Monday, December 19, 2011

Time to take a stand

Below is the introductory paragraph of a critical paper from a student in one of my intro to philosophy courses.  The assignment was to construct a valid argument for the conclusion; we should not believe anything for which we lack sufficient evidence.  Then using ideas from Plato or Descartes, James, and Clifford, defend or criticize the premises of your argument.  Needless to say, this student lacks the basic writing skills to write a coherent paper.

“Decarte mentioned, Doubt “he said he doubted many things when he was young, but accepted them. He said he was opinionated on many situations, also. So he thought and believed in God, and questioned himself about the belief and existence of God, in which he believes. He stated he did not want to believe in anything false, or false things.  Believing in God is a good thing to believe in , because he is the supreme God as he viewed life.  His simple thought believing things that are not true, are believed falsehoods and evils. Believing God is a good thing and also there is a choice of doubt to which is better. To believe in what is good, rather than what is evil, it is a person choice.””

I no longer blame students for their lack of basic reading and writing skill.  Their lack of skills is a result of a systemic failure. The fault is ours. If we want to change people we need to focus on changing the system.   Even though we are getting our student from a source that we do not have any control over, we continue to accept them.   We should not let students into the college/university environment without a good foundational set of skills.  It is unfair to them.  I should never have a person in my class that can only write at the level indicated by my example. If we refuse to accept students that lack the necessary skills they should have learned at an earlier level then educators in the earlier systems will be forced to change how they educate for success.

 We need take a stand.  It is time to demand that only students that have the necessary basic skills to be successful be allowed into higher educational institutions.  We need to move beyond the business modal currently directing education and replace it with a modal that focuses on the intrinsic value of liberal arts learning, not the instrumental value favored by the economic modal. The arguments for the intrinsic value of a liberal arts education are not new and have been, and will continue to be, discussed on this blog.  But there is a new source of pressure regarding how to measure success in education that can adversely affect the perceived value of a liberal arts education.  Recently, decision makers have begun to question how successful higher education is by investigating the graduation rates.  If graduation rates are only a small percenage of those that originally started the process, how good can this process really be? From a business/economic perspective such a process would be eliminated, or at least radically revamped, so that the numbers of people graduating would (more closely) mirror the number that entered the process.  There are only two ways to accomplish this: 1) lower the academic standards so that more people pass and graduate, or 2) limit the number of students that are allowed into the process by maintaining high standards and admitting only these that have a good chance of succeeding.  I favor the latter  But, the fact that today’s students lack the necessary skills to perform satisfactorily in liberal arts course, not to mention business related courses; and are being admitted into college level courses indicates that the former is becoming the reality.

Learning and education is not supposed to be easy, nor do I think it always needs to be fun.  Sometimes, it is a ‘royal pain in the ass,’ for both the teacher and the student.  But the reality is that more and more students simply do not know how to study; how to manage time, how to read for comprehension, how to write coherent sentences, paragraphs and/or papers, or think critically.  Furthermore they are not motivated to learn.   As teachers we can continue to complain about this or we can do something about it.  We can lower our own expectations of what constitutes academic success and dumb down the material and standards so that more people who start the process will graduate, or we can hold our students to higher standards of excellence and compel them to strive to achieve them.  We need to take a stand and hold on to the belief that one of our primary objectives as educators committed to the importance of a liberal arts education is to develop good citizens.  This can only be accomplished if we get students with the necessary skills to be successful at the college level that we can nurture and send out into the economic sphere as individuals who can manage time, read for comprehension, write coherently, and think critically.

Here are my two suggestions for starting to change the system:

1)      In their first semester of college all students should be required to take a College Success course.  This course will focus on fundamentals such as time management, reading and writing skills, note taking, test taking, critical thinking, communication, and diversity training.  Students must pass this course with at least a 75% grade or be dropped from the institution.  Students can test out of this course with an 80% grade on a comprehensive exam that covers the material of the course.

2)      Give all incoming students a reading and writing skills test that demonstrates that they can read and write at the college level necessary for performing well in liberal arts courses.  If a student fails this test then he or she must take a remedial course in reading and/or writing and pass with at least a 75% grade before they are allowed into any college level courses.  I do not trust SAT’s or ACT’s as an adequate measure of a person’s reading or writing skills.  I have had too many students who have done well on these tests who cannot write a coherent paragraph.

I close with this reminder of who we are allowing to graduate with college degrees.  We all remember the recent commercial that states “without innovation the world would still be flat.”  In all probability, the persons who wrote this and who decided it would make a great commercial have college degrees.  Need I say more!


  1. Surely you meant 'model' not 'modal', only mentioned because of the content of the post...

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. John,

    Sadly, I agree with your take on the problem but think that your solution is not on the horizon.

    On the former point, I teach at a "very selective" liberal arts school, and I receive papers in general education courses written like that (the paragraph you provided) all the time. I would bet that part of the time it's because the student has no idea what to do, whereas in other cases the student has some idea, but just doesn't care much. Either way, it's sad and it says something about entry standards, which speaks to your second point.

    On that score, I'm with you on the need for higher _actual_ selectivity standards. Can you imagine what would happen if students had to show up and _on the spot_ write an essay? A lot of the students with high GPAs and decent SATs but terrible writing skills wouldn't make it through, and high schools would be given strong incentives to actually teach writing to everyone.

    Unfortunately, high standards are just not going to happen (well, that last example is also impractical) at most schools. This is particularly the case now, during trying economic times. I'll use my school as an example - as a very small liberal arts school (1480 per year cohort), every student's tuition dollars matter. Every last one.

    We could be more selective in entry admissions. This means losing some potential students, so to maintain revenue we'd need to either (a) increase tuition or (b) become more nationally known to increase the number of students applying so we could maintain our numbers.

    No way we could do (a) or justify it, and given our more "regional" appeal in the very practically minded Midwest, a tuition increase would be devastating to revenue overall. We'd love to be (b), but that's a very slow process that takes a long time.

    That means that the school is stuck with the admissions standards it has, for the time being. Given that this is the case, and given the intensive economic pressures to maintain revenue, there will be absolutely no call from administration to raise standards, whether at the entry level or after the student is admitted.

    Basically, in terms of your proposal, that means (2) is completely out of the question. In terms of (1), I think lots of schools would say "sure" but would completely reject the part that says students not passing will be kicked out of school, given the economic issues I've raised above.

    Bad incentives abound, and I'm not sure how - especially now, during bad economic times - you fix the problem.

  4. Adil: I did. I would be surprised if that is the only problem with my writing and editing. As I have mentioned in previous posts, if I can find an problem with a person's writing then that person's writing is truly atrocious. I am not the 'brightest bulb in the pack':-)

    Chris: I agree that the economic incentives to raise standards is not present in today's market. But, sometimes a business going under is the cost of doing business in a competitive and healthy market. Imagine that there is one college that has high standards and another that lowers their standards to remain in business. Both of them are able to attract students. If you are a business person hiring graduates which college's graduates would you hire? I would suggest that lowering standards will eventually catch up with the business that engages in this practice. Maybe that time is now.

  5. Great information thanks for sharing this with us.In fact in all topics of this blog their is something to learn . your work is very good and i appreciate your work and hopping for some more informative posts . Again thanks.

  6. I don't mind your concrete proposals, but the discussion of admissions policies seems misguided to me. If all we can do is take smart and critical people and certify that they are smart and critical, then we're not adding much value. This is what most of the top schools in the country do: selection and certification of the best and brightest.

    But that's not education! If input = output, there's no reason to pay us to teach! There's little evidence that students who go to Harvard are demonstrably better off than they would have been at a state school. So the test has to be: what can we do for the students who don't start off "Harvard-ready"? If we can't teach a student to be more critical than she already was, we're wasting our time. If the only students we can teach are the ones who are already smart and critical, then we'll never know if we're only sorting, selecting, and certifying: finding like-minded nerds and giving them good grades.

    Even math classes don't measurably improve critical thinking, at least in the general population. That's because the teacher is the only one thinking critically, trying to figure out how to convey information to the bored, clueless students. That takes tons of creativity, critical thinking, and "collaborative skills." The students, on the other hand, just apply mechanical operations that have been drilled into them, and complain when there's a problem that requires creativity or insight. Of course, this doesn't apply to the people who love math, but the students who love math are already critically-minded.

    What Arum and Roksa have shown is that there's only one kind of class that measurably INCREASES critical thinking skills: courses with high expectations from the professor, 40 pages of reading a week, and 20 pages of writing a semester.

    I believe that over a four-year period you can take mediocre students and make them great students. But it takes time, patience, and active resistance to the "indifference contract."

  7. Josh -

    Actually, if I remember A&R say that the biggest predictors of long-term skill development are (a) good K-12 training, (b) a good score on the CT test, and then (c) a college environment that builds on (a) and (b). I think John is just saying that if college simply accept people with who show a failure in (a), then the schools will have no incentive to provide (a). He has a valid point - no incentive, no movement.

    So I think he's right to focus on admissions, though I'm not sure how it would work given the market. That said, I'm sure John would also agree with your next to last paragraph.

  8. I'm not sure we should think of college admissions primarily in terms of supplying "incentives" to K-12 education. But the larger point it looks like you're making is that we should not waste the significant resources needed to pay for a college education (often funded by student debt) on folks who don't have good basic preparation and good critical thinking skills, since it won't make a measurable difference.

    As a policy this bothers me a bit: is sounds a bit like saying that, having collected the low-hanging fruit, we ought to give up on the more difficult-to-reach branches. On the other hand, I can also see the efficiency argument for it.

  9. Josh,

    I'm not saying (nor do I think John is saying) that we should think of admissions primarily in this manner. However, it seems sensible to conclude that admissions policies will likely have unintended consequences, even at the K-12 level.

    Also, I'm not saying that the argument here is not to waste resources on such folks. Rather, the claim here seems to be that certain kinds of policies (admissions included) may in fact lead to better outcomes for students in general. If, as A&R suggest, the best outcomes are achieved when *long-term* academic habits have been instilled into the student, then policies that give incentives to build those habits all around (K-12 and up) will make more sense. On the other hand, if colleges (via admissions policies and in other ways) simply say "ah, don't worry about it, we'll fix it when they get here" then we've given up on the larger point that A&R are making.

  10. Hmmm... perhaps this is a problem of scope. If the claim is that highly-selective liberal arts schools ought to prioritize certain habits and skills over, say, extracurricular activities, then it seems like a reasonable shift.

    Given the mixed nature of higher education, however, there will always be state schools and community colleges available to those with poor preparation, who have generally come from schools that supplied poor preparation and aren't particularly responsive to college-admissions incentives masquerading as further barriers to entry. I'm not sure I'd be comfortable setting the same standards at those schools, even though it'd make my job easier

  11. This is a complex problem. However, I think we should pause and take another look at John's student. She (or he?) is functionally illiterate. Before we beat ourselves or others up or even address the issue of whether and what colleges such students should attend, let's face the hard fact that this country is graduating people into adulthood who are functionally illiterate. What a waste, what a cost, what a horrible, horrible thing to do to our daughters and sons. It is unacceptable.

  12. Josh,

    I don't think it's a scope issue either. I was only using my own university (which is "very selective" - or so they say) as an example, not as the paradigm case. I'm not even sure if John's university is very or highly selective or neither.

    The issue is simply this: if the aim (so say A&R) is to cultivate academic habits (writing, thinking, etc), is that aim furthered by lowering admissions standards across the board, or by raising them? I can't imagine what the argument would be for lowering them, with this aim in mind, other than suggesting that colleges should simply take on the work of the K-12 system.

    Would raising them? Perhaps, perhaps not. There are lots of variables play obviously (and I didn't take John to be supposing that this is the primary variable). For some I suspect it would have a clear incentive effect and would make a difference. For others, I think you right note, it would not. Would the result be net positive?

    So where should the students not responsive to these incentives go? Well, as you noted - there are community colleges. My wife teaches at one - I attended one myself for a while. Given that community colleges have a different mission, they will not be (and should not be) raising their admissions standards (most are non-competitive).

    Why not?

  13. I definitely agree with Becko here. Taking John's student as a case for a moment - this student is functionally illiterate. I'm not sure that the typical college is set up to transform a person's skill level from functionally illiteracy to "college senior writing" in four years. I would suspect that the best you could achieve here would be something far less than senior level writing capacity, raising the question of why they would be a candidate for graduation.

  14. I agree with Josh here. It can't be that colleges ought to be in the business of creating incentives for K-12 schools. The problem with K-12 education should be dealt with at the policy level--moving away from focusing on standardized testing of cognitive skills to teaching and assessing learning of soft skills. Colleges can participate in that debate and college professors can take an active part in contributing to these policy discussions without being in the business of attempting to change policy through selectivity.

    Furthermore, the incentives are already there in the sense of there being a range of colleges that students can attend, some are very selective and some less so. So if we are raising the bar on selectivity across the board what we are saying is that failing K-12 schools are "punished" for not doing their job by denying their graduates the opportunity to enter college, where as Josh argues they might actually learn something. The ones who suffer with that policy are those students who have not been served by the educational system and will remain voiceless and, probably, jobless.

  15. Hi Folks.

    I teach at a community college and I see papers like this all the time, especially at the beginning of the semester. However, based on one writing sample I would not conclude that the student is functionally illiterate, or that the educational system is primarily to blame for the quality of work the student has submitted. As Chris Panza pointed out, sometimes students are just lazy, or else they really don't know how to write a well-organized paper even if they have a decent grasp on the reading.

    In the vast majority of cases, my students' writing improves noticeably over the course of the semester, in part because I require it of them. Each week they are required to hand in a one-and-a-half to two-page analysis of one of the required readings. In their analysis, they must summarize the author's argument and then explain why they think the author's argument was reasonable or unreasonable. In my syllabus, I am pretty specific about how I want the paper to be organized, and I mark them down if they put things out of order. Similarly, on the first day of class (and also in my syllabi), I remind my students that to be in a 100-level philosophy course they have either passed, tested out of, or are currently enrolled in a 100-level English course. Thus, I expect them to hand in college-level writing and they will be penalized for poor writing mechanics.

    If I come across more than three mechanical errors in their writing, they automatically lose 5% on the assignment; more than six errors and they lose 15%. More than 10 errors and they lose 25%. Then, I meticulously (mercilessly?) grade their initial papers, noting every punctuation, spelling, or grammatical error I can find. Similarly, if they make substantive assertions without supporting them, I include a comment like, "Why think this? Provide your reasons. Be specific." in the margins.

    Early on, it takes a long time to grade these papers, especially since I typically have between 160 and 175 students and because most of them are not very good at academic writing. However, in most cases the students improve; sometimes substantially. This shows, I think, that they can do it if they are motivated and if they have specific guidelines to follow. They still tend to make unfounded assertions, but that's a story for another time.

    Also, I don't see why we should be so quick to blame the school system; at least not as the main culprit anyway. Ostensibly, there are at least four factors contributing to a student's academic success: 1) the student and his or her willingness to study, 2) the student's parents and their level of involvement in their children's education, 3) the quality of the school system, and 4) the broader social and cultural environment in which the student lives. A good teacher or school can only do so much if a student is worried about, say, where her next meal will come from, or whether her alcoholic parent will beat her tonight, or whether she will even be alive in a year. Similarly, if a student just does not care much about doing well in school and his parents don't expect much of him, there is a limit to how much a teacher can motivate that student.

    Given that the situation is not likely to change any time soon, perhaps the best approach to take is the Stoic one: expect that you will have a number of academically subpar students each year, and consider it an opportunity to grow in the virtues of a teacher.

  16. When I applied to undergrad (at several religious and public regional universities in North Carolina) I don't remember ever being asked for a writing sample. It strikes me that this is a real deficiency. I get students who have never written a research paper, and quite often never written a paper longer than 3-4 pages of any kind, which leaves them thoroughly unprepared to do it in college.

    If the university was going to require them to submit a research paper as part of their applications I suppose the K-12 schools would be incentivized to actually teach research and writing. And if a certain school was dropping the ball there the parents who could afford it would be incentivized to help their kid learn this skill, either through private tutors or through charities helping the disadvantaged prepare for college. The papers needn't be on a particularly academic topic (so popular politics is as fair of game as Hamlet or Kant), but they do need to utilize independent research and they should have a page length (I'd say five pages at a minimum). Even if a school didn't way them particularly heavily, just having the requirement would be a tremendous step forward, I think.

  17. @Jen:

    Colleges are in the business of creating incentives all the time through their policies and their various demands (and lack of demands) - it's unavoidable. As a result, we should most certainly be mindful of the unintended consequences of our behavior (in admissions and in other places).

    Also, as I noted earlier, not all colleges can raise the bar. Community colleges cannot - they have a different role to play in the system. Why not go there?


    First, I admire your tough grading! Stick to it!

    Second, I agree that in some cases the students simply don't care. That said, I have definitely had my share of students who simply could not write at all (like John's example above). Such a student is ill served in college system, and needs remedial assistance at the community college level. Best yet, the student should have learned these skills in HS.

    Third, the question for me is not whether - once admitted - we should work with them or not. Of course we should. I'm simply suggesting that by admitting students who cannot write, we send a signal that it's okay not to focus on writing. After all, "we'll take care of it".

    I know this is true - in my courses I have students who do everything imaginable to avoid writing. And they schedule their courses intentionally around courses requiring writing. Why? Because they are not convinced that writing skills really matter in the end. Jobs have not sent that message in a strong enough sense, so many students think they can navigate around it.

    @Fourth: did I just miss you at UCONN? I graduated in spring of 2002, I assume that's the fall you started yourself.


    I'm skeptical of writing samples because I'm not sure we can know whether the student actually wrote the essay. Too many parents are willing to do this, or to hire someone to do it or to help to do it.

    What may be needed is a writing component of the SAT/ACT - similar to the (newish) writing component of the GRE.

  18. Colleges and universities are exactly the ones who should be putting pressure on K-12 to improve the quality of it's educational product. We are their customers (along with the greater society)and they are providing us with a 'product.' We have the the right, and the duty, to establish the minimum quality level that we are willing to accept from our suppliers and to hold them accountable for providing us with what we demand.

    I am not arguing that we should only accept the 'best and the brightest.' Most of us average. But, students need the basic skills to be succesful at learning and this student does not possess them. In college level courses (I am not referring to remedial courses here) it is too late to give them these skills; they should have been developed and integrated during the K-12 process.

    The next time you assign the first writing assignment ask your students the following questions:
    1) What is an introductory paragragh supposed to accomplish?
    2) What is a thesis statement?
    3) What does MLA, or APA, or Chicago refer too.

    I have found that most are not able to answer these questions. Back in 1965, when I graduated from HS with a C+ average I had had one entire semester dedicated to researching and writing a 20-25 page research paper. This course was the last semester of 12th grade English and was required for graduation. When I started college it was not even questioned that everyone could do research and write a coherent paper. In fact, the only reason I was accepted into the college that I went to was that the Dean thoght that my essay was outstanding even though the test scores were average.

    For the record, this student is contesting the grade that was given by me, arguing that the required work was done and that he (or she) has good writing skills in so far as he (or she) received A's in the English courses he (or she) had taken (or so it is claimed). This student is demanding a B.

    I will also point out that I teach at a community college now, so students with low skill sets is commonplace. But, we do require remedial courses for those that lack basic reading, writing, and math skills. Many have come here to take these types of classes. My argument is not that we should not offer these courses while we address the systemic problems, but that students without minimal basic skills should not be allowed into college level courses until they demonstrate basic competencies in these skills.

    There is no single solution to this problem. But, we can take a stand and demand that students coming into college level courses have the basic skills to be successfull. We do them a great disservice if we do otherwise.

  19. I applaud Jeff Wisdom's comments. When I get a paper with writing like that, I make it clear to the student that s/he will not be able to pass the class unless his/her writing improves. I am, of course, willing to provide whatever help the student wants to ask of me in order to achieve that. And there is always the writing center. But I also find, as Jeff says, that the problem is often a lack of commitment and motivation more than a lack of ability. So, I find that if I make my standards for grammar very clear, many of the students who start out writing like this will raise their game to a level where they can actually pass the class.

    And if they do not, or cannot, raise their game? I fail them. I see no alternative. And since I don't think we can expect to alter admission standards directly, that is the only recourse available to us. Perhaps if all instructors took this strict line, the message would eventually get through that accepting students into college who cannot write is pointless, because they cannot do college-level work, and so they flunk out. This sounds harsh, because it IS harsh (especially in the case of those students who are really trying), but I really do not see the alternative. It is the only direct power we have over the situation.

  20. Gazza: I think we need to make a distinction between those that have the ability to succeed but do not have the committment and/or motivation to do so and those that have the committment and motivation to succeed but lack the ability. I do not think we should conflate the two and treat them the same way. I have no doubt that the student I am using as an example is motivated and has the committment to succeed - s/he lacks the ability. But, my guess is that s/he has been reinforced to believe that s/he has the ability. S/he refuses to accept my explanation as to why s/he got the grade s/he did and the role that his or her poor writing skills played in him or her receiving that grade. And, I do not blame the student for this attitude if I am the first teacher that has indicated that this is a serious problem. I am not going to go into more detail on this matter except to say that allowing him or her to believe that s/he could be successful in a college level course did this student a tremendous disservice. I remained convinced, because I have not read a good argument to the contrary, that the Administration is responsible for this. This student should never have been allowed in a college level course.

  21. Thanks for this post, John.


    The SAT does have a writing section now. The section was added in 2005. I'm not sure about the ACT, although Wikipedia says that it has an "optional" writing section.


    Would you be willing to share the prompt/rubric/whatever that you give for the assignment you described?


    I was surprised to discover that my students in both New York and Alabama were being taught that a paper's "thesis" consisted of both the main conclusion and a summary of the main argument. I had always been taught that it was just the main conclusion. Until I realized that they'd been taught differently, there was a lot of talking past one another about their thesis statements. Have other people encountered this?


    Unfortunately, the problem is caused by some deep incentive problems within higher education. Chris's first comment gets at the monetary incentives to admit lots of students, including those who are unprepared. Also, many administrators are under pressure right now to raise (six-year) graduation rates. To do this, universities can (a) provide remedial courses, (b) hold students to high standards until they can graduate, and/or (c) lower standards so that students graduate within six years. The most efficient way to achieve what the administrators want/need is (c), followed by the more expensive (a). Doing (b) is positively counterproductive from a time-to-degree perspective. Fortunately, (c) is easily and covertly achieved by doing something else that administrators are pressured to do: pile more and more students, with less and less preparation, onto fewer and less well-paid (i.e., adjunct) faculty. This decreases faculty members' incentive to "take a stand," as John puts it, against mediocrity. Individually, we can fight the good fight, as Jeff is doing. But I can't see a solution without systemic change.

  22. I am a first year graduate student at a good program and I just finished my first semester as a teaching assistant. I TA-ed for a freshman gen-ed course titled something like "philosophical perspectives on society and morality". We began with some basic baby ethics and then spent the second half of the semester on some political philosophy and issues in applied ethics. Over the course of the semester, the ninety students I TA-ed for had to write two papers. In the first paper, the professor asked them to explicate as clearly as possible William Shaw's arguments against moral relativism and then to close with a brief evaluation (something like, "Yes I agree for x reason"); in the second paper, the professor asked the students to explicate as clearly as possible Hume's arguments on the origin of property and to formulate what s/he took to be the strongest objection to his view from the other two authors we read, Nozick and Rawls. After I read through the first set of papers, I changed entirely not only the way that I evaluated my student's work but also the way I ran my discussion sections. First, I created a grading template that addressed some very fundamental writing basics. "Try to begin each paragraph with a clear topic sentence that indicates the purpose of this paragraph." "The idea here is right, but next time, try to walk me through precisely *why* the cultural moral relativist is hard-pressed to make sense of moral progress rather than simply stating that she is." When students would come to my office hours to talk about their papers, I realized that the biggest challenge for my students was not simply an inability to express their thoughts in a clear and concise manner but rather an inability to organize these thoughts in a clear and concise manner. This probably sounds obvious to all of you experienced professors out there, but realizing that the difficulty was so fundamental helped me to revamp my discussion sections. I tried to focus on the importance of reason-giving and clarity, and upped the amount of group-work prior to paper deadlines. And while this solution had the unhappy consequence that I, as their TA, had to baby them a bit and walk them through some fundamentals, it also had the happy consequence that their second set of papers was much better than the first.

    This got a bit long and rambly, but the point is this: maybe it is unreasonable to expect that my students will remember how Kant's Formula of Universal Law relates to his Formula of Humanity, or how Mill distinguishes his utilitarianism from Bentham's utilitarianism. Maybe the most reasonable expectation is that my students develop some basic critical thinking and writing skills by the end of the course. And I hope that is reasonable, because that is how I ended up teaching the second half of the semester…

  23. @David -

    Thanks, I didn't realize SAT had one. I'm out in the Midwest, where none of the students take it (they take the ACT). I've been an adviser to many students here, and I've seen their ACTs, and I haven't come across a written score yet. Having an "optional" section seems stupid to me. I can't imagine my university requiring it, since that would mean that any student who didn't have the foresight to take it beforehand couldn't apply. More stupid incentives.

    Also, you are right to point to the "once admitted" extra problem of graduation rates as yet another cog in the machine of bad incentives. Of course there's nothing wrong with increasing time-to-graduation times, but when this is accomplished via relaxed standards you have yet another problem.

    @ Anon: I've been teaching (general education) ethics for years, and come to that same conclusion each year - I should be focusing more on basic critical writing/reasoning and less on the student's capacity to understand the intricacies of this or that ethical theory. Personally, I am happy when students in such courses can apply the general blueprint frameworks of each (virtue, deontology, and consequentialism)to a problem (in a paper).

  24. @ Chris: I was at UConn from 2005 to 2010.

    @ David: It was good to meet you at the RoME conference. Here's the relevant section from my syllabus:

    To ensure that you are prepared for in-class discussions, each week you will hand in a brief (1-2 pages) summary and analysis of a reading for that week. Summaries should include:
    • Your name and the title of the essay you are summarizing
    • A one-paragraph statement of what the author’s main thesis is and
    what his or her main reasons are for that view.
    • Your analysis of the essay. Is the author’s argument persuasive? Why
    or why not? (One or two paragraphs)

    The reading analyses must be typed. Further, they should be virtually free of spelling and grammatical errors. Reading analyses with more than three spelling or grammatical errors will be penalized 5%. Reading analyses with more than six spelling or grammatical errors will be penalized 15%. Reading analyses with more than ten spelling or grammatical errors will be penalized 25%.

    I keep the description brief because my syllabus is already six pages long. I explain the assignment in more detail in class. For example, when I say I want a one-paragraph summary of the author's argument, that paragraph should be about a half-page or more. Likewise, if their reading analysis is only a page, it had better be one amazing page. I used to require longer, less frequent papers of this sort, but I don't think the students were benefitting as much from it. Requiring them to summarize and interact with a philosophy essay every week seems to do a better job of developing their skills. Plus, it helps ensure that they actually read what I assign.


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