Why I Might Stop Assigning Essays

Jason Fertig

In the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, author Stephen Covey characterizes job tasks as either important or urgent. We desire to focus our time on important activities; the urgent ones are the persistent fires we must extinguish in order to focus on those important projects. The dissonance between putting off important work because of the need to tackle urgent tasks often causes people to become dissatisfied in their job performance. Hence, I’ve been thinking about Covey’s book a lot lately as I question whether essay grading is an important or urgent part of my job.

In addition to Covey, my latest copy of Rutgers magazine features an article on giving great lectures. The article presented several members of the university faculty describing how they engage a classroom while lecturing. Reading through the lengthy article leaves me to ponder – am I doing too much in my classes? Why don’t I just lecture?

My creative writing time has been sparse these past few months because my current courses involve grading 50-75 essays per week, along with fulfilling my university service requirements (another story for another day). I have spent around 20 hours per week grading essays, and my cost-benefit radar is telling me to question whether such assessments are worth it. Some readers may wonder why I am not more efficient, but I do aim for efficiency– I even stagger submission dates.

To educate properly, students need to write in most classes instead of relegating writing to “writing intensive classes,” and I like to think that I back up my assertion. But grading essays well takes time. Yes, there are ways to streamline the grading process. For instance, I know some colleagues who standardize their comments or use a general feedback form that does not require heavily marking up a student paper. Others choose to focus solely on content without regard to mechanics, style, and argumentative clarity (sometimes because those professors have not been trained to write properly). Some professors also resort to team papers to minimize the height of the stack of papers to grade. All of these methods work well, as long as the goal is to be efficient with grading time. Yet, as the management folks like to say, efficient does not always equal effective.

When professors strive for efficiency, learning decreases.

Standardized comments work great when you desire all responses to be the same (e.g. List three differences between Keynesian and Austrian Economics). Any straying from the answer key can be critiqued with a reference to the correct answer. But, higher order essay writing does not have an answer key. In such cases (e.g. Are strikes necessary in 2011?), standardized feedback like “You did not develop your point properly” or “Please proofread” is too generic to be useful. Furthermore, students in those classes will likely still pass while making the aforementioned errors, reinforcing the notion that a well-structured, articulate argument is not needed to earn a college degree.

Contrary to popular belief, students come to class as a blank sheet of paper. We cannot assume that, on average, they know how to convey their thoughts via the written word. They do know that writing well is important, but it’s foolish to assume that the average student knows what “writing well” means (and it’s not always their fault).

Essays are the gateway to the mind. Essay exams are an option for the professor who cares enough to evaluate with more than multiple choice questions , but the time-sensitive nature of such tests leads professors to accept a subpar presentation of a desired answer.

If students are to experience higher education, they have to write – and write a lot. But doing so comes at a cost for the professor. I’ve often informally told others that I wished that all that I had to do was teach. Even at my institution, a place that “balances” teaching and research, my evaluation states that teaching is only 50% of my job. Unfortunately, the hours for “other stuff” get smaller as the pile of essays to grade gets higher.

It takes a great deal of mental effort to grade written work properly. I originally wanted to say “it takes a long time” to grade written work, but the time factor is not the main contributor to any time management issue. It takes a long time to record final grades of a large lecture class, but not a large amount of mental effort. To effectively grade a paper of any length, the grader must scrutinize each word.  Then the grader needs mental recovery time, as it is difficult to shift gears without clearing the mind. An appropriate comparison is between walking and jogging on a treadmill. Both require exertion, but prolonged jogging cannot be maintained at the same pace as the equivalent amount of walking.

The ability to be both deep and precise with words is a skill lost among today’s students. Outside disciplines that train writers (mine is not one of them), there are undergraduate students out there who write well, but they are the exception. Graduate students are somewhat better.

Still, even a 750-word essay can take 5-10 minutes on average to assess thoroughly. If all students wrote like the best ones, grading would be a breeze. But that is not college in 2011. (Was it ever?)

The most time-consuming essays to grade that I see both lack organization and have grammatical errors that should not be made in 3rd grade, let alone college. Students who know they made mistakes due to laziness can be corrected with a simple note, “please proofread.” The ones who think they did a decent job are much harder to coach. I’m happy to say that such students will improve with help, but their work will always take the most time to grade. Only so much can be improved in 15 weeks because the siloed nature of college creates the likelihood that future classes will not ask them to write at the level that my class requires.

The second most time-consuming essays are the ones that make sense but are wordy. They are written by students who write the way they talk, who have a limited vocabulary, and/or who do not understand the difference in structure between making a point on paper vs. making one verbally. Marking up their papers typically involves a 25% reduction in the word count and a rearranging of many sentences. These students also do improve over time, but like the work of their weaker peers, the grading time does not decrease much over one semester.

Wash, rinse, and repeat those battles for 13+ weeks, and the time for other pursuits diminishes rather quickly.

Thus, I am left to ponder whether I should just shift to delivering engaging lectures on interesting topics and accept the fact that the entire higher education system needs to change to produce better writers on average because it’s hard for me to fight alone. Even though I’ve been able to improve the written communication of many business students, it comes at the high cost of my other activities.

Even if it makes me look bad, I have to admit that it is enticing to think about changing my pedagogy – and I wonder if I am alone in this regard. I can reuse good lectures many times; this will yield much more time to devote to my own writing. What makes the decision harder is knowing that I’d likely get great evaluations if I stopped assigning essays. I’ve taught an online course on management history comprised of a series of recorded lectures combined with a few essay exams, and students (really) loved it (even with 20% of the class scoring D or lower).

I can’t see myself flip-flopping on an issue that I believe in strongly, but I’d be lying if I did not say that my stance is evolving. Or perhaps my mind is just cloudy from staring at student papers too long.

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