How to Write a Good Arts or Social Science Essay

By Doug Mann 2016

General

1. Read the question or statement or topic you’re writing your paper on carefully. Reply to what it ACTUALLY asks or states, NOT what you imagine it to be asking or stating. Read over your course outline, especially the sections describing what your professor expects of you in terms of the length, format, and level of research involved in the essay. If the outline doesn’t go over these things, ask your professor in person what he or she expects. Don’t ignore relevant course texts: at minimum, the marker will think you couldn’t be bothered to buy or read them.

And most importantly, if the topic asks a question, ANSWER IT!

2. Know the basic theorist or text or media artifact referred to in the topic well. If necessary, consult a sociological or philosophical dictionary (e.g. the Oxford or Cambridge ones) or encyclopaedia to help you understand his or her basic ideas.

3. Understanding a Text: Read over difficult passages twice, preferably after a break. Highlight key phrases or sentences. Look over your notes, and don’t be afraid to ask basic questions in class (there are probably others who don’t understand either). And try to read the text critically.

Writing the Paper

4. Thesis: First and foremost, figure out what you want to prove (or at least claim) in your paper: this is called your thesis. State it in the first or second paragraph.

  • A Classic Thesis: “All history is the history of class struggles.”
  • Another Classic Thesis: “Man is born free, yet everywhere he is in chains.”
  • Good Thesis: “In this paper I will prove that the claims made by Marx in his theory of alienation still apply to modern service-industry labour.”
  • Bad Thesis: “There are many theories of advertising. Some think it is a good thing, some think it’s bad. In this paper I will explore some of these theories.”
  • Really Bad Thesis: “I watched Fight Club last night. It’s a totally confusing film. I’ll talk about some scenes in the movie in this paper.”
  • Super Bad Thesis: “I’ve got work in other courses, so I didn’t have time to work on this paper. Also, I was sick. So here goes nothing.”
  • Non-Thesis: “Smith thinks that consumerism creates freedom. Jones thinks it imprisons us in false hopes. I’ll discuss both of them.”

A clear and evocative title helps to make your thesis stand out:

  • Classic Title: “The Communist Manifesto” (hint: it’s a manifesto about communism)
  • Good Title: “The Best of Times, the Worst of Times: The Financial Crisis of 2008 as the Downfall of Financial Capitalism”
  • Vague Title: “Social Theory Paper on Marx”
  • Bad Title: Some Issues Surrounding Capitalism”
  • Really Bad Title: Sociology 2240 Essay”

5. Arguments and Language: A good theory paper tries to prove its thesis by making good arguments, backed up by social and historical data and examples, or by reference to the cultural genre or work being explored there. These include both logical arguments (“if X and Y are true, then Z must follow”) and empirical ones (facts and examples that support your case). When using logical arguments, it’s important to define your key terms: e.g. if you want to argue that “all political ideas are reflections of an underlying material substructure”, define what you mean by “material substructure.”

There’s nothing wrong with expressing emotions in a theory paper, as long as these can be backed up by good argument, and are therefore not purely personal (e.g. “I feel globalization is wrong!” Why should I care what you feel, if I don’t share this feeling? Tell me why I should share it!).

Think of yourself as a defense attorney defending a client against a criminal charge. It’s up to you to convince the jury that your client is innocent using facts and arguments. The client is your thesis.

As for the use of the first-person pronoun, use it when you have to, but it’s usually easy to omit, e.g. the statement “I believe that our PM is very charismatic” means exactly the same thing as the statement “our PM is very charismatic”. You could say “I went to Spain last summer” since it’s a personal revelation, but you don’t need the pronoun in saying “I found that most people in Spain speak Spanish.”

There’s also nothing wrong (although some more conservative theorists would disagree with this point) with using metaphorical language in your paper, including analogies: they help to keep the reader awake. Just make sure they have some point. The same goes for humour, which is a largely a lost art in undergraduate papers.

6. Organization: Organize your paper rationally – an outline is useful in this respect. Well organized papers reflect well organized thinking. Don’t repeat the same point 5 or 6 times: once or twice is sufficient. If you do, it looks like you’re adding needless filler to a thin paper.

In general, it’s wise to start by presenting your weaker or less significant arguments first, ending with the strong ones. If you have the space, it’s good to spend some time refuting one or two major counter-arguments to your thesis in the middle of your paper. Don’t spend two pages summarizing points you’ve already made in your “conclusion”: keep this short and sweet. Tell the reader something they don’t already know.

This is very important: don’t pull a thesis rabbit out of your hat in the last two pages! No surprise endings! The whole point of a good university essay is to argue for a specific position – if the reader doesn’t know what this position is, he or she won’t be amazed when you tell them in the last paragraph.

Read the course outline: most professors will say something about what they expect in an essay somewhere in their outlines. Proofread your paper. Then proofread it again. If your professor asks for three legitimate i.e. non-Internet sources, then read and discuss at least three such sources. University essays aren’t like Big Macs you can order and consume in ten minutes: you have to make them yourself, and you have to make sure they’re big and tasty sandwiches of relevant information and sound arguments!

student writing essay 01

7. Vocabulary: Define all key terms that aren’t common currency. DO NOT use words you’re not sure the meaning of – if you do, the marker is likely to get a chuckle, but at your expense. I found that the best way to become a literate speaker of the English language was to always have my handy Oxford compact dictionary at my side, and to look up the meaning of words I didn’t understand over and over until I remembered what they meant. Too many students today use words they clearly don’t understand, which can cause a chuckle (and loss of marks) in the reader’s mind. If you’re not sure what a word means, look it up!

Anders Henriksson, a history professor, has written a whole book about unintentionally comical things students have said in essays – things like Jesus said “the mice shall inherit the Earth”, or that during the Gulf War “Satan Husane invaided Kiwi and Sandy Arabia.” You don’t want to be featured in his second edition.

Avoid buzzwords such as “proactive” (a Simpsons episode actually mocks someone using this term), bureaucratic jargon like “individuals”, “males” and “females” (say “people”, “men” and “women”), along with non-existent words such as “relatable.”  You’re not a cop on Law and Order. Sadly, many students try to use a level of vocabulary they don’t understand to impress a reader with their intelligence or a misplaced political correctness. If you don’t know it, don’t use it!

Here’s the Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, which offers simple and clear definitions: http://dictionary.cambridge.org

Here’s the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary and Thesaurus, with somewhat more complex information: http://www.merriam-webster.com

8. Beware the Weasel!: Don’t pad your essay with fluff or weasel phrases, e.g. “The abortion question has been debated for centuries by many intelligent people. No real answer can be given to the moral dilemma involved.” Similarly, don’t start your paper with a vague and ultimately meaningless claim such as “Inequality goes back to the days of the dinosaurs, it has no solution!” As tempting as it may be to avoid making any substantive claims in your paper, don’t be a weasel: get to the point early, and state that point clearly!

9. Facts: Get your facts straight. For example, if you want to claim that a loss of religious values has caused divorce rates in Canada to rise over the last 20 years, find some statistical evidence that shows that divorce rates have in fact risen in that period. Don’t guess. The same advice applies to historical events: use a reference source to check dates and basic information, e.g. if you want to make some claim about the Enlightenment affecting the French Revolution, find out when it took place, why it took place, and something about the role of Enlightenment ideas in the political rhetoric of its leaders. Many students make empirical claims like “no one want to read books any more” without backing these up with evidence.

10. Basic Texts: Do not attempt to communicate telepathically with the major theorist you’re focussing on in your paper when analyzing their ideas: use the primary texts listed on the course outline that are relevant to your topic, and then add further research. Do NOT rely exclusively on lecture or web pages in this regard: it gives the appearance that you couldn’t be bothered to read the course materials. Example: if you’re writing a paper on Marx’s theory of alienation, actually read the relevant Marx text (in this case the 1844 Manuscripts), and quote or paraphrase it in your essay.

Essays which analyze a major theorist purely through sketchy web notes or through a secondary source largely unrelated to the theorist in question are seen by markers as HIGHLY suspicious – did you actually come to class? Or read the course texts? Have you recycled an unrelated paper from another course by changing a few sentences to make it tangentially fit into this course? This is becoming more and more of a problem in the age of Web 2.0, when some students are tempted to write a whole essay without ever opening the covers of a book so they can return to their cell texts and Facebook pages ASAP. Note that copyright laws still prevent the majority of books in print from being legally available online.

11. Language Skills: Spelling, grammar and syntax are VERY important, style FAIRLY important. Good spelling, grammar and sentence structure show clarity of expression and basic literacy (after all, you should be able to speak and write English by first-year university!), while style shows some individuality and some passion for your material. This is true for ALL social science, humanities and related courses, not just English courses proper. Good language skills developed during your university tenure will stay with you much longer and will probably be of greater utility than most of the specific information you’ve learned in your courses. I’ve found that in almost ALL cases, people who can think clearly are also people who can write clearly, and vice versa. A paper with fifty grammar errors is unlikely to be chock full of brilliant ideas.

And besides, a difficult-to-read paper, one that’s full of spelling and grammar mistakes, will give the marker a headache as a result of having to make the necessary corrections. It’s like trying to understand someone who’s mumbling: they might have something important to say, but you just can’t make it out, and eventually you get tired of trying. You can be sure that if you make the marker’s life difficult, you probably won’t be happy with the grade he or she gives you. The Buddha may be right that all life is suffering: but there’s no reason you have to add to that suffering by handing in a sloppily written paper. Note that all modern word processors have automatic spelling and grammar checkers, so if you don’t correct these, it’s your own fault (though our mediocre high schools should bear some of the blame).

If you’re still not convinced, imagine failing to get your dream job because your cover letter is full of mistakes, or you struggle to form meaningful sentences in the interview.

A Note on Punctuation: Use commas at “pauses” in your sentences, semi-colons to separate independent clauses, colons and dashes to separate phrases that are juxtaposed to each other. If you’re not sure, read your paper out loud, trying to imagine where the punctuation should go. It works best if you adopt a Shakespearean style as you read it. Here’s a simple punctuation guide that could save you a lot of headaches:

http://www.how-to-study.com/study-skills/en/10.asp

12. Presentation and References: Always type or word-process your papers, double-spacing (except for long quotes), with 1-inch margins and 11-12 point text. You do not have to use Times Roman, but avoid the goofier fonts. Stick more or less to the length the professor has asked for. Don’t put fancy covers on your papers: just staple the upper left corner. Use a standard referencing system – the MLA is strongly preferred – to give the sources of the quotes, paraphrases, and other information taken from external sources. Here’s a brief style guide that’s easy to follow:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MLA_Handbook_for_Writers_of_Research_Papers

Markers prefer either footnotes, or internal references such as the following:

Some noted theorists claim that “the rain in Spain falls mainly in the plain” (Smith 2006, 123). Others disagree. For example, one points out that the average rainfall in the Pyrenees Mountains is much greater than that found in the Spanish plains (Jones 45). Yet post-modern theorists like Laflamme (2007, 23) argue that rain can’t be measured at all, so the question of the distribution of rainfall in Spain has no true answer.

In the above example, Smith and Laflamme have two entries in your bibliography, while Jones only has one, thus you have to include the year to distinguish the two works by each author. Make sure you list all the works you consulted while writing your paper alphabetically in your bibliography at the end of the paper, including web pages (list the author of the web page, if known, its title, along with its web address). Endnotes are more difficult for the marker to refer to, and should definitely be avoided.

Either MLA or APA-style bibliographical styles are fine, though retyping a full bibliographical entry a dozen types at the bottom of the page seems pointless to me. Here’s an MLA-style set of bibliographical entries (they’re fictional):

Jones, Cyrano. “Deconstructing Rainfall Statistics.” The Journal of Wet Things 34.2 (1999): 77-99.

Laflamme, Louis . “Yellow Rain: Myth or Fact?” Scientific American 77: January 2007, pp. 44-66.

Laflamme, Louis. “What is Rain?” A Book of Essays on Rainfall. Ed. Jennifer J. Macadam. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Smith, Yardley. Rainfall in Spain: A Scientific Study. Madrid: University of Madrid Press, 2006.

Smith, Yardley. “I Love the Rain.” Rainy Day Stories. Ed. Annie Lennox. Glasgow: University of Glasgow Press, 2009.

And here’s some audio and video references:

The Matrix. Written and Directed by Larry and Andy Wachowski. Warner Brothers, 1999.

“33”. Battlestar Galatica. Written by Ronald D. Moore. Directed by Michael Rymer. Episode 1.1. Scifi Channel, January 14, 2005. [in a pinch you can omit the writer and director TV episodes, though full information is better.]

Spears, Britney. “Gimme More.” Blackout. 2007.

You must source all of your quotes and paraphrases, or else you’re flirting with plagiarism. If you quote an author in the main text of your paper, make sure that author’s work is listed in the bibliography. If you don’t, you’re at best sloppy, at worst, a plagiarist. Many professors insist on a minimum number of academic sources for your papers. The proper use of references proves that you’ve done this.

13. Creativity: A good essay shows some attempt at uniqueness and creativity, some attempt to go beyond the lectures and readings in coming to grips with the topic. Ideally, social and cultural theory and cultural studies are living conversations, not just resurrections of dead ideas. The marker doesn’t want to read over and over again exactly the same examples and explanations given in the lectures and texts: he or she is no doubt already familiar with the basic ideas contained in these.

14. Excuses: Some professors will accept pressing excuses for late papers. Others just automatically deduct some part of the grade. DO NOT simply assume that a professor will accept late work at full grade value: the other students and professors have work to do and lives to live too! Here’s some classic bad excuses for late or substandard work (this list is a work in progress):

  • I was too busy (in some undefined manner).
  • I drank too much last night (it was St. Patrick’s Day!).
  • My History prof lets me hand in things late! You should too!
  • I had a cold/the flu/smallpox/a rare South American virus I caught from a monkey at the zoo!
  • I had an Economics assignment to hand in, and after all, Economics is more important than your course, so I did it first (this will NOT ingratiate you with any self-respecting marker on this planet!).
  • This isn’t an English course! Whad’ya mean I gotta spell good? OMG, grammer is f0ur losers! Gess I gotta re-rite it. Coarse evaluation: 1/7 – prof sucks.
  • My grandmother died for the third time this year (it turns out she’s an unkillable zombie).
  • My computer crashed! I have to wait until it gets fixed! (which omits the obvious fact that there are probably hundreds of easily available computers in student labs around campus).
  • You mean there’s an essay in this course? I guess I should have read the course outline before November.
  • You mean there’s a course outline? I thought you were making it all up as you went along! My bad!
  • I have a part-time job that prevents me from writing papers between September and April. Can you accommodate me?
  • Please… please… please… oh god please… (accompanied by sobbing, tears, anguished cries, hair pulling, etc.).

15. Bad Grades: Papers that ignore the advice pointed out in points 4 to 14 are usually graded as no better than C+. Here are some GUARANTEED reasons for getting a mediocre grade on a paper:

  • Multiple spelling mistakes, vocabulary and punctuation errors, bad grammar, weak syntax (sentence structure)
  • Factual errors and the misquoting of key authors
  • Simply ignoring the relevant reading(s), especially course texts
  • Making assertions without supporting them
  • Substituting a list of ideas or facts for a good argument
  • Adding irrelevant material, including making excuses for the paper being late or sub-standard in the body of the paper
  • Revealing your thesis in the very last paragraph (wow, I didn’t see that coming!)

16. Fairness: Surprisingly or not, although some TAs and profs mark harder than others, they usually agree on the same serial scale for a given group of papers i.e. Professor A would rank papers X, Y, and Z in the same order as Professor B, although one might give paper X an A and the other an A-. So although marking isn’t entirely objective (indeed, little in life is), it isn’t entirely subjective either. If you are disappointed by an essay grade, don’t spend the rest of the term sulking, convinced that the TA or Professor hates you, or “is a real jerk”. It’s far more likely that relative to the other papers he or she graded, you got what you deserved. It may be hard to believe, but markers usually don’t take out their frustrations on students. Getting “even” with a TA or professor on evaluations if they’ve taught a good class but given you low marks is petty and immature: your teachers ARE NOT out to get you! Think of them like referees in a hockey or soccer game: it’s up to you to win the game. We’re just here to enforce the (academic) rules.

badger 02 angry

17. Don’t be a Marks Badger! Generally speaking, professors and TAs have good reasons for giving you the mark that you got. It’s usually not worth it in the long run to badger a professor for a higher grade UNLESS there’s an adding mistake or serious inconsistency in the way it was marked or if there were several TAs and one TA marks much harder than the others. For one thing, badgering a prof creates bad karma which will guarantee you several things: (a) no extensions on work in the future; (b) possibly, lower marks on “close calls” for your other work; (c) the unlikelihood of being able to take courses from that prof in the future in a warm and friendly atmosphere; (d) no letters for grad school.

And there’s no point in saying that your mark was unfair because you got a higher mark in another course: this could be because (a) the other marker was afraid of badgers such as you or inflated his/her grades to buy good evaluations, or (b) you actually worked harder on the first assignment, so you deserved the higher grade in the other course, or (c) the courses dealt with different subject matters, and you were more adept at the topic you chose in the previous course than on this one. The key to getting higher marks is (believe it or not) skill and hard work, so put away your badger mask and get out your pen and highlighter! Don’t waste your time e-mailing a professor to beg for a higher grade without a good reason to back up your request!

WORST EXCUSE EVER (disgruntled sigh): The worst reason to ask for a higher grade is because you “need it” to stay in your program, keep a scholarship, graduate with honours, get into grad school, etc. If everyone got what they wanted just by asking for it, champagne would flow from public water fountains, great clouds of ten-dollar bills would fall from the sky and yummy donuts would magically appear whenever you’re hungry. When you say to a professor “I need a 70% in your course to stay in my academic program”, most markers with even a modicum of self-respect are NOT thinking “hmm…. I guess if he/she really needs the grade, I’d better just give it to them!” Instead they’re most likely thinking one of the following: “why didn’t you spend more than two days on your essay? maybe even proofread it?” or “why didn’t you come to class on a regular basis and not miss that 7% quiz that would have boosted you to a 70%”, or “if you had only participated more than zero times you’d have gotten the grade you want legitimately!”.

In my experience, most people who drop below an important grade barrier (e.g. a 50% pass, a 70% to stay in a program) then complain about it later have shot themselves in the foot in some obvious way: missed a lot of classes (and thus don’t know the course material), missed a quiz or test, not participated in a class with a significant participation grade, or written a sloppily edited essay at the last minute that ignores the basic requirements stipulated in the course outline or on a professor’s web page. To echo Jean-Paul Sartre, be responsible for your actions: don’t blame your marker for calling you out on something you’ve done yourself.

18. Plagiarism: Last but not least, DON’T PLAGIARISE! If you quote an author, reference that quote. The same goes for paraphrases of texts – indicate where you’re getting the paraphrase from. You don’t need to reference a commonly known fact or widely agreed upon idea, e.g. “Paris is the capital of France”, or “Karl Marx was the father of modern socialism”, or “World War Two ended in an Allied victory in 1945.” But you do have to reference more obscure facts and less well known ideas. Footnotes or internal notes (see point 12 above) are easiest to check for a marker.

And yes, cutting and pasting from web pages without referencing them counts as plagiarism. Be warned: most markers know full well how to use search engines like Google. It’s pretty easy to catch a plagiarist who copies material from the Internet, so don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time (i.e. at minimum, getting a 0 on the essay or failing the course). In most of the cases I’ve discovered, I found the original plagiarised source in less than 5 minutes.

Having said this, avoid excessive quoting. For example, you can state most matters of opinion in your own words e.g. say “modern industrial labour is alienated”, as opposed to “According to McLellan, ‘modern industrial labour is alienated’ (McLellan 234).”

cell phone essay

19. Virtual Age Note for Technology Addicts and Sufferers from AADD: If you’ve gotten this far, this note probably doesn’t apply to you! But read on anyways. In the last few years more and more students have become addicted to their cell phones, Blackberries, to online messaging, video games, checking Facebook on their laptops during lectures, admiring their Instagram photos, and other technological marvels.

The problem with all of these technologies is that they create artificial attention deficits that clearly affect the quality of your writing (not to mention preventing you from reading good books, which causes a general decline in standards of literacy). One can hear lurking in the background of all those typos, grammar errors, incomplete sentences, and jargonesque phrases lifted straight out of badly written journal articles the shrill ring tones of cell phones and the beeps of your friends sending you messages. If you want to reduce your AADD (Artificial Attention Deficit Disorder) while writing papers, do the following:

  • Take the battery out of your cell phone and put it in your closet as you shed a tear and wave goodbye to your best friend for a week or two.
  • Hide your Playstation/Gameboy/XBox under your sofa. Don’t play video games in the background of your word processor.
  • DO NOT surf the Internet other than to so serious research. Disable all messenger services.
  • Turn off your TV. Play some soothing music on your stereo – classical, instrumental, folk, etc. – or turn on an FM radio station with such music.
  • Every couple of hours go for a walk, have a coffee, eat lunch, or raid the fridge for a break. Get lots of sleep. These breaks (as opposed to last-minute cramming) help to refresh the creative centers of your brain.
  • Most importantly, start one or two essays a month before they’re due! So if the essay is due December 1st, start it on November 1st! Ideally, chose the essay that is least based on course lectures and start working on it in the second month of the term: if you can write merely a page per week, it’ll be done long before it’s due! Pace yourself: academic life is a marathon, not a 100-yard dash.

20. Addendum for Papers on Film or TV: If your paper is on a TV show, list all the episodes you watched and took notes on in your bibliography by episode title, show title, episode number (usually in the format “Season Number-Episode Number” e.g. “Episode 2.6”), and broadcast date. You may also include the writer of the show, and if you’re really ambitious the director’s name. The stars don’t matter, since they usually stay the same over the course of the show. For example:

“The Hand of God.” Battlestar Galatica (2003) Episode 1.10. Written by David Wheddle and Bradley Thompson. Directed by Jeff Woolnough. Space, November 11, 2005.

You can find numerous episode guides on most prominent TV shows on the Net which list all of the information mentioned above. The website www.tv.com is very comprehensive, with complete episode listings for every show I’ve ever looked up on it, while www.imdb.com features a massive database that covers all movies and TV shows ever made.

Films should be listed by director, film title, and year, with the screenwriter and production company being optional, e.g.:

Lehmann, Michael. Heathers. Written by Daniel Waters. New World Pictures, 1988.

Essays on film and TV shows that don’t list and directly refer to the video texts they’re based on are by definition failures. So if you write an essay on Sex and the City but don’t refer to, quote, or reference any Sex and the City episodes, then you really haven’t done your job properly, have you? Be thankful if you pass in such a case.

21. Last-Minute Gasps of Electronic Desperation: DO NOT e-mail your professor a pile of questions about how to structure your essay the weekend before it’s due: this only proves that you have poor time-management skills. It’s smarter to come to your professor or TA’s office hours or to meet them informally a week or two in advance with your rough outline and any questions you have about how to proceed. That way you can clear up any confusions with further questions, as opposed to cajoling or guilting your marker into writing a thousand word e-mail on a Sunday night to give you the luxury of doing your work at the last moment (not to mention not having to leave your house or apartment, climbing some stairs and talking to your professor, which, by the way, are good for you both physically and psychologically). It’s surprising how many students ignore this very commonsense bit of advice and treat their instructors like fast-food outlets, open 24 hours and always read to serve you with a smile on their facial emoji.

22. My Iron Laws of Marks (2008)

Methodology: As of this date I’ve taught over fifty classes comprised of thousands of students, and come to some fairly well supported conclusions about the relationships between certain types of student behaviour and the grades they get in my classes. Here’s a summary of my findings. 2016 Update: my conclusions here still stand up quite well.

Note: These are all statistical correlations, meaning that they are “usually” true, though they admit of individual exceptions. “Strong Correlation” means that the relationship holds true in 80% or more cases. “Weak Correlation” means that the relationship holds true in 65% or more cases. “Inverse Correlation” means that as factor X increases, factor Y decreases, e.g. more partying = lower grades.

1. ATTENDANCE: There is a Strong Correlation between attending class on a regular basis and getting an A or B. The majority of students with grades of C or lower skip class on a regular basis. This is easily explained: if you come to class, you’ll know the material better, do not miss any quizzes, and can participate.

2. SEATING: There is Strong Correlation between sitting in the front row of class and getting an A or B. Conversely, there is a Weak Correlation between sitting as far from the professor as possible, usually in the back row, and getting a grade of C or less. Students who get a D or F almost ALWAYS skip a significant number of classes, sit at the back, and play with their digital devices during class. Again, this is easily explained: students who sit near the front are more cognitively and emotionally engaged in the class materials and discussions. This doesn’t really apply to small seminar-style classes, where the seats are arranged in a semi-circle or square (though the “rule of furthest distance from the professor equals lower marks” still has some validity).

In some cases, I can roughly predict grades half way through the very first class based on where you sit, your level of participation, and your cell phone/laptop use.

3. ELECTRONIC DISENGAGEMENT: The is a Strong Correlation between students who regularly distract themselves with electronic communications devices – cell phones and laptops (on which they text, surf, use Facebook or play games) – and students who get a B- or less in a given class. There is also a Strong Correlation between (a) students who print off class notes, come to class without any electronic devices and listen to lectures/discussions and (b) students who get an A or a B.

This is a chicken-or-egg issue: students who are disengaged electronically don’t process the information being offered in class; yet the fact that they come to class with these devices and programs in place shows their intention to ignore the lecture/discussion taking place in the class. So which comes first, the intellectual disengagement, or the electronic devices? It doesn’t matter: they create a vicious feedback loop.

4. PARTICIPATION: Though there are quiet but bright students, there is a Weak Correlation between students who participate on a regular basis and getting a grade of B or better. This becomes a Strong Correlation in classes with significant, i.e. 10% or better, participation grades. Participators have more emotional stake in the course material, and are more likely to remember key facts and issues addressed in class.

5. RESEARCH: There is a Strong Correlation between doing serious research, i.e. reading books and scholarly articles, and getting an A on an essay. There is a Weak Correlation between those who do most of their research online and getting a mediocre (72% or lower) essay grade.

Case Study: Pop Culture 2008

To illustrate my Iron Laws, I include data from an actual class I taught, which I’ll call “Pop Culture 2008” to protect the anonymity of the students in it.

There were 40 students in this class. Of the ten students who got an 80% or better, all attended class on a regular basis, with six sitting literally in the front row of the class, the other four in the middle. Only four or five of these ten students brought laptops to class on a regular basis, with none of them appearing to be electronically disengaged. Five participated pretty well every class, three occasionally.

The student with the highest grade on her essay had four books, one scholarly article and no Internet sources listed in her works cited. She had probably done the most solid research in the class, i.e. read the greatest number of published pages in print. Students with grades of C+ or less on their essays tended to rely on short Web-based sources for much of their research.

Of the ten students with the lowest grades, C or less, seven were chronic truants, the other three missing a quarter to a third of classes. Seven or eight sat fairly consistently in the back row of the class (when they bothered to attend it), while six or seven were “electronically disengaged” due to laptop play and/or cell phone or Blackberry use. Three participated occasionally, about every third class; one talked a few times; while the other six never talked. The three students with the lowest grades (a) all skipped at least seven or eight classes each, (b) never participated, (c) sat in the back row for most classes they attended, and (d) were distracted by electronic devices on a regular basis.

Overall, all five of my Iron Laws were validated by grades in this class. Although there were a few participators with disappointing grades, these seemed to be connected to disengagement from studying and research.

Last revision: April 4, 2016

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