Evaluating terrible research papers

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I thought of hijacking the "grading final papers" thread since these happen to be final papers, but . . . what the hell. Actually this doesn't only apply to research papers, I realize.

My department has a set of guidelines for what constitutes an A, B, etc., on research essays. I have my own "rubric" that includes the key elements I'm evaluating (I don't attach a set number of points to each element, though I may start doing that). But increasingly, I find that many papers defy these guidelines and rubrics. I see atrocious writing (if one can call it that), information strewn randomly throughout the paper, "evidence" that has nothing to do with the supposed "thesis," etc. When I see a smart idea, that's great -- but if I have to do all the work of figuring out what the hell the student is trying to say, that's bad news. So if a paper has all of these problems, a few sparks of insight are not usually enough for me to consider the paper "acceptable" (i.e., a C).

I was talking to my chair the other day, who pointed out that hu has come around over the years to doing the opposite; even if the paper is terrible in all sorts of ways, the spark of insight tells him there's something worth encouraging -- so he tends to assign higher grades than I would.

I think my standards are reasonable, but in mulling this over, I wonder if I am being too hard on students. I probably give more weight to writing than some of my colleagues, partly because I'm a former editor; I tend to think that the ability to effectively communicate ideas is as important as the quality of the ideas themselves. But then, am I expecting students to produce the sort of work I would be able to produce? Because that is really not reasonable.

I'd be interested to hear other forumites' thoughts/insights about this -- and perhaps suggestions about how to deal with the problem more fairly.

Good ideas don't mean squat if you can't articulate them. A messy paper is a C, if not an outright fail.

Your chair is wrong. Is he or she trying to compelling you to grade up?

I'm thinking about some of the same things, and I'm beginning to think that it really comes down to an absence of revision. My students do have some good insights, but when they write they're typically doing it all in one draft and then turning it in. I know what condition my own papers are in on the first draft, so it's no surprise that theirs are such a mess. Problems I see regularly include lack of a clear line of argumentation from beginning to end (the major problem you're seeing), gaps in the development of the argument where they just assume their leap from one point to the next is self-evident, and (again as  you are seeing) failure to explain how they are interpreting and applying their "evidence." The most critical gap for many of my students is failure to cite their sources: they will draw from classroom discussions on ideas or broad themes without citing the underlying literature.

I have taken a two-pronged approach, and it is helping a bit--but my study is still definitely underway! First, I talk to my students very honestly about how difficult it is to write clearly enough that someone else can follow what you are saying, and I share some of the comments I have gotten back from reviewers about this issue in my own work. This doesn't help them to spot their own errors so much as make them more receptive to the idea that their writing is unclear, and that it's normal to have to revise when someone else can't follow your argument.

The other thing I do is require drafts, and have peer editing workshops in class. I don't ever do written comment on drafts, but I do have students send them to me and then I have individual meetings to discuss them. (This is impractical with large service courses, but I don't assign large-scale research papers to those classes anyway.) I've also discovered that, while students cannot give one another good feedback in a vacuum, they can do pretty well if I give them specific areas to focus on. Sometimes, for example, I will ask them to read simply for flow--which sections are clear, and at what points do they find that they have questions about exactly what the writer is saying? Alternatively, we'll devote some sessions to citing sources, and I'll have them work together to figure out where the ideas they're using have come from, based upon our readings and their class notes. Combined with my own feedback, I think this at least gets them in the habit of thinking about this stuff.

As I say, this is an ongoing project, so I'll be back to report more once I get my students' final papers, which is in a couple of weeks.

Quote from: lottie on April 20, 2013, 12:38:36 PM

Good ideas don't mean squat if you can't articulate them. A messy paper is a C, if not an outright fail.

Your chair is wrong. Is he or she trying to compelling you to grade up?

It's funny that you went from C to F, because I think what I'm struggling with is the divide between C and D.

Nah, my chair is great; it was just a friendly conversation that I initiated while we were meeting about something else.

If you are TT, your chair is right. If you are tenured, you are right.


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