Final papers written under stress

You have several large stacks of student papers to grade, one for each class. These are final projects; culminating experiences that your students probably stayed up all night finishing. For some of these projects, your students probably had to find outside sources and bring together not only work they did over the semester, but also work done by outside scholars in the field.

On the day the papers were due, your students formed an initial trickle of one or two who looked well-rested and put-together. These first students handed in their papers with a smile and mentioned that they had finished it a day or two earlier, but had held onto the work, reviewing and revising, until the due date. They thanked you for the experience and added, “Hope you like it.” As the day progressed, more students arrived, scurrying down the hall, a little bit out of breath, looking like they hadn’t showered or slept. Some handed in their papers directly to you; others lurked in the hall and furtively slipped their papers into the box you’d put out in the hall. These did not make eye contact and tried to skulk away without your noticing.

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There are always a few who seem to need every last second to finish their papers. These sometimes arrived at your office, practically hurling their papers at you like they are reaching the finish line of a marathon. Some of these almost proudly talked about how they were up all night and had spent the past hour struggling with printers or had suffered computer mishaps of various sorts. Then, the due time arrived and you began collecting up the papers to take home to start grading them. It seems there’s always one or two papers missing. Sometimes an email is waiting, with a frantic request for an extension. A computer crashed. All the printers are broken. A friend’s emergency kept them up all night and they just woke up (at 5pm!). A sickness suddenly descended. Some will just accept the late penalty and turn in their papers the following day or even two days later. Others will get an extension from the Dean of Studies office or the health office, gaining a few grace days.

And now, you have to read these papers, written under various levels of stress and duress.

Many students have more of these final papers or projects than they have actual final exams. Final exams are most common in introductory level courses. Are final papers any better for gauging course mastery than final exams? Why do we assign end-of-term papers instead of creating a final exam? What do we want the final paper to demonstrate?

  1. Ability to think critically about the course material and demonstrate a deep understanding of the major concepts and issues.
  2. Ability to integrate and synthesize, to bring concepts and ideas together in new ways.
  3. Ability to integrate additional work from the field and to arrive at new understanding or insights. This requires an ability to seek out and locate relevant and useful source materials and to apply them accurately and appropriately to the topic of the paper.
  4. Ability to write cogently about an area of interest within the field.

The final papers or projects that we assign to enable our students to demonstrate these abilities vary considerably in length from 5 pages to 20 pages in length. I typically assign shorter papers. Selfishly, one reason is that I hate reading long student papers. Even in a class full of seasoned seniors, the student writing, while adequate and often accomplishing the goals of the assignment, is just not interesting. Word choice, sentence construction, explanations with support. Yawn. The paper does the job, but it’s so boring that my sleep meter runs overtime. How to grade this kind of paper?

If the paper meets the pedagogical goals but is just a boring read, is this an A paper? Or, do you revise your goals to include:

5. Well-written, concise and interesting.

Have you spent time over the semester working with the student writing in your field, to help teach them how to write well in your discipline? Or, do you expect they just absorbed the good writing from the readings over the semester? Or, do you just expect juniors and seniors to be pretty good at writing by now?

Is interesting writing a separate thing from clear understanding of course material?

I think so. I think it’s possible to write clearly of your understanding of a subject matter, but to have that writing be boring as —-. I think it’s possible for a bright college student to meet the goals of an assignment without being good at interesting writing. I think if you have “well-written” as a goal for a final paper, you need to have included some instruction or guidelines about what interesting, good writing is in your discipline.

Writing instruction beyond the freshman writing seminar seems to happen mostly just through turning in ever-increasing numbers of papers for more advanced courses, but do we provide any additional opportunities to learn how to transform writing from the freshman year to the senior year, except through repetition?

And how does the stress and sleep-deprivation of the onslaught of final paper-writing factor into that quality of writing that demonstrates mastery of the goals you outlined in your assignments for your students?

I am falling asleep over papers because they are written by sleep-deprived, exhausted students who are just slogging through a pile of writing assignments. The students are not trying to write the best paper they’ve ever written. Heck, they have ten more papers they have to get through before summer starts.

Okay, now to grading paper number 31……

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