Your Papers: Process and Scoring Methodology

The Horror, the Horror

I have gone on record here and elsewhere as being, in general, opposed to grades, especially as part of the educational process, on the grounds that any very serious preoccupation with them is downright destructive of a serious learning environment. I still feel that way, but since it is apparently necessary to provide grades, and since many parents and most students seem to consider them important, we might as well make the process as clear as possible. None of this should be seen to attach to them an importance beyond their due.

First, a preliminary word of encouragement: I can say that, while there have been people who have failed this course outright in the past, and probably there will be others in the future, the only way anyone has ever found to do so has been to skip a number of assignments. Nobody who has completed all or even most of them has ever failed; those who complete the work come out with very palatable scores — usually in high 80s or 90s; and, due to the way I calculate those scores, the exceptional students can come out with scores well in excess of 100.

Keep that in mind as we begin, for, when you get the first few of your papers back for this course, you will probably be shocked. Many of you will never in your lives have received such low scores for anything. Consider it a bit of a wakeup call: you’re now in the big leagues. This is a college-level course, and you’re going to be expected to perform to fairly exacting standards. The good news is that you can learn to do so. And if you learn to write to my specifications here, I can fairly well guarantee that you will be able to deal with the writing assignments you encounter in college. I should also add that initial low scores are not really a cause for serious alarm, for two reasons: first of all, they should improve, if you’re not just going through the course like a zombie, paying no attention and learning nothing; second, I scale these scores severely. Your final score is not a simple average of your accumulated paper scores. I’m not going to be overly specific about that, because it tends to encourage people to “game” the system, rather than mastering the material at hand.

I have somewhat revised my scoring procedure for this year, and we’ll be trying the new one out to see how it works. I have in the past struggled to provide timely feedback, because I really believe that at this level it’s important to provide thorough feedback, and producing it takes a lot of time and a lot of effort. The system I have set up here should facilitate it. You will of course have to play along to make it work — I’ll get to how you do that in a bit, too.

How I Compute the Scores

My scoring rationale here is fairly simple: it’s based on two assumptions:

Accordingly, your score on a paper will be composed of two parts: the content score, which is a measure of how well your answer addresses the question, and an error score, which is a tally of the errors you’ve made in a technical sense. The second score will be subtracted from the first. You need not be very mathematically gifted to divine the fact that the ideal here is to get that first number (the content score) up to 100, and the second (the error score) down to zero. You can also probably see that it’s possible, if you don’t say much to the point, but say it very badly, for you to come out with a score below zero. Just for the record, I’ll let that stand on the paper, but it will go into the gradebook as a zero. You shouldn’t have a lower score for having done the paper than the zero you’d get for not doing it. I don’t anticipate that happening very often, though.

Assessing Content

The content score is made up of five parts, weighted unevenly:

Tallying Errors

The error score is (for obvious reasons) more diffuse. You will lose a point for each error (with a handful of exceptions). One (negative) point is awarded per instance, so if you manage, for example — and yes, I’ve seen it happen — to misspell an author’s name thirteen times in the course of a single paper, you’ll lose thirteen points for that. It behooves you to be careful. The following are the main labeled errors clustered into categories, and how they show up in your papers:

You will find these errors (and perhaps others, if I choose to expand the categories as we go) summarized at the bottom of the paper, after the content score summary. After that you’ll find the difference, which is the score for the paper. If your first few are very low (or even in negative territory), don’t despair. It just shows you where you can make improvements, and I think the level of detail you have here will allow you to zero in on your problem areas with some real efficiency. If you dedicate yourself to making this work, you’ll find it pretty effective.

When you get a paper back in the forum for paper feedback, it will be a fairly complex document, which I have assembled by means of some HTML tricks, CSS, and PHP. Some of that you can see and tweak if you like; some of it you can’t. But you will find that I have marked up text inline where it’s possible to do that, and that they are displayed with the three-letter codes you find in the long list above. In addition, you will probably find that many or most paragraphs are accompanied by a floating white-background box in which I’ve offered more elaborate comments or criticisms, responses, or just about anything else that seems relevant. Not all of it need be bad — we’re ultimately less about getting to a grade than about finding a solid ground of serious literary discourse.

What should be clear from what I’ve said so far is that what we’re striving for in this course is not a general approach to writing of all sorts, but specifically it’s about expository writing. The point of expository writing is to expose — not one’s own personality, but the thing itself that you’re writing about. It’s not about you — and it’s not about me either. It’s about it — whatever you’re writing about. Anything that helps clarify that is good. Anything that gets in the way of it is pernicious and destructive of your goals.

Submitting Your Paper

I’m really reluctant to put these strictures in place, because I hate to make you jump through hoops that have nothing to do with the actual academic matter at hand, but I don’t think I really have any practical alternative, if I’m going to get feedback to you in a timely way. I have found in the past that in order to get student papers into a shape in which I can deal with them according to the foregoing scheme can take me upwards of three hours for a single assignment (all students’ papers), especially if there are a number of people who have used Microsoft Word to prepare their papers. That’s all before I get down to the actual work of reading and correcting the papers. It’s just not time well spent, and it’s very vulnerable to error. Accordingly, here’s what I will expect you to put into the forum. It may require you to learn a little something new, but that won’t hurt. You can then claim to know some HTML. It really isn’t that much.

You may prepare your paper using Word — that’s fine — but you must save it as pure text before putting it into the forum. You may also use Notepad or whatever other text editor you have (I use BBEdit on the Macintosh). If you don't know how to do that, don't use Word in the first place. If you have problems with any of this, let me know before the deadline. I’m a lot more likely to be sympathetic if it’s not something you just didn’t bother worrying about until the very end. If I encounter a paper with residual Microsoft markup, I reserve the right to give it a zero and be done with it. You can take the trouble to get this right.

Here are the format constraints:

Again, I apologize to you for making you jump through these hoops — I’d rather not, but it’s a skill that will be valuable enough for you to have learned in the long run, and the net improvement in my feedback time to you should make it worthwhile.

Doubtless other questions will arise, but I think if you master what’s here, you’ll do very well indeed. I’m fairly rigorous about most of these things, but I actually am on your side.