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Tuesday, April 23, 2013

What Does Your Grade Really Say About Your Essay?

What Does Your Grade Really Say About Your Essay?

            The shock of getting a “bad” grade on an essay is not easy to cope with. Student after student has come into my office wondering how in the world they received a D or an F grade. Well, not to worry—it has happened to me, too! We think as students that we have done the best we could, and somehow, our professor is punishing us. Now that I am on the other side of the grading process, I understand that professors are not looking to torment their students—at least, most are not! Rather, Maryland has what are called “C-Standards,” which state, “The ‘C’ paper fulfills the assignment, meeting all specified requirements,…has a discernible and logical plan,…uses reasonable stylistic options (tone, word choice, sentence patterns) for its audience and purpose,…[and] is substantially free of errors in grammar, spelling, punctuation, and mechanics” (“Standards for a ‘C’ Grade in English Composition,” 1998). In other words, a C grade means the average college-level writing standards have been met. When students receive grades below a C, it means that one of the aspects of content, organization, style and expression, or grammar and mechanics, has gone awry. Students can look at “bad” essay grades and learn how to interpret them more positively by reviewing their professor’s comments and the grading rubric, and then tackling revisions.
            On multiple occasions, students have arrived at tutoring sessions wanting to know why they received a particular grade but did not read their professor’s comments. Professors do not comment on essays in order to amuse themselves. Their real aim is to let students know what parts of the essay can be improved. Therefore, I will help decode a few comments that are often misinterpreted by students. The first type of comment professors might make relates to word choice, and quite often I see “vague” or “awkward” written on student essays. The professor does not mean that the essay is stupid or that the student is a terrible writer. Quite the contrary, the professor is pointing out her expectations of college-level writing. If an essay is full of vague words like “really,” “very,” and “thing,” it generally means that the student did not put enough thought into his word choice. “Awkward” simply means that the sentence or clause structure is unclear. Another type of comment students frequently see relates to the essay’s organization. Professors might write questions like, “What is your point?” or “How does this support your thesis?” These comments mean that a student is probably missing topic or concluding sentences, transitions, or a blueprint. Without clear organization, readers can easily get lost, which can cause them to stop reading. Remember that the purpose of writing is to communicate the thoughts in our heads to readers. When writing contains vague words, awkward sentence structures, and little organization, the reader is not grasping the meaning that the writer intends. Try to focus on this watchword: if the professor did not care about the student’s writing, she would not bother to make any comments at all.
            In addition to comments, students should also carefully review the grading rubric and ask themselves, “In which areas did I score lowest?” Again, this task is not intended to beat up the student for making mistakes, but instead to help the student realize what changes need to be made. Maryland’s C-standards indicate four basic areas that any essay is graded upon: content, organization, style and expression, and grammar and mechanics. Most grading rubrics will include these areas in some way. Assessing which area the student has scored lowest in will allow the student to know where to concentrate his efforts when revising and when writing in the future. Firstly, when it comes to content, the student should know whether or not he followed the essay prompt and requirements. For instance, if the essay directions said to write a four page paper and the student wrote three, the content area would be downgraded. Secondly, if a student scored low on organization, he may need to show more clearly how the supporting details relate to the main points, or how the main points support the thesis. Poor organization can often be traced back to a weak or missing thesis statement or blueprint. Thirdly, style and expression mean that, “The writing is clear” (“Standards for a ‘C’ Grade in English Composition,” 1998). This includes sentence variety, clarity, and structure, as well as an appropriate use of tone, formatting, and academic language. For example, students should not use colloquial terms like “This is really cool,” begin multiple sentences with the same words like “There are,” or ignore the rules of the formatting style their professor has specified. Finally, scoring low in the grammar and mechanics section would equate to an essay rife with errors in spelling or word choice, subject-verb agreement or verb tense, punctuation, and sentence boundaries. Again, if students are not familiar with the errors that have occurred, how on earth can they revise them? Looking over several essays at once can give students an idea of where they went astray and where patterns have emerged.
            To restore a student’s faith in his professor’s grading technique, the student must undertake the revision process. One technique suggested in the textbook, Grassroots with Readings (2011), is to fill out an error pattern chart (see above). Filling out this chart demonstrates what kind of errors are repeating. Many students I have met with have a grammar or punctuation rule memorized incorrectly, which is terrific because all they have to do to prevent the mistake from repeating is to re-memorize the rule. If a student does not understand a rule, he can seek the help of a tutor in the Writing Center or his professor. Furthermore, textbooks from entry-level English classes often detail these rules and provide examples and exercises. If the student no longer has such a textbook, he can refer to a reputable web source such as the Purdue OWL. Knowing a couple revision techniques is also helpful during this process. For instance, do not revise the whole essay at once; go in stages or categories. This will prevent students from overlooking revisions and from becoming overwhelmed. Use a dictionary and a thesaurus to revise word choice errors. Do not simply plug in a synonym and expect it to work; those slight differences in meaning can have a huge effect on a sentence’s meaning. Look back at the outline for help with organizational revisions. Chances are, not following or not creating an outline will cause huge problems when writing an essay. Use the grading rubric as a checklist for the necessary revisions; this way, revisions are less likely to be overlooked. Lastly, if the student did not follow the essay prompt, the entire essay may need re-thinking; try examining the thesis statement first to see if it fulfills the assignment. If not, then it is time to return to the drawing board, as the saying goes. No matter what the revisions are, it is the process of revising that teaches students how to write with more clarity and fewer errors.

Writing is a skill born over time. While some students may be more gifted writers than others, no one writes a perfect rough draft. As Robert Cormier puts it, “The beautiful part of writing is that you don’t have to get it right the first time, unlike, say, a brain surgeon.” To me, this is the best part about writing. As long as I give myself enough time, I can revise as much as I like until I get a satisfying final product. While it might not be perfect, it is at least worthy of a C, and a C is average. College students, do not fret endlessly over or wish secretly to harm professors for D and F grades. Try to think of these grades as individual learning experiences. Most people do not hop on a bicycle and ride it correctly the first time. More than likely, they fall down quite a bit until they learn how to keep their balance. Writing is very much a balancing act, and to keep from falling down, a good many details need consideration. Professors are not failing their students as some twisted way of exacting revenge for not paying attention in class—although that is tempting! Most of the professors I talk to desperately want their students to succeed, and in order to do so, professors must identify how writing can be improved. If a student wants to be above average, he must fall down and skin his knees. He must learn how to bandage his wounds and how to get back in the saddle. These are not just Maryland’s standards for the word “average,” they are humanity’s. We do not award mediocrity in this world; we award excellence. Strive for excellence. That is, unless, average is acceptable, and in which case, wear that C proudly.

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