Friday, March 25, 2011

Big Step. Waiting for Shoe To Drop.

I had gotten so sick of the tiny, idiotic errors my students make when they turn material in for grades. There are formats for professional work. There are guidelines. If students want to be taken seriously, I think they need to present material in such a way that IT can be taken seriously.

Well, over the years it seems that has become a quaint, old fashioned notion. My colleagues have let those little concerns go. (They brag about it, in fact.)

But after 2 terribly messy sets of assignments so far this semester I said to my students:

You know that handout I give at the start of the semester showing you the accepted format for professional, graded work? Well, you're not all meeting that. Some of you are clearly not even trying to meet it. I've only taken minor points off so far, because I really am focused most on getting your critical thinking improved. But now, as we ease into the home stretch of this semester, I'm making those guidelines a requirement for a grade. I won't grade your next assignments unless you follow - to the letter - the guidelines I passed out in class and published online. In fact, here are the guidelines again. 

And then last week, before they took Spring Break, I had a 30 minute session at the end of class to review those guidelines and again stress that professional work needs to meet certain reader expectations, and THESE were what they were in this class.

When I gathered up the projects this week, I didn't dare even peek. But I laid them on my desk this morning and 75% of them showed that their writers had ignored or misunderstood the most simple and obvious steps as required. I'm not grading those. I'm kicking them back. I'll let them resubmit, but I will kick them back until they're done the right way.

My college is full of feel-good proffies. We're a bunch of "sitting outside, bringing cookie-motherfuckers" here, and students pretty much run the show.

But not next week. Next week they're going to get shook, and I hope I don't get stomped by any shoe that may drop.


  1. If you are just refusing to grade the papers and kicking them back without a grade penalty, you're letting yourself in for a world of hurt. Because in that case they won't care to follow your directions because there is no consequence other than getting their work back. Which you then have to look at again. Painful.

    Now, if you told them "If you don't follow the guidelines you will get an automatic F" or "one letter grade will be taken off for each formatting error" that would shake them up.

    Students by and large won't do what you tell them to unless they have to. The way you've set it up, they don't have to.

  2. I state on my syllabus and in class that I will not read their work if they do not follow the setup guidelines. It takes a matter of seconds to ascertain whether the paper meets the minimum setup requirements. When I return the first set of essays, I include a note with the ungraded copies stating that if they want a grade (i.e. if they don't want a zero) they need to resubmit their essays. BTW, they can submit ONE essay late. As a result, many students use the late option early in the semester. This has made an impression since students realize that I am serious about giving them zeroes. If a student doesn't get it after the first essay assignment, he/she usually ends up withdrawing.

    I do not find that I create extra work for myself, since I really only read the essay once. However, the timing may be a little inconvenient, but I haven't encountered any unmanageable situations.

  3. Stella, I very respectfully disagree with you. I do exactly what Terry is proposing. I only accept my essays in MLA format. I make it clear in my syllabus and verbally in class that their essays will not be graded unless they are in that format (I am a stickler about correct font, margins, first page header, and page numbering header on all subsequent pages). Somehow, dammit, I just think it is important to get the format right! And I don't think it takes a lot of my time to figure it out. I collect the essays at the beginning of the class period, have them do a group assignment, look at them, and give back the ones that are not right. They have to give me the assignment by the next class in correct format to avoid a zero. Also, only those who hand in their essays on time get the option to fix the format. The others just get a zero.

    But it seems like word gets around. I just collected Essay 4 --- and almost all the essays I collected were in near perfect basic MLA format.

  4. My middle-schooler has a teacher that counts off if their homework is not properly formatted. I heard another parent griping about it and said, "They're simple rules. If your kid follows them, there's not a problem." And by "simple," I mean "Don't write outside the left margin. Skip a line between questions." Stuff like that.

    It's not "conforming to the Man," it's "following directions."

  5. By handing back the paper ungraded, don't you worry that the student will use the extra time to improve the paper's content as well as format? If you don't take off points the first time around, it seems like it could be a way for students to extend the deadline of the assignment.

  6. @BB: Oops. Forgot one important detail. I let EVERYONE, sap that I am, rewrite their essays without penalty once during the first part of the semester (when they are still getting used to my bitchy ways), and then again during the second half (when the essays begin to incorporate research). So this reformatting thing counts as that one rewrite. They really don't like to waste the rewrite.

  7. Terry, to cover your ass, I would suggest that you return the papers with a solid 50% F with a note that they may resubmit if they feel like conforming to the REQUIRED FORMATTING(yes, use caps).

    That way you did your job (you "graded") but you were flexible enough to give them a chance to improve.

  8. Am I "worried" that they'll improve their projects?

    I would give up beer for a week if they would improve any of what they do.

    As far as kicking them back ungraded, I've let them know that at some point I'll need to record a grade for these assignments. Should people not fix them, they will get zeroes.

  9. Sounds like a plan to me. I hope you have tenure, though -- or at least other things than student evaluations on which to base a tenure/retention case.

    I think I could get away with this, and have considered it on occasion (it's talking about signal phrases before quotations and paraphrases and still not getting them from 3/4 of the students that threatens to drive me batty), but my grading schedule is so tight, and I have so much trouble keeping up with grading as it is, that I hesitate to do anything that would have papers coming in at unexpected moments. I suppose I could always secretly schedule a tirade at week x, and a deadline for revision of revised/fixed papers a week later, into the semester. Once one has taught enough sections of a class, students' behavior, in aggregate, becomes somewhat predictable.

  10. ..oh, and students turn in both versions when they resubmit.

  11. @Beaker: for a lot of us in writing, the challenge is not so much to get students to finish work on time (though that is a problem), as to actually start early enough, and spend enough time on it, to make both the particular assignment and their writing in general better. There really doesn't seem to be much danger of their taking unfair advantage of more time for anything except more procrastination. I don't drink beer, but, like Terry, I'd welcome improvement under almost any conditions.

  12. @Bella--well, whatever works for you! But that process does not seem to be an efficient use of time and effort as far as I'm concerned, especially if it takes most of the semester for it to sink in. I think four papers is too long for them to get that they need to format their papers properly.

    Maybe some amalgam would work better for me--such as "I will not accept papers that are not in proper format, and if your paper is not accepted on the day it is due, it will be late, one letter grade per day."

    I don't accept late assignments at all, and late papers are penalized harshly (unless there is a verifiable excuse). They do it right and they do it on time, or they get a nice kick in the butt. Formatting is just busy work anyway. They can and will definitely get it right, right off the bat, if they know will be penalized if they don't.

    And I don't ever allow penalty-free rewrites, ever. I think that would encourage my students to be careless. But I see and grade a couple of required drafts before the final draft is due.

  13. Twice this semester my significant other (who is also a proffie) has kicked back assignments to students for lack of following simple instructions and having basic formatting. Twice, he has been disappointed. Even with grade penalties, nothing has really changed in their abilities bc they don't prioritize their school work. While I wish I could believe they actually improve with added time to write more & a chewing out, that hasn't really worked for me in the past.

    I hope your students do better rewrites than mine or my signif's.

    @Stella, I think you're my doppelgänger.

  14. @Cynic

    I hear you. But if my students don't get their "kicked back" papers in line, they're going to flunk. Because those papers have to be resubmitted, and they have to meet the guidelines. If not, they're all zeroes.

  15. Terry, I think it comes down to whether students are simply being lazy, in which case, they should be held accountable for being such, or whether they are simply incapable of doing said work. 

    If they're being sloppy & doing a  "half-fast job" (a gem from one of my students), then either an F or a rewrite seems warranted. And then your tactics seem kind. If they simply turn in the same crap later bc they were too lazy or incapable of doing it, then the tactic doesn't really work to produce the results we want (which I assume is for learning to take place).

    If they simply do not have the ability to take on an intellectual task of this nature, then I'm not convinced that "kicking back" works. But in that case, short of our setting up tutoring & doing even more one-on-one conferencing (ie. Babying them) I am not sure what else to do but flunk a student who is not prepared for the level of thinking & work required of them. 

    And I also wonder if it then leads to desperate measures (read 'cheating') taking place. Perhaps that's fallacious reasoning, but I do wonder if those who simply do not have the skills to write what is required then find alternate methods to complete assignments to my satisfaction. Then again, this is true of anyone, not just when proffies express displeasure in a whole class's inability to follow guidelines.

    In my significant other's case, the two assignments kicked back were not high stakes ones that could make or break a grade. Perhaps if they had been, there would have been improvement. I hope in your case, that was incentive enough to lead some to the altar of revision & salvation. 

    I think sometimes, too, when a proffie refuses to accept crap from the class, it helps them to take their learning (& us) seriously. But sometimes they just turn into a seething ball of resentment that we then get to face for the rest of the semester. And that is what leads me to this blog (the fear of the seething ball of resentment)...

  16. @ Stella,

    Zero at the top of the paper with a note saying something along the lines of "Your score on this assignment is zero until you resubmit it in satisfactory quality."

    In other words, they know they are flunking so they "have" to redo the assignment.

  17. @ Contemplative

    "I do wonder if those who simply do not have the skills to write what is required then find alternate methods to complete assignments to my satisfaction"

    This is what pisses me off the most, that these people are supposed to be filtered by the assessment process. Yet somehow they are not.

    Are people finding ways to cheat on the assessment or is it just really easy to side-step it?

  18. @crazy, our school's "assessment" process is a low (in my mind): 470 Verbal SAT/17 ACT English score for regular college English classes. It doesn't keep them out of ANY other classes (English is the only dept. that filters people). And if they don't meet that requirement, they are filtered into 3 diff levels of 'catch up' classes. But that means in one or two semesters, they have to make up for 12 years of not doing anything. It's not possible. And while they are in 'catch up' English, they may take any other writing intensive class and completely flunk that bc they have no reasoning or writing skills. So... I blame the low levels of scores & assessment at MY SLAC.

    But I also think some people test well, but don't know how to be students. They don't have the discipline to maintain sustained learning. They MAY be smart, but I never get a chance to see that bc they act like flakes.  

    When I harp on this (as I've been known to do), I'm told to shut up bc we need the bodies for FTE & tuition. I'd rather we just make up fake numbers/names of dead people bc that would be more ethical than promising a college education to people who simply won't make it & accrue debt in the meantime. 

    That said, I hope ALL of Terry's students make it. I'm actually Pro-Education. I'm just not convinced everyone is able to be college educated with the low levels of students I keep seeing. 


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