Tara Brabazon: Written evidence of the workings of the mind

Students could vastly improve their assignments, and marks, if they followed a few important rules. Tara Brabazon offers a 20-point checklist

February 9, 2011

First-year orientation programmes are boring. Sessions introduce timetables, plagiarism, electives, plagiarism, personal tutors, plagiarism, reading lists and, yes, plagiarism. Students arrive at university filled with hope, inspiration and aspiration. Within two hours, excitement is squelched from their minds.

In an accelerated academy propelled by Skype and tweets, there are more efficient ways to convey basic information than a talk-fest in a sweaty lecture theatre. There is no need to frighten, bore and shatter the hopes of students. Universities such as Duke in North Carolina use applications to feed logistical material to students’ mobile phones. Such strategies enable a better use of orientation time, with attention given to thinking, reading and writing. Upon arrival at university, most students do not know the difference between paraphrasing and plagiarism and do not understand how to insert a quotation into prose. Few have the ability to recognise, let alone construct, a subtle interpretation and argument.

Like many reading this column, I have just finished marking assignments by first-year students. A few papers are superb. Some scholars have worked hard between the assessments and improved by two grades. But there is a group who continue to replicate errors. Either they cannot see the flaws in their scripts or are complacent, believing that the mistakes do not matter.

It is easy to create a culture of blame and shame about the quality of students in our current university system. These complaints are not effective and change little. They may also be wrong. Staff blather on (and on) about timetables, room bookings, email addresses, learning management systems and plagiarism. Yet relevant information is kept from students that may lift their marks by between 10 and 30 per cent.

It is time to be honest. Particular errors trip the intellectual sensors of markers, setting off a shrieking scholarly car alarm. These mistakes are not simply stylistic; they signify deeper problems. Students do not realise that particular errors undermine their credibility to such an extent that their assignments tumble towards a fail.

I have been inspired to compile these repetitive and damaging flaws after reading Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right. Although seemingly part of the Chris Anderson/Malcolm Gladwell model of “research” that confuses description with analysis and examples with explanations, Gawande offers methods to manage complexity. He argues that there is a need for “a different strategy for overcoming failure, one that builds on experience and takes advantage of the knowledge people have but somehow also makes up for our inevitable human inadequacies”. He recommends a checklist to manage the consequences of these errors.

Writing an academic paper is difficult. There are thousands of ways to fail an assignment and very few ways to pass. For first-year students, managing the trauma of moving away from families, different modes of teaching and with no understanding of university standards (how could they know what is expected of them upon arrival at the campus?), assembling a checklist is beneficial.

Therefore – as with the aircraft pilot’s checklist that provided the inspiration for Gawande’s book – there is a way to manage information that is too complex to be left to the memory or experience of one person, particularly a student under the stress of a deadline. Gawande’s goal is to create “quick and simple tools aimed to buttress the skills of expert professionals”. However, I have constructed a checklist for first-year students that loans them expertise until they have time to develop their own.

Showing students the link between their errors and final mark may be transformative. Gawande, a surgeon, wrote his checklist to save lives. My ambition is more modest: to save student aspirations.

Opening each fresh assignment is a moment of optimism, providing an opportunity to encourage and acknowledge a great future scholar. As each sentence and paragraph progresses, an A grade drifts away from the scholar. If students removed the 20 flaws noted in this checklist, then they would be positioned for a successful submission. I have presented the error in bold, followed by what this mistake means to a marker.

Using “i” instead of “I”. This error demonstrates that the student did not draft their script and/or does not care about the quality of their submitted work.

Not capitalising the first word of a sentence. First-year students are not e. e. cummings. The inability to capitalise proves that they do not understand grammar and/or wish to waste the time of the examiner.

Single-sentence paragraphs. Academic writing builds an argument through a paragraph. A student constructing single-sentence paragraphs is unable to develop a complex series of ideas.

Use of long sentences. Often, single-sentence paragraphs are composed of one long sentence. Such students confirm that they cannot express a concise thought within the husk of a succinct statement.

Using words such as “everybody”, “society”, “the masses” or “all of us”. Generalisations follow the use of such words and phrases. They block precision, rigour and clarity. They are a sign of superficial reading and research.

Use of the word “nowadays”. The student has confused storytelling with essay writing.

Weak transitional phrases. When students use phrases such as “let us now” or “as I mentioned earlier” they show that they commenced the assignment without a structure or plan. The best writing is like a waterfall rather than a motor vehicle in need of a service. Transitions and movements between ideas should be smooth, rather than sounding like a burnt-out clutch on a Mini.

Referencing errors. If there are errors in referencing, anything between 10 and 30 per cent is removed from the final mark. Such a flaw demonstrates a lack of skill development and an inability to follow instructions.

Absence of full stops. This error is often tethered to referencing difficulties. Students do not know where to position the full stop in relation to the brackets. Because of their confusion, they do not use a full stop at all.

Repetition of words. The student has a limited vocabulary.

Use of an odd synonym that does not fit the context. The student holds such a limited vocabulary that they are making incorrect choices from the thesaurus embedded in their word-processing program.

Use of a colon and/or semicolon when the student has no idea of their purpose. This student is unable to construct a sentence, does not know where to position the full stop and inserts a semicolon instead.

Excessive use of “I think” and “I feel”. Markers know that a student thinks and feels this way. The student wrote the paper, not Lady Gaga.

Excessive paraphrasing. This student is unable to interpret the words of others and only restates existing knowledge.

Awkward integration of quotations into sentences and paragraphs. Students are using quotations as a mask to hide their lack of understanding.

Starting a conclusion with “In conclusion”. It is the last paragraph. We know it is the conclusion.

Limited bibliography or reference list. Academics start reading assignments from the back. The moment we see less than 10 references in a bibliography, the mark is capped.

No bibliography or reference list submitted. This paper goes straight to the fail pile. The lack of a bibliography demonstrates disrespect for learning, knowledge and university education.

Complete disconnection from the question. The student appears to be writing an assignment for another module, for another university, in another time zone and perhaps during another decade. It may pass in the fourth dimension, but not in this one.

Errors corrected in the previous assignment appear in the next assessment. Academics assume that the student lacks motivation, does not care about learning anything new or has dismissed the marker’s expertise and/or time.

One of my former students, Dr Dave Thomas, a fine writer and scholar, stated that he saw a powerful relationship between “the power of expression” and “the power of thought”. These 20 errors not only demonstrate limitations in the mode of expression, but compression in the capacity to think. If academic markers can show how these simple errors activate scholarly sensors that warn of deeper analytical problems, then students may be helped to change not only their writing, but also their thinking. Such a checklist is useful. It is also honest.

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