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CAREER ADVICE

It’s a professor’s duty to teach proper essay writing

These six strategies can easily be implemented as part of a proactive approach to essay writing.

By STUART CHAMBERS | APR 26 2019

Each semester, my colleagues complain that university papers are either poorly written or plagiarized to some degree. What is often overlooked, however, is the role professors play in mitigating these problems. Effective strategies can easily be implemented as part of a proactive approach to essay writing.

Step 1: Assign an actual essay

Some professors have abandoned essays, describing them as “unpleasant for students to write” and “boring for instructors to read.” Others claim that they do not have the time to mark them, due largely to publishing commit­ments, family responsibilities and, in the case of part-time professors, a second job. Imagine if a student used the same excuses for missing assignments. “Sorry, but I didn’t have the time to complete them because of my part-time job, my sports schedule, and my social life.” But if students are expected to hand in assigned work to the best of their abilities, surely professors can find the time to grade essays and provide abun­dant feedback. If workload is a concern, the essay can be shortened, with an emphasis on quality over quantity. Professors can hardly complain about the poor state of writing if they have all but given up on assigning essays.

Step 2: Set aside class time for essay instructions

I have been told countless times that universities exist to promote research; essay tips are for high school. The reality is, the terminal degree for most students is the undergraduate degree. They are not going to become professional research­ers but do require basic writing skills for what­ever occupation they choose after graduation. For first-year undergraduate courses, professors could easily set aside one period per course per semester to explain essay guidelines in detail and to teach the mechanics of academic writing.

Step 3: Use office hours to edit essays

Too often, students who need help with their essays are told to go to the campus’s academic writing centre, or they are directed to the teaching assistant. These options have limitations. If the professor offered a critical eye during office hours, issues such as awkward phrasing, wordy passages, weak diction and inaccurate points or proofs would be immediately identified. It does not take long to proofread one or two paragraphs and to acknowledge skills problems.

Step 4: Provide an exemplar of an A+ essay

When students enter classes straight out of high school, many do not grasp the style and expectations of a university-level paper. There is no better way to facilitate this understanding than to provide an A+ exemplar of a previously writ­ten essay. After courses are completed, I ask the top three students in each class to resubmit by email a polished copy of their papers. The next semester, I place these essays online so that new students are fully aware of the expectations involving format, structure and grammar.

Step 5: Implement plagiarism safeguards

Professors should avoid assigning the same paper year after year. This kind of apathy only invites cheating. The challenge – and the fun – is to design a new essay for each class, with original ideas that truly engage students. Asking under­graduates to write an essay on broad topics is equally problematic. Essay topics that are too general can be easily downloaded or purchased. To minimize plagiarism, professors can provide a selection of topics to analyze, offer a list of mandatory sources, demand qualitative and quantitative evidence, and establish a quotation range (i.e., 12 to 15 for a first-year paper).

Step 6: Treat frivolous cases of plagiarism as “teachable moments”

There is a clear difference between actual cheat­ing (i.e., copying and pasting exact paragraphs or long passages from a source) and honest mis­takes due to inexperience. For example, a student may forget to place quotation marks around the proof. If this occurred only once in the entire essay, it’s simply an oversight. Overuse of para­phrasing can also lead to accusations of plagiar­ism. For a discourse analysis, this is easily resolved by insisting on exact quotations as evidence. If a student paraphrased only once or twice but used quotations throughout the paper, there is clearly no intent to steal an author’s ideas. Rectifying these mistakes should be treated as “teachable moments,” not charges of academic fraud. The goal it to instill confidence in writing, not to crush a student’s potential.

Stuart Chambers teaches in the school of sociological and anthropological studies at the University of Ottawa.

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  1. Preenhar her Dinar / April 29, 2019 at 13:10

    I agree with much of what you’re saying. When it comes to research essays though, all Departments ought to have a mandatory theory and methods course that would teach students some of these skills, including proper sourcing, citation, etc. Too many forego this, to the detriment of instructors and students alike.

  2. Diane Enns / May 1, 2019 at 14:14

    I read this while sitting in my office waiting for students to pick up essays so they could read their (extensive) feedback. So far, after several posted office hours on two separate days, less than five students have picked up their essays (in a class of nearly 70). This is becoming the norm. I spend one 60-90 minute class a semester in first year courses going through the nuts and bolts of essay writing, with multiple best and worst examples, links to style guides, warnings about my irritation with sweeping introductory lines they obviously encourage in high school (“Since the dawn of time…”) and, of course, details about plagiarism.

    I sense that my efforts aren’t making much of a difference. If students don’t read feedback how will they learn? I don’t think we should take all the responsibility away from them.

  3. Stuart Chambers / May 1, 2019 at 15:33

    Diane, I can perhaps add something to your comment. I correct the essays and then give them back (almost all of them) before the last class so that the vast majority have to see their mark and read the paper’s comments. The rest pick them up at the final exam, and that means that every student gets his/her essay back. Once they leave the final exam, they may go travelling or go home, and then they forget to pick up the essay.

  4. Reuben Kaufman / May 1, 2019 at 15:40

    Regarding this sentence:

    “If workload is a concern, the essay can be shortened, with an emphasis on quality over quantity.”

    It reminds me of a wonderful Churchillian anecdote in which he said to his secretary:

    “I’m writing a long speech today, because I don’t have time to write a short one!”

    When I assigned the end-of-term essay in my history of biology class, it “counted” for a whole 50% of the final course grade (Yes: 50%!), and the length was limited to 5 double-spaced pages, 12-point font!! (They were permitted, however, “unlimited” length for footnotes/figures and the like.) But I did give elaborate feedback on an outline, a first-draft (mandatory) and a second-draft (not required). Interesting how most of the stronger essay writers tended to submit a 2nd-draft and most of the weaker ones didn’t.

  5. W. Reuben Kaufman / May 2, 2019 at 03:17

    Just to clarify: Each student chooses his/her own topic in this course.

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