Let Them Read Sample Essays!

by Tina Blue
December 21, 2002

          Besides teaching freshman-sophomore English at the University of Kansas, I also tutor in a wide variety of subjects.  That means I get to see the assignment sheets for a lot of required papers.  Some of those assignment sheets are so clear that the only way to misinterpret the terms of the assignment would be to simply not look at the assignment sheet at all.

          But some of the assignment sheets I have seen are so vague that it seems one could write about almost anything without stepping outside the parameters of the assignment. 

          That is usually not the case, however.  For some reason, the less precise an instructor's assignment is, the more he will count off if the student fails to fulfill its terms.

          Although I don't tutor students who are taking English courses here at KU (potential conflict of interest, you know), I have seen a lot of the assignments my colleagues have made for their various classes.  One thing I must say is that virtually all assignment sheets I have seen for freshman-sophomore English courses are extremely detailed and carefully worded.  That's not surprising if you think about what sorts of students we freshman-sophomore English instructors normally teach and what it is we are trying to teach them.  Freshman-sophomore English courses are their point of entry into college writing, and we take nothing for granted in our students.  Therefore, everything we want from them in a given assignment is completely spelled out.

          But occasionally the assignments for junior-senior English courses and those for all levels in some other departments can be nearly impossible to decipher.  One history professor I know of assigns a 3-5 page "response paper" on five of the readings for his 500-level course.  That's the whole assignment: "Write a 3-5 page response paper."  But I have heard students lament that they get low grades on their papers for his class because he says they are not writing the "right" kind of response.  When asked what the right kind of response would be like, he just beats around the bush, and the students are left to guess at what he wants and hope that their papers will somehow meet his mysterious expectations. 

          Writing clear essay assignments is a skill that not all teachers master.  Of course, all teachers should master such an essential skill, but since so many don't, there is an easy way to prevent the problems that arise when students don't understand the assignment: Provide them with sample essays to use as models.

          I always write such sample essays for my students.  I also provide a variety of excellent student essays, as well.  Even though I take pains to make my essay assignments completely comprehensible, there will always be some students who still don't quite get what I am asking for.  But with several different sample essays to look at, such students will have what is essentially a foolproof way to figure out what sort of essay they should be writing.

          Of course, that only works if the student actually reads the assignment and the sample essays.  Unfortunately, a fair number of our students can't be bothered with such trifles.  But at least when they come to complain about their grades, they won't have recourse to the excuse that the assignment was unclear.

          I can't understand why so many instructors fail to offer such model responses to their assignments for written work.  It's much more fair to the conscientious students to make sure that there is no vagueness in an assignment.  And it also protects us from the lazy, weasely types who figure that if they pretend they can't understand what we're asking for, then we can't hold them responsible when the paper they turn in falls completely outside the boundaries of the assignment.

          I agree with what Marie Antoinette said when told that the undergraduates couldn't understand their assignments.  She peered down her aristocratic nose at the university ombudsman and sniffed, "Let them read sample essays!"

          Well, okay--it didn't really happen that way.  But if it had, those undergraduates might have let her keep her head.

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