Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Slow Editing and Student Error

A few weeks ago an e-mail came up on a discussion list I'm on that asked for advice about how to address what was termed a "Fatal Flaw Error Policy." I hadn't heard that phrase before, but recognized the practice -- drastically marking down or automatically failing unless revised, a paper with too many errors. I searched the Web, and found this incarnation of the approach at the School of Business at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville (
Fatal Error Policy--Adopted by the School of Business faculty on November 13, 1995 
Business students must practice professional standards in writing. To this end, all written assignments must meet minimal presentation standards to be acceptable. These standards address spelling, punctuation, format and basic grammar. The term Fatal Errors refers to technical English errors of form. Specifically they include the following:
  1. Each different word misspelled,
  2. Each sentence fragment,
  3. Each run-on sentence or comma splice,
  4. Each mistake in capitalization,
  5. Each serious error in punctuation that obscures meaning,
  6. Each error in verb tense or subject/verb agreement,
  7. Lack of conformity with assignment format,
  8. Each improper citation, or lack of citation, where one is needed.
Papers with more than three fatal errors marked by an instructor on any one page, or more than a number specified by the instructor for the entire document will be returned to the student and subject to a grading penalty as prescribed by the instructor. Instructors will determine the number of resubmissions allowed and the penalty attached to each resubmission. Penalties for final course papers (where there is no time for a resubmission) will be determined by the instructor and will be based on the relative importance of the assignment to the determination of the final course grade. This policy applies to all 200-level and above business courses. 
Since the nature of written assignments will vary from course to course, please discuss writing expectations and other details on the application of this policy with each of your instructors.
As I said in reply to the post about the idea, a policy like this is borne usually from frustration. The policy assumes students can write without the flaws given above, but that  underneath they might be too lazy too attend to the issues unless failure to do so is, well, fatal. Or it assumes students can find a way to get the errors removed. It's an all stick approach. And as you can see, the School of Business at SIUE has been following it since 1995, 19 years come November 3, and so from the business school faculty's point of view, it must be working.

I don't like the policy, and I wouldn't use it in my own teaching. There are better ways, I think, to get students turning in close to error-free final drafts than threatening a dire grade. That said, I do think it is important and possible to set a final draft standard that calls for students to submit well proofed and edited prose. I  think writers at any level of ability, including students placed in basic or developmental writing courses, can write be shown how to proofread.

But a lot of courses with writing, including many first year and basic writing courses I've visited over the years,  do not teach how to proofread.  I've seen a lot of courses where students are asked to cram handbooks to try to learn the major and minor rules for standard edited English in 15 weeks, have witnessed students being lectured on dangling modifiers, have seen students required to submit over and over to automated spell and grammar checking software until the writing is cleared of errors, and I've seen policies like the above, where students are held to drastic consequences for having too many errors.

Often these approaches result in many students giving up, not because they are lazy or stupid, but because they are frustrated and not being shown how to look at their own and classmates' writing and to proofread and edit it for surface level errors. That skill -- proofreading -- is different from knowing what makes a modifier dangling, what is a fragment versus a full sentence, what verb tense is in use, where subjects and verbs are and whether they agree.  Being able to understand what a handbook says, in the context of looking at a handbook and its illustration of an error and how to correct it, is not the same as spotting an error in writing. Being able to choose the correct revision of an error on a multiple choice quiz, is not the same skill as being able to see the error in one's own prose and making the edit needed to address it.

So of late, in my travels and visits to campuses where student error is a concern, discussions have turned to slow editing strategies, things that help a student transfer what they learn from a handbook and its exercises to their own writing. A favorite handout for that at the Council on Basic Writing Resource Share from February 2014 (Direct link to the item here: -- ).  The idea of the handout is to show students how to use a word processor to break up their reading, to disorder a copy of the essay into an alphabetic list of sentences.

That step, making a copy of the essay using File/Save As, printing the draft, working with one sentence at a time and asking for each sentence if it needs an edit, is slow. It's slower than running through a spell checker, and slower than uploading the paper to a service like Grammarly. It's slower than asking a friend to proof, or getting an editor to catch errors (though both of those are good and valuable steps writers use, and students should be taught to use too).

It asks a writer to stop, to read not for meaning but for correctness. It's something they shouldn't do at all in early drafting or as they move and add details, cut things that aren't needed, refine thoughts with more reading. It's a step that works better if a piece has had time to sit, unread, untouched for a few days, a week. It's a step that works best with a bookmarked handbook, one that the writer's been taught to know how to look into on their own as well as from assignments and teacher direction to read about error X.

But if these issues are important to teachers, so important that their presence in writing is fatal, then it's just as important to teach the skills for addressing the error. Lecturing, harping, reading grammars, doing exercises do not teach the skill of proofreading. Teaching proofreading and giving students practice at it with their own and classmates' writing is required. And that takes time because to do it well, it has to be done, at least to start, slow.

1 comment:

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