I have been handing back papers in my classes and getting new ones -- the three day "weekend" I have will, after I finish this and pull stories for the evening's OND, be devoted to grading (and mostly commenting on) a set of papers from an intro-level class. The papers I handed back last week were all over the place and, while I wrote all over the papers (something I keep trying not to do as it adds so much time to my grading!) I found myself frustrated again by several students who are clearly capable of doing well on a given assignment but make the decision that it isn't worth it to really succeed. How do I define success?
Well, in some ways I define success the same way my students do: to be successful is to get an A. Or at least to earn an A. The latter is more difficult but more important and requires both desire and dedication. And time on task.
So if you were writing a paper (or an essay) or a test, what would an A in your grade mean? Follow me beyond the folder computer logo for some idea of what I am looking for.
An A to me is an outstanding grade. It doesn't mean just that you have done everything that is required. It means that you have done more than that. For an essay exam, it is not just that you have answered the question or even answered it relatively well, drawing on what we have discussed in class. An essay should do those things, of course, but an A essay will show that you have done the readings (both assigned and ideally the recommended ones as well), have listened to and learned the material covered in the class meetings, and that you can draw connections across multiple disciplines and (in the case of an art history class) across multiple periods and regions. There should be clear organization, no major (and very few minor) questions about your accuracy, and it should not have any grammatical issues that interfere with my ability to follow your argument. Yes, content is important, but an understanding of context is the major thing I am looking for. That and a sparkle in the writing -- it can be fun to read, enjoyable to follow your argument, and a strong A essay will show that you have the ability to make connections beyond the ones you have been given in class.
As you can see an A is not easy to get (an A- is easier, certainly, but an A is a top grade and I feel it should be reserved for a truly outstanding paper). That is part of the design. If I don't push or challenge my students, how do they improve? And (for my university this is essential to the subject at hand) how do I document that they have improved? If you do well without trying to go beyond the minimum, then what is to encourage you to do more than I am setting as the baseline? I know about triage in college -- I chose which courses to put the effort into and which I had to let slide, even a little bit, so I could do better in others.
When I have tests that are largely objective (and I do have several objective components to most of my exams) you can get perfect largely through memorization of major elements. The memorization is a way of establishing a framework into which unknown objects can be fit. The fitting of unknown objects, and understanding why they are to be placed into the timeline in that location, is an example of the critical thinking that can rise to the level of an A on the essays.
As to papers I had one this past week that earned a low mark. There was critical thinking, but clearly the thinking was based on the misunderstanding of the assigned reading. The student was talking about another culture's social interaction (I can't really be more specific, I don't think) and while the point of the paper was to analyze a different culture, the framework was a completely western one. That meant that the methodological/theoretical understanding of the material (or lack thereof) impacted the final grade. If you know the vocabulary, and some of the ideas, of a discipline, and choose to apply it to a paper subject, but cannot apply it appropriately, the grade you get will be for the attempt, not for any success you had with it.
Another thing that will affect a grade very quickly, suddenly, is misrepresenting your sources. Depending on whether I think it is malicious or inadvertent, and how much of a component of your paper it is, I will turn in a writer to the university for plagiarism, or I will give a very low "courtesy" grade. It is frustrating to me that I need to tell students to cite their sources, but I do -- in the syllabus, in the assignment directions, and in class when I give an assignment. If you choose not to credit where you got your information then my default response is to assign zero points and report the issue with academic integrity to the university. I state in my syllabus that I have a "zero tolerance" policy with respect to plagiarism. And it is mostly true, but I have been known to ask a student to revise a paper and resubmit. But when that is required and the end result is perfect, you still won't get an A, because you didn't follow the rules and misrepresented your source material when you first submitted. In other words, do the paper well and do it right the first time around.
I often have papers that are developed in multiple stages. The first component of such an assignment led to a list of characteristics of the level of paper quality related to grades. I posted it online the next year under the title "Here is what I am looking for in the first paper component" and it was available to students before they wrote the assignment. I think very very few students looked at this, as few of them followed the guide which would have told them how to write a paper that would get an A.
A Thesis is a clear, provable one-sentence statement.In other words, in practical application, an outstanding paper didn't really need to be as perfect as I really would like them to be. But an A still was out of the reach of many people in the class. Even when they are told exactly what is needed, often students don't really think the work is necessary to put into the assignment. Darnit.
Argumentation is well laid out; writing is formal in tone with very few if any grammatical and spelling mistakes.
Notation and bibliographic form are accurate according to Turabian (or Chicago Manual of Style).
The correct number and distribution of sources is present and annotations are informative, giving both qualifications of the author and specifics of what each source provides to the paper.
B Thesis is a clear, provable one-sentence statement.
Writing is relatively clear, and argumentation is reasonably laid out. Although there may be problems with writing style, grammar, or spelling, they do not impede the reader’s comprehension of the argument.
There are easily-fixable concerns with the bibliography and notation but all components of the paper are present.
C Thesis is potentially problematic and/or needs rephrasing to become a provable statement.
Writing is so problematic that the reader has to add in words or rephrase sentences to draw out meaning (in other words, I cannot understand what you are trying to say in many cases). Organization in general needs work.
Directions are loosely followed, and there are problems with length, font or font size, and/or bibliography (sources or annotations).
D Thesis is missing, is unprovable, or is poorly designed.
Writing is confusing and the proposal does not indicate how you are going to approach the proving part of the next assignment. Spelling and grammar are inconsistent to the point of confusion.
Bibliography and notation is not in Turabian style and sources are weak. Sources generally do not address the thesis topic. The number of sources and annotations may be well below the required number.
Directions were largely ignored.
I feel cynical about papers sometimes. Maybe it isn't the right day to be grading?
(here's hoping you have a long weekend and can catch up on sleep)