Category: writing

From the Inbox

Grading English Language Learners’ Writing

This semester, I’m teaching more international students than I have in the past. Since some of them do not always have the best English, it raises a question: how do I grade their writing? How much do I focus on their ideas and how much do I focus on their ability to communicate their ideas and arguments? While this problem is not unique to international students, it is particularly important when the students seem to only have been studying English for a year or two rather than a decade or two with native speakers.

Personally, I find it ethically problematic to significantly punish students because they cannot communicate their ideas because they do not know our language. But how do I know what aspects of their paper are unclear due to a language barrier and what is off due to confusion, bad ideas, or problematic interpretations?  This semester, most of my international students with poor English are from China, so I was particularly happy to stumble across this explanation of Chinese language while preparing a class about ancient China:

Chinese is almost the opposite [of Japanese]. The word order is closer to English, with the verb coming before the object (e.g., “I read [a] book”). The Chinese language is also completely uninflected, having no tenses or plurals or any grammatical modification of word endings whatsoever. Honorifics, for the most part, are absent: Chinese is not a respect language. Chinese is also monosyllabic, at least to the extent that every Chinese character (written symbol), without exception, is pronounced as a single syllable and is a discrete unit of meaning. (Chris Holcombe, A History of East Asia: From the Origins of Civilization to the Twenty-First Century, 1st edition, 2011, p. 16)

From this, I think that, when grading the writing of students whose first language is Chinese and who are still learning English, we can be a bit more lenient about tenses and the inflection of plurals. Spelling, too, may also be a problem while adjusting to the Latin alphabet.  Additionally, many sentences are likely going to be pretty short and simple–just as our Latin sentences rarely approach Cicero’s in length or complexity. With these cautious allowances, I think we could be fairer to our students as they struggle with learning a complex language. Of course, they may require us to do more work to decode our students’ papers–and in some ways our Latin learning and teaching experiences have helped prepare us very well for that task–and that provides other grading dilemmas regarding what is their idea and what is our [creative?] reading of their paper (It’s worth noting that we also face the problem of decoding some native English students’ papers).

I’m not saying we shouldn’t gently encourage them to improve their English–I think we should. I think we should also encourage them, along with all other students, to seek out the help of an on-campus writing center, learning center, or a peer editor. I just think we shouldn’t excessively punish them because they aren’t a skilled native speaker.  So how much is fair to deduct from their scores due to grammatical and syntactical problems? Perhaps a few points, just like you would with a native English speaker. After all, their papers will probably already suffer if a language barrier diminishes their ability to understand their sources, so avoiding double jeopardy seems fair.

Essentially, I suggest that we should not treat them worse than you would a native English speaker. Provide them with similar advice, resources, and guidance about writing. Deduct similar, reasonable amounts of points for grammar mistakes, but put more effort into trying to understand their writing and ideas by understanding how English and Chinese differ. That may help us see through some of the fog that clouds our vision of their ideas and help us arrive at a more authentic and appropriate grade.

What is in a name?

A paper by any other name would be as formal, right? Apparently not. This semester, I assigned several brief writing assignments in my mythology and Roman archaeology classes. I called them “Exercises” so that they would not seems as stressful and help communicate that they should be brief. Instead, I think the word “Exercise” communicated that the papers were less formal than I hoped. Many of the students frequently used the first person–“I think…,” “We know this because…,” “I chose to talk about…,” or something along those lines. It was not the rare, more formal “In this paper, I argue…” or “…, I argue,…” which you see in some scholarly settings. While reading these, I was impressed by how distracting the first person was for me and so how much I hated reading it. This is the most obvious example of how these “Exercises” seemed too informal.  Two were handwritten, many were a single paragraph of few hundred words, and many lacked a thesis statement.

Now, I am sure I seem like a crotchety old man here, and I am well aware that some of my complaints reflect other issues–students needing to improve as writers, changing language norms, students are often less invested in academics than their professors were/are–but there seems to have been a communication disconnect here. The students seem not to have understood what I meant, and this can have very bad pedagogical implications. For instance, when I taught my Roman archaeology class about the Colosseum, which was built on the artificial lake in Nero’s Domus Aurea, I said “The Flavians sought to give back the land from the Domus Aurea to the people because it was acquired after the Great Fire of 64.” Based on their answers on exams, students seem to have heard “The Flavians were giving back to the Roman people.” and understood it as a way to repay the people for something. These are two very different concepts of the Colosseum. One sees the Colosseum as a just return of land and an attempt to placate the people or buy their support, the other suggests the building was part of a social contract in which the emperor must thank the people for their support. The latter is anachronistic–the Romans did not have a Lockian social contract.

My pedantic point is that we must be careful about how we communicate with and phrase things for our students. We have been trained to think in certain terms and to understand our subject in a specific way. Our students most likely do not know what we mean by some of these terms (e.g. identity, reception, “draws on,” “in dialogue with,” power) or they have very different ideas about what we mean by them (e.g. paper, quiz, test, exam, short essay [vs. essay], monograph, blog post). In order to be good teachers, we must find a way to communicate most effectively: try to remember what it’s like to be a student, try to think in their terms, and teach our students what our/academic terminology means.

Next time I do these exercise assignments, I will call them “Papers” and let a word limit be the main indicator of how long it should be. Next time, I will say “The Flavians returned the land of the Domus Aurea to the people” or “The Flavians made the Domus Aurea‘s land more open, more public.” Next time, my exam sections will just be called “Essays” instead of “Short Essays.” Next semester, I will continue to improve.

Object-based learning

There’s something about handling an artifact or experiencing an ancient building during class that really unleashes a student’s latent curiosity. In Cincinnati, I loved to use coin replicas from the University of Cincinnati Classics Department’s study collection during class or in outreach presentations about ancient coins. Students were more engaged and asked a lot of questions when they had coins in their hands, and they were more willing to try and figure things out on their own. When I came to teach at Ohio University, I no longer had access to a study collection or set of artifacts with which to harness students’ joy and awe of directly experiencing the ancient world, so to reify the experience or the use of objects and buildings in my archeology classes, I relied on PowerPoint slides, videos, and descriptions from my own vivid experiences with the Pompeii Archaeological Research Project: Porta Stabia or studying abroad at the Intercollegiate Center for Classical Studies in Rome (i.e. the Centro).

Yet the gap between the artifacts and the students only seemed to truly be overcome with a final brief writing assignment for my Roman Archaeology class. I asked them to wander the campus of Ohio University and the city of Athens to find a building or piece of art that is unquestionably inspired by a Roman monument, building, or artifact that we have studied this semester and then to answer the following three questions in an essay:

  • soldiers-and-sailors-monument
    Soldiers and Sailors Monument, Athens, OH

    How do you know this structure/object is based on a Roman building/object? How are they similar?

  • What does the Roman model tell us about the modern building?
  • In what ways does the modern building/object make you better appreciate the ancient model?

As I read through the papers, I was proud to see how much students had learned: how to objectively describe monuments, how to identify their models, how these models fit into Roman culture, and how to read the messages and features of any monument. Since I was able to see their personalities in their writing a lot more, it seems like they enjoyed this assignment more than earlier assignments. But I was also struck by a common answer for the third question: they could better appreciate the engineering, greatness, or reality of the ancient model. One paper admitted that comparing a chapel to the Pantheon was like comparing a kitten to a lion, and the Soldiers and Sailors Monument is much smaller and simpler than Trajan’s Column; but this exercise reified the ancient monuments for them and gave them a taste of what the originals were like. It made me wish I had done something like this exercise earlier in the semester.

So what would it look like earlier in the semester? Several small blog posts throughout the semester could encourage students to discuss what they learn about a Roman building by looking at something modeled on it. For example, when we discuss Trajan’s Column, students could be asked to respond to this prompt: “Go look at the Soldiers and Sailors Monument on campus, walk around it, and spend some time contemplating it and its decorations. Based on your experience examining the Soldiers and Sailors Monument, how would a Roman have responded to and appreciated the relief on the Column of Trajan?”

All too often, it’s hard to reify ancient buildings or objects for our students–even on site where many buildings only remain as foundations. By reifying them, we help students better understand the buildings, their messages, and their effects. After all, which of the images below is more engaging or helpful to understand Roman temple architecture?

Reconstruction drawing of the temples on Cosa’s Arx
First Church of Christ, Scientist (Rock Island, IL)    [Roman Temple Design filtered through Palladio’s Villa Rotonda]




Students’ papers as arguments

So far this semester, I have graded students’ brief writing assignments in two different classes. Both papers were grounded in describing an object.  One paper asked students to describe a building and then identify what type of building it was (i.e. Roman temple), and the other paper explicitly asked students to compare a vase painting to events described in the Iliad. Even though the object description genre may seem fairly objective, as I graded the papers and provided comments, I noticed that many of my comments were talking about the papers as if they were arguments.  For example, I often used the words “stronger” or “more convincing” in my comments.  This is good.  As the UCLA History Writing Center states:

2.  A history research paper makes a historical argument.

Your paper must take a position on the problem you have posed.  You are not simply making observations about the material you have read:  you are using your observations to craft an argument that teaches us something new about the past.  The argument you make might revise a claim made by other scholars, might illustrate a completely new way of looking at a topic, or might reveal a point that scholars have missed in previous research.

3.  A history research paper is grounded in evidence from primary sources.

Unlike research papers in other disciplines, a history paper relies on primary source material, meaning materials that were produced during the period your paper addresses.  They might be letters, diaries, census data, maps, speeches, treaties–any raw material from a historical moment.  Primary sources are the key pieces of evidence you will use to support your argument.

By describing papers as arguments (which they are), I am trying to communicate two things to my students: (1) you need to be kind to your reader, and (2) you need to support your argument with citations for your evidence.  This framework for the comments hints that, if you are not clear and not kind, you will not convince your reader.  So you need to clearly lay out your logic and indicate your evidence (through citations).  I think it also shows why these citations are helpful. Many students know (at least cognitively, if not in practice) that evidence strengthens arguments.  Citations of the evidence, as indications that you are using evidence, help persuade your reader that your argument is based on evidence and primary sources (and therefore is more believable).  So by connecting their papers to arguments (something they may be much more familiar with than classroom/academic paper writing), I remind them why evidence and citations are important.

A greater focus on citations and their persuasive force, I think, also encourages students to ground themselves in the evidence.  In other words, it encourages them to think, “If I say something, I need to cite something, so I need to find evidence to support this claim.”  This will, again, make stronger arguments and papers.

Hopefully this framework for my comments will have helped improve the next batch of students’ writing assignments that I get on Tuesday!

As a side note, by comparing the two assignments, I have noticed two other things that helped make the papers go well:

  • Students are well prepared for the exercise by in-class activities and discussions.
  • The expectations are clearly communicated and delineated, both in class and in the writing prompt.  This could be through providing an example of the assignment, a checklist for the paper‘s requirements and expectations, or a very detailed prompt.