Student Peer Review Process? Here’s My Version

When I tweeted yesterday that I was creating a peer review process for my students to assess each other’s writing and provided a sample of what I was up to, I had many requests to share the whole process.

I am happy to do that and will do so here in this post with two caveats:

  1. This process is untested. This means, I can’t even give you anecdotal feedback as to if it works. So for now I will share the materials but it is probably wise to warn you it may backfire. Conversely, it may also be brilliant. I have never tried peer review before but I’ve spent about a year dreaming up this process. I really wanted to do double peer review, meaning I really wanted students to peer review two of their classmate’s papers but as I tried to schedule it, I recognized in our compressed term, there just isn’t enough time to do that and still allow for the time to do research, the synthesis exercise, and the peer review process. I’ll write a follow up blog after I have trialed the process.
  2. Remember that all writing is contextual. I’ve created this process specific to the needs of my assignment, my course content, and my teaching style. If you want to model what you do after my process, you won’t be able to simply lift my points and my language choices and have a neat fit. Make it your own.

Here is the document describing the process:

Qualitative Paper Assignment

In the document you will find:

  1. My detailed assignment guidelines for the qualitative synthesis paper.
  2. A description of the peer review process.
  3. My content rubric for the paper (out of 33)
  4. The peer reviewed checklist for the students to help them assess their classmate’s work.

As this is an assignment structured using scaffolding theory, these are the basic activities to scaffold the process:

  1. As the course I teach is a research course, I start the term introducing them to the principles of qualitative research. As I teach them about qualitative methods, I am simultaneously connecting the theory content to what they need to write about. They also get a class on searching the literature and what needs to be included in the background to a research study.
  2. I have the students find 5 primary qualitative studies on a topic of their choice. They have to show me these 5 primary studies. There are numerous benefits to this requirement, most of them, selfishly benefit me: a) I ensure that they write this paper using the literature I asked for and not just any old literature. It saves me so much grading time to check this in advance; b) I get to look each one of them in the eyes at least once during this process. For some students, the article checks are the only conversation I’ll have with them all term; c) the students can write their paper knowing they won’t lose marks for incorrectly identifying qualitative studies.
  3. I provide them with an article identification guide to help them distinguish qualitative, quantitative, and discussion papers. Article Type Identification Guide
  4. I have them read their articles next and then we come together and do a synthesis exercise over one class.  I wrote a tweet thread about that exercise a while back (see below).
  5. The students will go off and write and before the planned peer reviewed process they would hand it in to me and I would grade it. The next steps are steps that are untrialed.
  6. Now students will hand in a preliminary paper and share that preliminary paper with a pre-selected classmate.
  7. Each will use the peer review checklist to independently comment on the other’s paper. They will also be welcome to correct grammar and APA.
  8. I will hold a peer review class where they can ask me questions but the goal is also for them to sit down with the rubric for the paper and jointly come up with a score for the content portion of each of their papers. Two chances to practice with the rubric.
  9. Notice that the rubric and the peer review checklist are colour coded. That’s because the colours that match on both documents are the items on the peer review checklist that they will be considering when scoring that section on the rubric. The rubric is broad areas of writing (content, synthesis, research, mechanics) the checklist is ordered by the required heading sections of the paper. Hopefully this will help them realize what expectations affect what sections of the rubric.
  10. After the peer review process, the students will go off and revise their papers based on their discussions. They will hand in a final draft of their paper to me along with a self-scored rubric for their own content.  Their grade will be the score they give themselves — unless they score themselves too low then they will get my score. If they score themselves too high? Well that’s a bridge I’ll cross when and if it happens.
  11. I am not having the students grade each other or assess themselves on APA. They’ll obsess over it and it will take away from what I want them to focus on, which is their content. I’m going to grade their APA.
  12. 50% of their entire course grade goes to the little pieces that make up this assignment. The breakdown of the assignment in terms of value is:
    1. Content of paper 33/
    2. APA 3/
    3. Participating in synthesis class and making progress 3/
    4. Article checks 1/
    5. Peer review 10/

 

How I will score their peer review exactly is still a work in progress and I’m still reflecting on it as I don’t have to “grade it” for a couple months yet. It will be a combination of participating in the peer review, collegiality with peer and being a good citizen and getting documents in on time, a thorough effort at feedback to their peer, the degree to which they pay attention to the feedback they were given in their next draft, a one paragraph response to that feedback, and realistic self-assessments on the rubric.

I’m blessed this term with an abnormally small class which will be extremely useful for me to trial this process and discover the weak spots in my pedagogy.  I hope, those of you who were interested also find this useful. Please feel free to comment below with questions or tweet at me to discuss, or share your own peer review processes.

Can I Have an Extension, Please?

Where is the line in the sand when it comes to granting or refusing extensions on writing assignments? The image is a bike tire track on sand but it was the closest I had to a personal image representing that metaphor.

I asked for my first extension as a PhD student a couple of weeks ago. In fairness, my entire class also asked for an extension. It had been strongly suggested to us that we participate as much as possible in the Research Symposium organized by the faculty. The symposium was wonderful so it wasn’t difficult to want to participate, but it was also two full days and two evenings of symposium activities, and one evening of being exhausted taken away from completing an intense 25-page assignment on measurement. We were lucky. (Or charming?) Our prof said yes and it was a like releasing the death grip on our sanity.

Student requests for extensions became a hot and controversial topic on Twitter earlier this week. Extensions are a writing issue that all writers encounter a need for. They are linked to my primary area of study in academic writing: Writing Self-Efficacy. They are also linked to the social inequalities present in academia among students that we may not recognize when we criticize students for their inability to get their work done on time.

The Debate

  1. All students should be given extensions on request regardless of reason.
  2. No student should be given an extension because in the real world, deadlines  are not extended.

It is obviously much more complicated than that but that is the essence of the dichotomy as it comes out of the mouths of black and white thinkers. It might be easier to talk about the shades of grey in between by telling you my process of dealing (or rather not dealing with) extensions.

A number of years ago when I was a much more junior college instructor I observed very quickly that in a class size of 70 students (or more) that it was a time consuming pain in the ass to receive 20 or more emails asking for extensions for various reasons. Not only that, but our department made them fill out a form which was then to go in their file so they could keep track of a pattern of behaviour.  For each student who requested an extension, I would have to make an independent decision to grant or not grant their request.

… but what, after all,  defines a good enough reason?

Illness? A death in the family? Hospitalization? My kid is sick? My parent is sick? I’m too busy with other assignments and clinical? All of the above? Some of the above? None of the above?

I am bound by some department policies. Extensions are allowed, to a maximum of one week, at the discretion of an instructor, and they must be requested 24-hours in advance of a due date (which, think about this, means 72 hours in advance if the due date is a Monday). Something about tracking requests for extensions and making a decision about what was a valid reason for needing an extension based on my own personal view point didn’t sit well with me.

So I began pre-announcing, in the first class of a term, a due date and an automatic extension date for the entire class. No questions asked. AND — this might be the controversial part — I give those who had in their paper “on time” 2 bonus marks.

Here is my rationale for my personal policy:

  1. The students are adults. They should be allowed some control over their life.
  2. No matter how hard we try to say we are preparing students for real life, being a student is NOT real life. Hence why I teach at the college level. It’s been my extended way of avoiding real life for a very long time now. So the argument that no extensions are granted in the real world, doesn’t wash well with me. And it’s pretty much flat out untrue more often than it is true.
  3. I believe that rewards are far more motivating than punishments.
  4. It prevents students from being put in the place of needing to lie to you, or having to accept a punishment such as grade loss.  Having restrictive extension policies such as you can only have an extension if you are sick or someone close to you dies, basically puts students who need extensions for other reasons in a place where they have to make a choice that isn’t a choice.  So they are punished, or they lie to you. Talk about stress and anxiety. I don’t see how either is a good option when you are the less powerful party just trying to survive.
  5. Lets not even go down the road of discussing those who demand doctor’s notes. What a waste of a doctor’s time (and the student’s money — they don’t hand out those notes for free) to send a sick student to sit in a waiting room and spread germs just to humour a teacher’s fear of being lied to and fear being unfair to all the others who were not as unlucky and didn’t get sick.
  6. Sometimes the shit hits the fan within that final 24-hour period.
  7. It demonstrates that I trust my students to make their own judgement call about their lives and what they can manage. It also protects their privacy. They no longer have to tell me their often very personal stories that might be embarrassing to them. And, frankly, I don’t need to know.

How has this worked out for me? I don’t always use this policy. When I am using true scaffolding writing strategies, for example, where students are completing their assignment in small stages across the term, it is often not needed. But when I use it, I find it very successful. Here are some of the discoveries I have made along the way:

  1. Students need a reminder to psychologically view the first due date as the due date because if they start thinking of the extension date as the due date, some of them will run into big troubles with procrastination. I structure the pre-assignment expectations as such that no student should be in the position of not having something started by the time the first due date rolls around.
  2. I tell them to not make a decision until the last minute so the extension is used only if they really need it. I also tell them not hand in crap just for bonus marks. They can often earn far more than the 2 marks just with taking a little time to better edit their paper. (Problem I acknowledge: it requires that they understand what kinds of editing will get them more marks. Some of them don’t.)
  3. 100% of terms over the last 5 academic years has seen more students taking the extension than not. In fact the number of students handing in the paper “on time” ranges from 0 to 15 out of an average of 60 students per class.
  4. The majority of students handing in the paper “on time” are the A-grade students anyway. So the bonus may not be necessary (but I’ve never tested that theory).
  5. Most students know that putting off their school work just makes subsequent school work harder to attend to. There is no down time in  nursing school.
  6. With the very rare and extreme exception, further extensions are not granted.

I’ve heard the arguments about being limiting with extensions. That it isn’t fair to the students who hand in their work on time. That it is laziness and procrastination that makes them request extensions. In my experience, it is rarely laziness or poor time management that leads to a student wanting an extension. It’s the very complicated lives our students lead. Arguments of fairness assume all the students are starting off on a level playing field. They aren’t. You cannot compare the responsibilities of a student who is single parenting three children to the responsibilities of a 22 year old, living at home with her parents and has no job but school work. And that 22-year old may be being abused by her boyfriend. You simply don’t know.

And here is a crazy but anecdotal observation — those with the strictest extension policies for students are also the first to demand concessions for themselves when they need more time.

There are students in our classrooms who are working just so they can feed their family and have many other disadvantages both visible and invisible. It’s family demands, especially in cultures where you cannot say no to your family if they show up at your door at 8 PM expecting to be entertained. It’s being educationally disadvantaged your whole life and being behind in understanding the lingo and behaviours that define being “a good student.” It’s low self-efficacy that can paralyze thinking and emotions. It is an exhausted brain demanding that it be shut off for the night even though the assignment is due in 6 hours. It’s anxiety, which is really a legitimate illness, except it isn’t a socially acceptable illness so how do you describe your “illness” when you aren’t barfing or feverish, so you aren’t “really” sick, but you can’t seem to get anything done anyway?

Having said that, there are limits. There are lines in the sand. Extensions cannot drag on and on or be unlimited. We have due dates to manage our own workloads and personal circumstances too.  The college has a generous 3-month post end of a course policy for outstanding assignments and exams which can be activated in exceptional circumstances. We’ve put it into effect numerous times with students in need (a student whose house burned down, another having gastrointestinal hospitalizations, another hospitalized for mental health issues, another with cancer).

So there is willingness to allow extensions on due dates, but sometimes a student needs to consider their status as a student. Students under stress often have limited insight into when they need to ask for help or need to take the load of school off their shoulders. They think they can do their school work despite the world crashing down around them. They make bad decisions. Sometimes a one week extension isn’t enough to get through. Fortunately I am in a program with diligent and excellent student advisors (who are also nurses) who can coach students through this decision making process. Sometimes an extension is not what a student needs. What they need is permission to stop, take a breath, fix their lives, and come back healthy. School will still be there.*

*mini side rant about scholarships and funders who take student’s money away for failures or time off for illness. That BS needs to stop too. Not all students live lives, or have the academic naturalness, to handle the full time course loads required by some funders.

Let’s Chill Out About Plagiarism: Yes, I Just Said That.

How do you decide what is a serious enough offence to call plagiarism? Where do you draw that line?

The day Melania Trump plagiarized Michelle Obama’s speech at the Republican National Convention was one of the best days of the summer, and I say that, as a Canadian, watching the whole American election circus from afar.  It was a good day because the world was talking about plagiarism and where you draw the line — something I have to think about nearly every day as an academic. They were talking about what defines plagiarism, in particular, but more importantly they were talking about how plagiarism is about the context in which it is committed.  I spent my time on social media that day rubbing my hands together with glee.

My title to this blog is not in any way to suggest that plagiarism is not to be taken seriously. I have seen plagiarism in action. I’ve had students hand in annotated bibliographies that are word for word from the abstracts of the published articles.  I’ve seen students submit identical or nearly identical assignments. I’ve known of a student who stole another student’s work, unbeknownst to the student victim, by copying their paper from a computer when s/he left the lab to use the bathroom. I’ve marked countless papers with vast amounts of uncited information. I had two sisters hand in a paper on the same topic with the same reference list with identical errors, identical headings with different writing under each paragraph, but the citations in basically the same order. The latter was likely a case of inappropriate collaboration — or one sister wrote both papers — I will likely never know what went down there but it wasn’t honest writing.

This recent Chronicle of Higher Education article also concerns me. While I have no doubt that there are people making big money off student cheating, I refuse to believe that every student is doing it (otherwise these businesses could never submit an assignment on time, they’d be so busy). Maybe I’m naive. But for students who are hiring others to create custom assignments for them based on a course’s assignment guidelines, it would be nearly impossible, short of a confession, to catch it. I’m not going to waste time hunting these students down.  In a practice based profession, I’m hoping they’ll manage to fail themselves out in other ways.  A now retired colleague mentor of mine used to always say: Do we want spend our time educating, or policing?

Over 10 years ago when I was a junior faculty member, a couple of more senior instructors decided to become marking zealots. They began pulling students’ sources as they graded and searching for every point the student made in citation and low and behold they found many situations where students had copied word for word from sources.  Should I be marking this way too? I wondered at the time.  I could never bring myself to do it. It felt wrong, to me, to grade papers with this kind of mindset.  It felt like viewing students as guilty until proven innocent. It felt like a witch hunt.

My preference for identifying plagiarism was, and still is, to rely on the subtle signs: poor awkward writing and grammar in this paragraph, high level language in the next always sets my alarm bells off. But there are others too: font type or font size changes, hovering a cursor over the text and seeing web links, misuse of pronouns, change in verb tense, change in person voice from third to second, and the more obvious, finding another student’s name mistakenly left unedited somewhere in the document. I frequently, when grading, pull sentences out of papers and drop them into Google just to be sure. I’ve never used Turn It In. I believe there is a fee to a program to access it and in these times of fiscal restraint, my department has just said no.

Uncited material that should have been cited is the most common type of “plagiarism” I see. About 10 years ago, we, meaning a sub committee in my department, set rules about when we would call it plagiarism — 4 or more incidences of a missing citation would be considered plagiarism.  We would make the student take their paper back and add the citations. They would get a form filled out and placed in their file.

I’ve since had instructors, who weren’t around at the time we made the decision, say to me. Students will purposely leave three uncited sections in their paper because they know they can get away with it.  What!? Wouldn’t it be easier to put the citation? It is way too much work to be that deliberate in your purposeful non-citing.  Students who haven’t cited, really, haven’t thought much about it at all.

I would sit with these students, often facing their tears and soggy Kleenexes, in my office and point out the error of their ways and they would stare at me blankly not really sure what I was asking them to do when I asked them to fix their citation. I don’t think I took that from anyone, some of them would say in many varied ways, I just wrote that because I know it.  I heard it in class. 

And my thinking started to change. Most, if not all uncited work I saw in undergraduate student papers had nothing to do with intentionally or maliciously trying to steal the work of someone else to, I dunno, try and look smart? Most of it was as a result of poor research or not understanding the value in finding a source to support their rationale or argument they were presenting. I stopped asking them to go back and fill in their missing citations because most of them didn’t have a citation to fill in.

And besides, what is an “uncited section?” A sentence? A paragraph? What if they just put the citation at the end of the paragraph? Does that mean that everything earlier in the paragraph is uncited? Or did the one citation intend to cover the whole paragraph (insufficiently)? Now I just tell them it isn’t sufficiently cited and I move on.

And I started teaching my graders in first year to notice the signs of writing that was just a student rambling off the top of their head as if they were expert enough to make the point. Often those paragraphs were full of simplistic thinking, grand sweeping claims, and non specific statements:

Alcohol is a big part of our society. For young adults alcohol can be a big struggle when it is being introduced into their lives. It is very common for people to turn to heavy drinking, also known as binge drinking when trying to destress and have fun [sic].

This paragraph was the first 3 sentences of an introductory paragraph written by a first year student. There is so much wrong with it. It’s vague — how many people in society? What people? Who says there is a connection between binge drinking and de-stressing? And where are the citations to support the accuracy of these claims? The comment in the image to this blog, is what I had typed on this student’s paper.

Is this plagiarism? No. This is a student writing what she knows about binge drinking off the top of her head, maybe as a summary of what she read or from her own personal experiences with it.  Her following paragraph(s), detailed and cited many of the points made here. So my feedback to her was to delete the whole first paragraph. It wasn’t plagiarism. It was poorly written and redundant. A waste of words in a 3-page paper.

I once dealt with a suspected case of plagiarism where the student had copied one paragraph of her paper from a website. Her paper was about urinary incontinence and the one paragraph, maybe in the 50 to 100-word range, turned out to be a paragraph from a website about fecal incontinence. She didn’t copy the paragraph word for word. She did make some inconsequential changes so there is no doubt that what she left unchanged was somewhat deliberate, or at the very least, lazy.  On top of it all, she put an incorrect citation. The citation she put was not the website she copied from. She also had a couple other spots in her paper where she had used or poorly paraphrased 5 or 6 words in a row from one of her sources. Her grader had even highlighted spots where she had used two words in a row from a source.  The vast majority of her paper, however, was paraphrased. The intent to paraphrase was clear in every spot but this one place. From reading her work, my sense was simply that she didn’t give a damn about the assignment or the quality of what she was handing in. Maybe she spent a couple hours writing the paper and submitted it as it was. Maybe she wrote it at at 4 a.m.

Not academic misconduct, I told my team leader and the instructor.  Arguments ensued.  The one paragraph, the one from the fecal incontinence website: Bad. Stupid. Dumbass even.  The student deserved to be hauled in and given a good slap on the wrist. Certainly a reduced grade was in order.  She didn’t deserve to have academic misconduct stamped for life on her transcript.

To be honest, if I hadn’t been cued to check. I doubt I would have caught that case of plagiarism to give her that slap on the wrist. I’m not sure, and I’ve wondered since, if that matters. The paper was very poorly written and not cohesive. It was a difficult read. A poor grade would have been the outcome anyway. I’m not sure that the instructors, in this case, would have found that paragraph either except that conditions made them check. The instructors had found one incidence of plagiarism in one student and decided to go back and check the entire class, as if one case meant a giant conspiracy to pull the wool over their eyes, to take them as fools, was underway.

Here is the crux: if you go looking for something. You will find it. You may even begin to redefine it, to prove yourself right. To solidify your case. In order to indict someone, no stumble, no matter how minor, can be left unmentioned. Finding one sentence that is 90% copied from a source suddenly then means that every time the student uses the same terminology as an original source, even medical terminology which shouldn’t be changed, you will mark it as plagiarism. Suddenly, one word, two words, three words in a row, can count as plagiarism — if you have declared it should be so and if it justifies your anger over that one sentence. You may even feel a little giddy while doing this because you’ve caught them. Now you can solidify your case that plagiarism is rampant among students and the student with the one sentence or the one paragraph is now a villain. Call yourself a hero now, maybe.

But I call it witch hunting. Policing. Confirmation bias.

I found this sentence in one of my student’s papers last year: how powerful losing weight can be. Six words in a row from the original. Common words, common idea. I highlighted it in the student’s paper and left it. The rest of her paragraph was well paraphrased. Put that phrase into google with quotes around it and the student’s source pops up as the first item along with 2 other media sources that picked up the article. Not plagiarism.

This scenario, which came under discussion on Twitter the other day, however, is very much plagiarism.

Melania Trump likely used less words of Michelle Obama’s 2008 speech than my fecal incontinence student used in that one paragraph. Did Melania Trump plagiarize? The bulk of her speech was “her own” or written by hired speech writers, so at the very least original in wording, if not original thinking. You bet your buckets she plagiarized.  Melania’s words were being delivered to millions with the intention of influencing them. She stole the words (and one can argue, the values) of another woman making a speech in the same context 8 years earlier and those words had helped Michelle Obama’s husband get elected as President of the United States, something Melania, perhaps, also desires for her husband.

My student wrote her paper for an audience of one in a learning environment. Her teacher. Context is everything.

There are so many reasons why a student may paraphrase poorly or not cite.  Is it really helping the student with this occasional mishap or bouts of lazy writing to crucify them with the label of academic misconduct?  Or would talking to them and understanding why it happened help you understand their writing fears and their feelings of low self-efficacy and the fact that they are just trying to survive a gruelling nursing program? Maybe what you have instead is a teachable moment? I’m a great believer that finding ways to look students in the eye while they’re in their paper preparation phase is the best plagiarism prevention of all. Some “plagiarism” is just bad writing that needs to be corrected. We need to be sure we know the difference.

 

 

 

10 Reasons Why Your Students’ Writing is Bad — Part I (1-5)

I said here that I didn’t feel my student’s writing was really all that bad at all.  OK, I’ll admit, sometimes it’s bad. Really bad. Fortunately, the truly bad ones are few and far between. As multifactorial as writing is, so many problems can contribute to the perception that a paper is “bad” and not all of them are the fault of the student. I’ve read papers with poor grammar that are well researched and cohesive. I’ve read papers that are technically well written, but are poorly organized, not on focus, or skim the surface. Regardless there are always steps we can take to make sure the problems of bad student writing, at least those within our control (as some of them will be), are addressed before we have to grade their submissions. Whenever I am grading a student’s paper or reading portions of a draft with the student in my office, I have to come up with a diagnosis for why the paper isn’t working. Many of those diagnoses are preventable problems. Much of what I am about to write I draw from my own experience.  Some of what I write, if you prefer a theoretical perspective, was inspired from the writing theory of John R. Hayes.  Hayes doesn’t make these exact points in his theory but he certainly alludes to many of them.

In Part I of this blog I will examine the causes of bad student assignments that are under the control of the teacher via assignment creation, attitude, or instructional method.  In Part II, I will cover the causes that require student intervention.

(n.b. the image that tops this blog is a doodle one of my students did during an exam she was writing for me. If I could name her, I would. But I can’t. Just know she is talented and self-aware, if not, grammatically perfect.)

  1. Other Priorities

Your academic assignment is in heavy competition with the assignments in the four other courses that the students may be taking, Netflix, social media, their friends, their family demands, Pokemon Go, their jobs, and any infinite number of competing distractions.  Students simply may not do their best work because they are in survival mode and the work you assigned didn’t make the top of the list.

No matter what we do, or how much we may rant, the student has the right to choose what they put their most and least effort into.  If it happens to not be your assignment, don’t take it personally.  You will simply grade it accordingly. However, a relevant assignment that ignites a student’s passion may give the work you assign an edge.

2. Lack of Relevance

Of course you make awesome assignments and your students will be passionate about completing them. A great teacher likely creates the assignment that, if they had to sit through their own course, they would love to write themselves. A great writing assignment will take into consideration the key learning objectives of an entire course.  But I’ve talked to many students about assignments they bring me from courses I am not teaching and sometimes I find they don’t see the relevance. Sometimes, sadly, I read the assignment guidelines and I don’t see the relevance either. We get so immersed in our own courses we think the relevance of our assignments to the big picture is obvious.  But our students are immersed in many courses simultaneously all containing unfamiliar new knowledge, so relevance is more elusive.

Don’t take for granted that your students can see the relevance of your writing assignment. Tell them the relevance. Tell them often — like a broken record often. And if you can connect the relevance of your assignment within every individual class that you teach, even better. A writing assignment needs to be more than a description in a syllabus or in handouts that are rarely mentioned in class.  You must teach your assignment. The fit of the assignment to the big pictures needs to be obvious and the reason why they need to write to learn, rather than do a presentation or an exam, also needs to be obvious.

3. Topic Boredom 

The worst academic writing assignments I ever wrote as an undergraduate student were the ones where every student was writing a variation of the same thing. They were boring assignments where we had to write what the teacher wanted to hear or risk a bad grade.  Creativity in these assignments was always perceived negatively.  If a student can’t find a way to connect with the material they are writing about using their own voice, style, opinion or creative touches, they will likely write a substandard paper. For good writing to take place, the writer has to care about what s/he is saying.  I once investigated a suspected plagiarism case where the student had written a paper for me the term before and earned an A.  The paper I was investigating was so badly written I had to re-look at my file of her paper from the previous term to be sure I hadn’t been mistaken.  Nope. It was still an A. It was not a perfect effort but it was very well done.  What happened?  The paper the student wrote for me was on a topic she personally connected with. The paper she wrote for my colleague was something she didn’t care about or see the relevance of writing.

(The paper wasn’t academic misconduct, by the way, it was just lazily written using frequent short cuts and bad paraphrasing. It was however, an undoubtably bad paper.)

Although the needs of every academic assignment will differ, giving students complete control over their topic choice is the best option, when possible. If there needs to be a finite choice of topics provided then give the students several to choose from. If possible, allow flexibility in how they manage the information for that topic.  Worse than having no choice at all, is the academic writing assignment with guidelines that are nothing more than a fill in the blank questionnaire with heavily pre-scripted points to be made on a topic.  The students will be bored writing it, and you’ll be more bored reading it.

4. Grading Negativity

I often feel I am the only teacher with a writing assignment in my nursing course where I feel impressed with how well my students tackle the task. I often hear from my colleagues that student writing is globally bad.  They were all terrible. One teacher said to me this past year. And when I asked about the grades, they spanned the spectrum of A+ to F.  They weren’t all terrible. They were, as they should be, “normal.”  The bad papers can stick with you like sap on a windshield while you forget those glimmers of hope and moments of brilliance. (Or if they were really all bad, it was likely due to another problem on this list).

Remember the normal curve? Embrace it.  As much as we would like all students to write papers that were A+ quality, (wouldn’t that be nice!), it just isn’t going to happen. Don’t fixate on the bad ones.  Unless you are failing to explain your assignment in some major way, bad papers are likely not your fault.

5. Problems Understanding the Instructions

Assignment guideline clarity is critical to receiving good papers. Some say too much information is baffling but I find that more is better than less.  In fact, I usually find ways to explain the assignment guidelines multiple times.  But more critical than that, students often show evidence of not understanding what would seem to us like obvious terminology.   Describe vs. Discuss.  Critique vs. Analyze. Reflect vs. Detail. It is not uncommon to receive a paper where you asked the student to critique a source, and receive 30 assignments that use description only.  In one of my assignments, students seem to have trouble with understanding the difference between nursing significance (why should we care about this problem?) and nursing implications (how should practice change based on our knowledge of the evidence?). A good proportion of the class thinks they are the same thing. I’m working hard to reduce that misperception.

Ensure that your students are clear on what they are being asked to do. One of the best ways to guarantee clarity is to provide sample assignments written by other students. If you work with large class sizes (like I do), not every student is going to approach you for help and if they all did, you’d be working 24 hours a day. Listen for misinterpretations of an assignment guideline during the conversations you do have. There may be a better way you can explain it.  Watch when grading for common flaws in execution of a particular content item or focus. In the example I give above, many students would combine the nursing significance and nursing implications content into one heading, often inappropriately. I now make sure I take every opportunity to explain the difference. If a good proportion of the class makes the same error, make a clarification the next time the guidelines are presented to a group.  There are teachable moments everywhere.

Proceed to Part II …..

 

Why I hate (love), no hate (no love!) APA Style

I created the above “quiz” so to speak in hopes of getting to pose it in a workshop I was planning. What is APA format to you? The question asked.

  1. Does knowing APA make one a good writer?
  2. Does knowing APA prevent plagiarism?
  3. Does knowing APA make papers pretty?

Do you know the answer?

The quiz came about in a moment of frustration that had been building for years.  Comments from my colleagues saying, I’m grading papers and the APA is so bad. 

With further questioning I would always find out that what they really meant was the grammar was bad. Or the citations were all in the wrong spots. Or they weren’t critically analyzing their subject matter.  But somehow, all of this was the fault of APA or worse yet, as one person said to me, somehow this was all the fault of the fact our students were using a summarized manual describing APA and not the full Publication Manual.

So in other words. It was my fault.

Yes, we don’t make our students buy the whole publication manual.  There are a couple reasons for this, the main one being, if we required them to buy it, most of them probably wouldn’t anyway and what a disaster that would be.  So for the last 10 years, I’ve been writing, editing and revising (repeat x5) a summary manual that is about 50 pages long that pulls out the best of the best of APA, leaving out the mind numbing statistical stuff and publication specific details, and obscure document references, none of which are needed by undergraduate students in their papers (and if they do, I am happy to receive an email and help).

But I was getting the sense that somehow our faculty were putting APA on some kind of pedestal it didn’t deserve to be on.  When I first became the writing instructor in 2005, it started out as teaching them APA. I very quickly discovered that with a few tips and formulas, and a user friendly guide that boiled APA down to its essence, APA could teach itself. What they really needed was someone to teach them writing.

So let’s answer my questions above:

  1. Does knowing APA make one a good writer? 

Probably not. There are whole chapters in the Publication Manual dedicated to helping a writer put together a structured paper describing a research study, something well beyond the purview of what an undergrad needs in her tool kit. It’s written in such a way to suggest they think you should already know how to write. There are some grammar sections that clarify some tricky issues like pronoun usage, capitalization, and hyphenation (as APA sees it) — keeping in mind that most grammar rules are things that grammarians in the days of yore just decided to make up to better mimic Latin and call it a day. But the Publication Manual doesn’t teach you grammar from scratch. It is there as a reminder of what somewhere, deep down, you already know. It isn’t a magical cure-all for your student’s writing problems. It won’t teach you critical analysis, argument, creativity, vocabulary, proper transitions, thesis statements, or how to do the best lit search possible either. Those you need to learn elsewhere.

2.  Does knowing APA prevent plagiarism? 

Good God no.  One year, back when I was a neophyte writing teacher, I believed that if students demonstrated mastery on an APA marking guide (defined as receiving at least 20/25) that we could rubber stamp them as having learned the skill of APA. We made them correct their APA till they demonstrated proficiency, handing their papers back to their graders until they achieved mastery.  It was a phenomenally labour intensive process, stressing out numerous graders, me, the students, and our academic coordinator. Many students never achieved mastery. So I decided to collect a little data. In the next term I tracked those students who’s academic integrity was called into question on their second academic paper (there were about a dozen of them). Probably 90% of the students who were called in for insufficient citation had achieved mastery the previous term. Most of them, on the first try. There was no correlation.

The Publication Manual tells you what plagiarism is and that you need to “give credit where credit is due” (p. 15). It gives a process for how to consistently cite the work of others (author(s) last name(s) comma year of publication) and tells you how to use quotation marks and page numbers when you use the exact words of others.  But none of these tips will prevent plagiarism.  It does not tell you when, where, or how often a writer needs to cite in a paper.  It vaguely tells you:

Cite the work of those individuals whose ideas, theories, or research have directly influenced your work. They may provide key background information, support or dispute your thesis, or offer critical definitions and data. Citation of an article implies that you have personally read the cited work. In addition to crediting the ideas of others that you used to build your thesis, provide documentation for all the facts and figures that are not common knowledge. (p. 169)

Then it gives an example. It also doesn’t tell you how to track all those sources you read so you can remember which source you need to cite for what piece of knowledge. It also does not define common knowledge and common knowledge is not what many undergraduate students think it is:  Common knowledge is everything I know already.

No. It is not. That is the knowledge effect at work.

It does not discuss the grey areas present in establishing plagiarism, e.g., how many words in a row is a writer allowed to take from another source? How many citations should be in a paragraph? What if the paragraph was paraphrased from a single source?

Well. It depends.

3. Does knowing APA make papers pretty?

Since we’ve already ruled out the previous two options, that leaves only one correct answer.  I had an epiphany recently while watching a tutorial on how to write statistical findings in APA format — since I don’t teach it to undergrads, this is a part of APA I do not know.  The President of APA was on the video helping with the the tutorial questions. Someone asked (and I paraphrase), “If I choose to ignore the rules of APA format when I submit to a journal, will my paper be automatically rejected.”  Her answer was, that depends on the reviewers and the editor…. But I don’t know why you would want to potentially put yourself out of the running for cosmetic reasons.

APA is about pretty. It is about putting together a readable manuscript that is free of distracting inconsistencies. Being a lover of consistency, I love it for that reason. And it really is easy (but perhaps a little annoying) to master if you can dial up that detail oriented part of yourself and follow patterns. But there are a lot of portions of APA that I feel are a useless waste of time and I would toss out the window if I didn’t feel there would be at least one lone purist who would prevent me from doing that. And the frustrations of working with instructors who think it is some magical recipe to make all student writing turn into A+, plagiarism-free work, has had me popping the cork on many bottles of wine over the years.

There are only two things that will make a student’s written work improve: A student who cares about what they are writing about and an instructor who is willing to support them in their work.  Yes you, dear instructor. If you have an academic paper in your course, I wave my magic wand.

You are now a writing instructor.