exam essays.

Categories: Writing
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