Epting, a psychologist, notes that students who write concisely — tersely, compactly — don't always write precisely — exactly, unambiguously. Epting offers this anecdote:
In this day and age of information by photo caption and tweet, perhaps pressing students to write concisely is the right thing to do. But concise is not always precise, and without precision, concision is just vague at best, and misleading at worst. Several years ago, a student wanted to contest the scoring of one of his test answers in my introductory psychology course. The test question was something to the effect of “What is the primary advantage of an experimental study over a correlational study?” and an example sufficient answer would have been, “Causal conclusions may be drawn from an experiment, but not from a correlational study.”
The student’s answer was, “In an experiment, you actually test something” (the word ‘test’ was underlined twice). When he questioned why his answer earned no points, I explained that it failed to distinguish the two study types at all, as both correlational and experimental studies “test something” (i.e., in introductory terms, a relationship between variables and cause-and-effect, respectively). He looked at me earnestly and rebutted, “But you said some of the questions could be answered in one sentence, and I underlined ‘test’ twice.”
After a moment of silence (to contain my disbelief at his statement), I asked him what it would have meant if he had only underlined “test” once, or not at all, and how was I to know those distinctions in meaning. He had no answer. After about ten more minutes of discussion, he finally started to understand that being precise was the key, even if he initially needed more words to accomplish that precision.I'm guessing that for us philosopher instructors, Epting's tale is familiar: a student doesn't say quite what he or she means and it takes a lot of effort on our part for the student to appreciate that fact. And though I don't doubt that being precise matters in every academic discipline, I suppose we philosophers are more fanatical about precision than other academic professionals. A single imprecise expression in a philosophy essay can make a position difficult to understand, more vulnerable to objection, etc. This is why I advise students to pick a word or phrase and stick with it. So don't switch from 'permissible' to 'right', from 'freedom' to 'free will,' from 'just' to 'fair,' etc. This is difficult, since I'm giving counsel that runs contrary to what students are taught in composition courses, namely to vary their vocabulary to keep people interested.
I'd be curious to know how we might encourage precision in our students' writing. Epting suggests that the challenge is related to deficiencies in being able to read and listen carefully. My own initial thought is that this is closely bound up with the teaching of logic and critical thinking — that imprecise writing mirrors imprecise thinking. But on a more practical level, it raises questions about an issue I go around and around with: word limits for writing assignments. My typical practice is to give students a word count (or page length) guideline, based on my own judgment as to how many words are necessary to complete the sort of assignments I'm giving. The motivation for my current policy is just the sense that word count is artificial. Some short student essays are terrific, some are awful. Some very long student essays are terrific, some are awful. But I don't count words and I don't penalize students whose essays appear to exceed the guideline (nor do I penalize those whose essays appear to fall far short of the guideline). More precisely(!), I don't penalize unusually long of short papers because they are unusually short or long. Being unduly short or long of course tends to correlate with other good- or bad-making features of a student essay.
But the desire to encourage precision suggests that word counts have a use: They impose limits of concision in the hope that this will encourage precision. With a hard word limit, students will have to accomplish more with less, and think harder about how to most economically convey their meaning. Word counts might also encourage mature editorial judgment. For instance, I read a fair number of papers that offer several objections to a thesis or argument. In many cases, only one of the objections is all that interesting or forceful. But since I insist students address at least one objection, a word limit might compel them to engage the potential objections more carefully, figuring which objections can be readily answered, which 'cut to the bone' versus merely raising quibbles, etc.
But what do all of you do? Do you subject students to hard word limits? And are there other ways of encouraging precision in student writing?