Monday, August 15, 2011

Word limits, or concision vs. precision

L. Kimberly Epting's IHE article on the importance of precision in student writing got me thinking about a question I've struggled with in developing writing assignments: word limits.

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?


  1. Interesting. I've never seriously considered imposing a word _limit_. I've only imposed word _minimums_. This is because, in my experience, students not writing _enough_ is a much more common problem than students writing _too much_.

    Not to change the topic, but: I've found quite enough problems with word minimums! The main one being that so many students treat the minimum as a _target_, and stop dead when they reach it - more or less regardless of where they might be in their argument or whether they've done enough to defend their position. Or, more commonly, it has the effect of making a student stretch out a paper that is fundamentally empty and unstructured for (say) 3 pages longer than it needed to be - i.e., the student runs out of things to say, but sees that the minimum is still 3 pages away, and so fills in that space with pointless meanderings or repetitions. So I've started to give what I call an 'absolute' minimum, which is an _extremely_ minimal word count. It means they get an F if they fall below it. But I emphasize that if they only just exceed it, they will still very likely get a D or an F, because that will mean they have not thought about making an argument but only about meeting the minimum - which is, of course, a terrible way of tackling an essay.

  2. Might word limits encourage students to be vague rather than precise?

  3. One of the most precise essays I ever wrote was for a professor who gave a list of 10 very complicated questions and asked for at least half of them to be answered in under two pages. Questions such as:
    "How did the conclusions in Quine's "Two Dogmas of Empiricism" effect the positivist doctrine and how did his argument effect the Verification Principle."
    Answering just one of these questions could easily be essay length. This was a Mid-term and worth 30% of the grade. It forced me to reread all my notes and go through all the material over again. With only two pages, Every. Single. Word. Counts. It was the longest I have ever spent on a 2 page assignment so far. It forced me to break down everything I had learned in the class so far into bare bones arguments and time lines, which improved my understanding.

    One thing that I would like to mention is that with such a short page length and such a large amount of material to cover, space for actual critical thinking and arguments of my own was sparse.

    Many students were unsatisfied with their grades on the mid-term, I believe a lot of that had to do with the format.

  4. David - Help me out. Is your thought that students will write to the limit and pad their papers with vagaries?

  5. Really, though, there is no inherent conflict between precision and concision. Concision is not brevity, but rather a high level of information in relation to the number of words. For example a history of philosophy in 80 pages would be more concise than a 10-page padded student paper. Using more words can contribute to clarity or lessen it, depending on the case.

  6. But I was so brief! How could my point not have come through? No, my point was that students who would otherwise exceed the word limit might stay within the word limit by cutting out a lot of information. Being precise, in the sense of stating things so exactly that there is little room for doubt about what you intend to communicate, takes a lot of words. Being vague doesn't. Especially for students who have trouble recognizing when something is unacceptably vague (perhaps because they can't see the alternative interpretations of their claims), the word limit might encourage them to think about being brief rather than being precise. Jonathan's distinction between precision, concision, and brevity is a helpful one.

    This might seem like a minor worry, since many students struggle to reach word limits, not stay within them. But if you're setting a word limit that many students will struggle to reach, then it's not clear how the word limit would encourage precision, concision, or even brevity.

  7. In my experience, giving either a hard maximum or hard minimum word count fails to separate out the people who write too much fluff or are too vague from people who write a concise, precise analysis of the issue with the right amount of critical evaluation thrown in. So instead I give a suggested length and say that if you go over or under you need a good reason.

    For example, I routinely assign my freshmen a research essay where they (a) present an argument or philosophical problem + solution from some text we read in class, (b) present a criticism of said text from the scholarly literature, and (c) argue that the criticism is valid (or not). I suggest this should take about 1,500-2,000 words. If they have significantly less than that, I encourage them to reread their essay and make sure they have explained every technical term, the reasoning behind each premise, the context of the bit they are analyzing, etc. If it is longer than that, I likewise tell them to reread and make sure each sentence moves them closer to proving their thesis. I don't take an automatic point deduction if they go over/under the word count, but I am more likely to take off if they have a digression and they have a 2,300-word paper, than if the paper was within my suggested limits. Basically, the further away from my suggested word count they get, the more sure they need to be that they actually have explained everything or there aren't any digressions.

    One exception: in my upper level class my students have to do a series of summaries where I select a passage of 2-3 pages for a reading and they summarize it in a page or less. For those, the page limit is strictly enforced: any longer and I don't grade it. That's because the main point is to get them to see the bare-bones structure of the argument.


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