Why do we make our students write essays?

September 13, 2012

Recently a friend sent me a link to a website called UnemployedProfessors.com. I have written about services like this in an earlier blog post. This site is a regular paper mill, with a twist.

They mock the entire educational system. Here’s a screen shot from their “About Us” page:

In case you can’t read that, the juicy bits say that education is…

“a scam, a charade. Professors can only stay in business if they force students to write essays, within their disciplines, that will do nothing to contribute to their own education or edification… the system spit the professor out the same way it will spit out any student who cannot write his or her own paper on the symbolic significance of baboon mating within the confines of Gramsci’s theory of the sub-altern, or any other mundane matter you might be asked to write about. That’s the endgame – that’s why we’re here.”

That got me thinking, why do we have students write essays? Is it really because that’s how the system “spit us out” and now we are doing the same to our students? Well, for some instructors, there may be an element of truth there. Some academics and teachers think that things should be done the way they have always been done because that it the tradition.

But really, that’s not good enough.

To me, we don’t ask students to write papers because that’s part of the “scam” of the system, or because our students have to go through what we went through in order to be initiated into the hallowed halls of the university.

We ask students to write papers so they can learn how to write. The topic and content areas are secondary. Knowing how to write cogently and construct a written report that has elements like an introduction, a body and a conclusion is a useful skill to know. It is also useful to know how to construct sentences, form an argument and persuade a reader.

Why? Because when you leave school and get a real job, you may have to write something. A report. A letter. A policy. Whatever. You may need to convince someone that you actually know what you are talking about. You may need to show someone (your boss, for example?) you can string together ideas with some semblance of logic and coherency.

I did a post a while back on the International Adult Literacy Skills Survey that showed that 2% of Canadian-born university graduates scored at the lowest levels of prose literacy. In other words, 2% of folks who are born in this country and who make it through University can barely identify or decode words and numbers. Most seven-year olds can do that. (Check out this post on what the literacy levels of IALSS are.)

If we are focussing on having students write on a particular subject, we are missing the mark. (Pardon the pun). Not only is it more about learning to write well than it is about expounding on any given subject, it is also about learning to take pride in your own work and creation. It is about going through the entire process of creating a piece of research writing from beginning to end.

It’s also not about a grade. If the focus is just on getting a good grade and not on learning, heck, why wouldn’t students use these services?

What would happen if we said to our students, “OK, folks, your grade is based on learning, not just on production, or on completing an inane assignment. Show me what you’ve learned, how you’ve learned and it and why you think it has any relevance at all to the real world.”

How would that change what we do as teachers?

How would it change our students’ view of their assignments?

We don’t make our students write papers so they can learn about “the symbolic significance of baboon mating within the confines of Gramsci’s theory of the sub-altern”. We have students write papers so they can learn the art and craft of writing and more importantly, to “learn about learning” and to learn about themselves as students and human beings. Hopefully they grow and expand their own minds in the process.

If students’ minds aren’t expanding, we are not doing our job.

Related posts:

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5 clues your students are plagiarizing

June 25, 2012

As a teacher, it breaks your heart to discover that a student has copied another’s original work word for word. But as educators, we need to know how to tell if students are plagiarizing. Here are some telltale signs that maybe your student’s work isn’t their own:

1. Writing varys dramatically in tone and style

If one paragraph contains short, choppy sentences with simple words and the next contains long, complex sentences with multiple subordinate clauses, this may indicate that your student has cut and pasted someone else’s work.

2. Highly unusual vocabulary

If your student talks like Beavis in class, but hands in a paper that woud put the British Prime Minister’s vocabulary to shame, you may want to ask yourself why. A word or phrase seems to pop up out of nowhere that is highly theoretical, sounds like jargon or is very obscure, this could be a red flag that it is not your student’s original work.

3. No clear topic, research question or argument

A paper starts with a clearly articulated topic. If you receive a paper that seems like a bunch of paragraphs loosely linked together under a vague theme such as “world peace”, this could indicate that your student has copied others work without clearly developing his or her own clear topic or research question.

4. Missing references

If a student has cited previous studies in the body of his or her paper, but has not put them in the list of references at the end, it could be a simple oversight. It could also mean that they have cut and pasted someone else’s research work right into their own paper and have failed to cite the original research themselves.

One trick I use is to cross-reference all citations the student has noted in the body of their paper with their bibliography or list of references at the end of their paper. I make a list of any in-text citations that are missing from the bibliography. The more missing references there are, the more cause for concern there may be.

5. Data or statistics that seem out of place

If you are reading along and suddenly find yourself confronted by an entire paragraph of data or statistics that seem to have popped up out of nowhere, there is a chance that your student may have “parachuted” in a paragraph or two of someone else’s work in order to make their own paper appear more scholarly than it really is.

It is important for us to teach students how to reference and cite others’ work propertly. Even if the student attempts to cite others’ work properly, but makes some mistakes in referencing, this is still better than cutting and pasting without acknowledging that the work was originally done by someone else.

There is no single way to tell if a student has plagiarized or not. These are simply a few “symptoms” that may lead you to dig deeper. Before accusing a student of plagiarism, it is important to find the original source of the information and document it.

Related posts:

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