Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Basic Academic Skills

I am not an APA or MLA "policeman" with an unwavering requirement that student papers be perfect examples of academic formatting. They need to be close, but I tell students I don't grade someone lower for using APA 5th Edition instead of APA 6th Edition. Making a minor MLA error is going to happen, so close is often good enough. As long as a student demonstrates respect for citing and acknowledging past scholarship, I can be lenient — within reason.

Ideas and critical thinking skills are more important than perfect formatting. I weight my grading accordingly. My experience, however, is that students attentive to formatting and style issues are also more likely to submit carefully outlined and reasoned papers. This is why software that judges writing ("robo-grading") can be accurate: badly written papers are often, but not always, badly reasoned. Even non-native speakers demonstrate the divide between careful and careless students; the students attempting to format a paper properly tend to exhibit good reasoning skills no matter their English skills.

This blog post isn't going to win many friends, and I realize it could be taken as a critique of my colleagues, but the students in my courses are not demonstrating basic formatting skills. I am teaching a capstone course, the fifth class in a series that includes two writing and two communication courses. Many of the students in my class are transfer students, so what I am observing is not representative of any one institution's students. I repeat: this seems to be a widespread problem. I am wondering why it has become an issue when compared to my past teaching experiences.

Before the first formal paper I requite, in my course's online shell I provided sample papers, links to the Purdue OWL (Online Writing Lab), and numerous other resources. In class, I demonstrated how to use an APA template with Microsoft Word. If the students watched, I showed the cover page, headers, numbering, and bibliography basics within an hour review. All this material should have been review, after all, since this is the capstone course.

Sadly, not even a third of my students submitted papers close to APA formatting. Some papers lacked such basics as the student's name and page numbers.

Again, I'm not claiming a failure of any one course or institution, since these students come from several institutions. Transfer students often waive the earlier requirements based on grades earned (or awarded, at least) by other institutions. Still, the majority of students are from our institution, though many of those are in special "accelerated" (eight-week) courses — which includes the course I am teaching.

How in the world can you be in your third or fourth year at the university level and fail to include your name on a paper? How can you attend class and have access to online resources, yet fail to at least approximate an APA or MLA bibliography? Missing page numbers? Not the least effort to cite outside sources?

I've discussed the problem of poor skills (or poor self-discipline) with my deans. The challenge is, how do you reinforce proper academic skills as students are in their last two years of degree programs? It is frustrating and I cannot be alone among my colleagues.

My university requires an academic handbook of all students. The students have a guide to APA and MLA formatting. I asked my class, "Did anyone look at the handbook?" There was silence.

Have we failed these students or have they chosen to be so inattentive to standards? I argue that grades are earned, not awarded, but the students did well enough in their previous coursework to enroll in a capstone course. Our institution has a portfolio requirement… but it seems to have slipped away, especially among transfer and accelerated students. Did the students compose better papers in the past? I have no way to know, since I have no examples of their previous works.

My colleagues must be trying to teach the benefits of citations and bibliographies, especially in academic writing. But, the students don't seem to have learned the lessons.

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