On Campus

What if failure was not an option?

Would you rather get an F, or be made to rewrite?

This year, I seem to have reached some kind of breaking point when it comes to grading essays. At one time I kind of liked terrible papers — not because I took a perverse delight in giving a low grade — but because they were easy to assess. Utter incompetence cannot be hidden. But after ten years of such nonsense, it’s getting a bit old, and I’m tired of seeing the Fs pile up at the end of the year.

My first attempt to encourage better writing came a a few years ago when I instituted a generous rewrite policy in most of my courses, but that has had mixed results. Lots of students won’t rewrite papers no matter how badly they’ve done on them, and those who do rewrite often make only superficial corrections, hoping to get a few more points here and there.

I should point out that I’m not talking about papers that are simply dull or jejune; I’m talking about papers that do not even begin to address the issues at hand or remotely attempt to meet the most basic requirements.

Right now, I’m hatching a plan by which I would provide students with a list of basic things that must be included — and done correctly — in any paper. Essays must have a title; they must cite sources correctly; they must actually cite the text in question; they must be of the assigned length. And so on. If the paper does not meet all these basic requirements, it simply gets handed back, ungraded, and must be redone.

If the paper meets these deal-breaking criteria, then it will be assessed for its intellectual quality. If it does not rise to the level of a C-minus, it goes back with comments (inlcuding specifics on what needs fixing) but still without a grade and still must be rewritten. When the rewrite comes in, the student must include a note describing the changes and how the problems have been fixed.

I’m eager to try this out, and curious to see how students will respond. The optimist in me hopes that the lack of a low grade on a failing paper will help prevent students from getting discouraged, and the clear, tough guidelines will force them to be more scrupulous. I also hope the revision note will compel them to think about  real revisions and not just pretend that fixing a few spelling errors constitutes a rewrite. The pessimist in me worries that students will get stuck on the first paper and never finish even that, and so fail all the more completely (of course, many students give up after the first paper or two anyway).

I also wonder whether students will object to the no-grade they might get on the grounds that it should be up to them whether they want to accept the low mark. This, in effect, would be students fighting for their right to fail, but I wouldn’t put it past them. I could always remind students that they are still free to fail exams as badly as they want.

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