Publication Date

March 1, 1993

Perspectives Section


AHA Topic

Teaching & Learning

Let’s imagine the extreme, but nonetheless all too common, scenario: You walk into an introductory history lecture and gaze at a sea of strangers. The announcement that your exams will be essay format is greeted by combinations of soft groans, muffled shrieks of horror, and a stampede heading for the Add/Drop table. Nor does the announcement come easily for you. Experience has taught you to expect that most of the writing will be mediocre, a substantial amount of it dreadful, and some of it illiterate. If you’re lucky, a few exams will be brilliant. Come grading time, you will seek respite from your toil in the faculty lounge, where your colleagues will agree that college-level writing isn’t what it used to be.

Faculty-room conversations are cathartic, but they do little to address the problems that precipitated them. I know; I’ve been listening to them for over a decade. Context doesn’t seem to matter much. I first heard complaints in the faculty lounge of the public high school in which I taught. I heard them again from my peers at a community college where many of our students were adult learners with general equivalency degrees; and again they emerged when I taught at a small, private college filled with “traditional” students. The hue and cry was even greater among colleagues at the University of Massachusetts/Amherst, whose twenty thousand students bring with them a bewildering array of skills, academic preparation, and motivation levels. Even now that I teach at Smith College, where the average SAT score of incoming students is the envy of many, I still hear complaints about poor writing.

But commiseration and cynicism do little to improve student writing. How do we get students to write better and still cover the course content, especially in routinely oversubscribed introductory courses? What can be done to empower students and have them see writing as a skill to be mastered rather than a pain to be avoided? Although we should try to understand these problems, and we should direct students to take advantage of learning centers, too often historians simply abrogate that task and grade by the time-honored traditional approach: a midterm and a final. Usually, this consists of one section of “identification” questions, in which students determine the historical significance of selected people, places, and events, and a major essay or two, in which students are expected to expound upon some historical problem. Far too often, however, exams are mere frenzies in which fatigued students try to cram everything they know (or don’t know) into blue books before the time elapses or their memories collapse. For several days or weeks thereafter, instructors force themselves to wade through illegible penmanship, desultory prose, and half-baked ideas. Grading becomes a matter of assigning relative values to overall disasters.

I, too, was one of the traditionalists, as they were my earliest role models. But what did I really teach? Blue-book exams seemed a form of social Darwinism in which the survival of the fittest reigned supreme. In this case, “fittest” meant “good test-taker” and little else. The identification questions that supposedly forced students to learn “content” were quickly forgotten, and reading the essays on weighty topics too often revealed how little thought I had stimulated. Most students memorized enough detail to pass, and left my course with few transferable skills. And the saddest cases involved bright students who were engaged in the subject, but simply did not know how to articulate their knowledge or give evidence of their thought processes, whether due to writing problems, organizational weaknesses, poor study habits, a learning disability, or simple test panic.

As I took stock of my pedagogical goals, I realized how far I was from achieving them. I wanted students to experience debate, to use historical detail to formulate arguments, to evaluate evidence, to wrestle with new ideas, and to discover the “usable past.” To that end, I presented great historical questions: Was the triumph of capitalism inevitable? What was attractive about Edward Bellamy’s vision of utopia? Was the 1950s really a decade of conformity? Was Kennedy’s “New Frontier,” in fact, new?

Come evaluation time, however, I gave students few practical avenues for exploring those ideas. I was fond of quoting the adage that history is a dialogue with the past, but I designed exams that channeled responses into “either/or” debate positions that allowed few of the nuanced subtleties of true dialogue. After all, how deeply can one probe any of the above questions in an hour exam? Subtract time taken to respond to identification problems, and most students had about thirty minutes to construct and write an essay. That’s hardly enough to do justice to a topic dealing, say, with the nature of utopia. Most essays were quite general, skeletons without fleshy detail. Those students who did not generalize often opted for the opposite approach: they tried to impress me by stuffing voluminous facts into the essay irrespective of how they fit into an analytical scheme. Thus I got essays that read like entries from The Book of Lists.

Neither approach gave students practice at what I deemed most important: developing an evidence-based argument. Nor did they allow for careful consideration of historical problems. Practicing historians know that a prerequisite of good historical writing is reflection and thought. Most students simply “crammed” for the exam, trying to master a little bit about a whole lot. Even the best students found it difficult to delve deeply into any particular topic, especially given the weight of topic and identification possibilities inherent in the nature of an introductory course which they had to study in advance of the exam. My attempt to focus student study habits by handing out advance copies of possible essay questions had only limited success; too many students tried to memorize the draft essays they wrote while studying, and their in-class essays were more testaments to rote skills (or the lack thereof) than to independent thought.

My initial reaction against traditionalism was an equally unsatisfactory flight into idealism. I continued giving exams, but naively I assumed students would do outside of class what they did not do while taking their exams. I became a self-appointed martyr to the causes of improved student writing and deeper historical understanding by taking upon myself the tasks of correcting the inadequacies of student preparation, of enlightening them, and of pointing them on the path to academic self-actualization. Usually this involved cloistering myself like a medieval monk poring over manuscripts. Hours were wasted correcting everything in a student’s paper. I wrote reams of commentary and marginalia, suggested alternative strategies, raised questions to consider, noted every alternative interpretation, and corrected every error of grammar and syntax. I hoped students would use all of this to launch a program of self-improvement that would send them back to grammar texts, writing guides, and history books. And, of course, I hoped they would spend hours reflecting upon the nuanced debate points I raised.

And what was the real payoff? First of all, I paid a heavy price. My attention to minute detail took an enormous amount of time away from my family, friends, and scholarship. But my methods also made little pedagogical sense. Most students glanced at the grade, reacted with pleasure or disgust—usually based solely on how high or low it was—and, I expect, trashed their exams at an inconspicuous moment. In truth, my martyrdom disempowered most students. I was correcting those things for which they ought to have taken responsibility, and I was trying to make them write in voices that were not their own. Even the best students found many of my comments beyond their comprehension, while the weaker writers were depressed by the sheer number of their “errors.” It is easy to forget what undergraduates don’t know and that it is our task to stimulate their discoveries, not to impress them by how much we know. My thoroughness caused students to suffer information overload. It also seemed to create generalists, not analysts. It occurred to me that perhaps it would be better to get students to master fewer things, but to do so more thoroughly. In effect, I opted for depth of knowledge rather than breadth.

In good Aristotelian fashion, I sought a middle way between traditionalism and idealism. How could I get students to write more, write better, and consider the material more deeply? My first step some colleagues and students considered radical: I simply stopped giving blue-book exams. (Now, however, most students like my no-exam policy, even though they write more and study longer than they do under the old system.) In their place, I assign several short papers students prepare out of class. (The number of papers varies with pre-enrollment figures and my semester course load, but is never fewer than three.) These papers—which are really “take home” exams, though I never call them that!—ask students to reflect upon a particular historical question; to sift through documents, readings, and lecture notes for data that must be organized in specific ways; to generate an interpretative thesis about that material; and to construct an argument essay.

Students ought to be familiar with key facts and dates, but I no longer ask that they be memorized. In fact, I have come to see such data as being akin to mathematical formulae: one can look them up—and one must know how to find them—but they aren’t much good if application skills are lacking. My method requires students to grasp the “big picture” before they write. Since the paper is thesis-centered, students must look for patterns in the details rather than try to memorize them as discrete bits of information. In truth, the questions aren’t substantially different from what I might have used for blue-book exams, but I now ask students to apply their energies toward fewer things, and I expect better results. Since students no longer spend time memorizing and cramming, they are encouraged to develop their analytical tools, something they can apply in other courses. Best of all, many of them do what they never did when I was mired in misplaced idealism: they continue to think about issues long after papers have been graded. It’s not at all unusual for students to drop by my office at semester’s end to share new insights they’ve developed on a question with which they wrestled in the third week of the course.

I offer at least three (usually five in large classes) topic choices so that students may write from their intellectual strengths and personal interests. This gives students some control over the product and makes them more likely to concentrate on the task at hand rather than to anticipate what the correct response might be. In addition, by varying the content of what I read, I am able to concentrate better while grading.

I also require that the papers be short. For introductory courses, I impose a five-page (double-spaced and typed) limit. (Footnote and bibliography pages do not count toward the limit.) This forces students to be selective about what they say, and it gives them practical experience in shaping an argument and in marshalling supporting evidence. I choose essay questions that are broad enough to allow students to tailor essays to their strengths, and I vary the focus of the choices. For an assignment on Bellamy, for example, I design questions that allow students to choose among a political, cultural, or social focus. Thus I might ask some questions that deal with Bellamy’s ideology, others that require students to place Bellamy in the context of past utopian thought, and some that address social issues such as gender roles or Gilded Age capital/labor relations.

Short papers cut back on grading time and allow me to return them quickly. They also allow me to assign three or four such papers in the course of a semester rather than simply a mid-term and final. For large courses in which I employ readers, papers usually lead to more consistent grading as I can set standards more explicitly with the readers. If the course has discussion sections attached to it, the use of papers instead of exams allows section leaders to explore ideas in depth with students. One of my recent courses had 160 students, with four paper assignments and only one outside reader, and we still managed to grade all papers in less than a week.

Short papers and quick turnaround are essential for the next part of my program: rewriting. I do not do much pre-writing as I ascribe to the New England witticism: “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” I make myself available for individual conferences, but most of my reaction comes after I have graded the paper and I concentrate on those students who need help. I do post-writing with students; that is, I allow them to rewrite for a higher grade.

I also try to avoid grade fixation. First, I hold papers to much higher standards than I would blue-book exams. Many students who expect a sporting “C-” are shocked to see an “F” emblazoned on their first efforts. In general, I try to give first drafts what they would earn if colleges operated according to the standards upheld in faculty lounges. Students who wish to pursue a rewrite option are required to meet with me to decide on a new strategy and revision due date. Rewrites are turned in with the originals stapled to the back so I can check progress. This process makes students more responsible for their performance and their final grade. For inexperienced or weak writers, the rewriting process forces them to focus on skills development. Since I record the highest grade a student achieves, there is built-in incentive for serious students. I’ve had students rewrite three or more times. (I’ve also had those who grumble over the “D” they deserve, but never rewrite.)

All of this is predicated on getting papers graded quickly. To that end, my second step is mechanical. The “essay commentary” form reprinted below is attached to each graded paper. I found that I spent an inordinate amount of time writing similar comments on student papers that could be addressed by a quick check mark. This freed me to make other comments that were more specific to content, rather than directed at writing mechanics that were not mine to teach. I no longer accept responsibility for all of a student’s past educational deficiencies or underdeveloped thinking skills, but I do seek to be part of the solution. Part of the process of empowering students involves allowing them to take initiative for their present education, irrespective of how good or poor it was in the past.

Before my initial assignment, I devote a short amount of class time to historical method and to the basics of writing a history paper. I explain what is meant by a thesis, and I insist that each paper have one. I also discuss what evidence is and is not, and I advise how to avoid plagiarism. Beyond that, I tell students that I will evaluate all of the elements outlined on the commentary sheet, and that they are responsible for shaping the paper according to those standards. When grading, I check those areas I find commendable or weak, I make the usual editorial marks within the paper, and I comment on a few of the most notable content aspects of the student’s effort.

For several reasons, I make relatively few additional comments. It is my experience that most students cannot work efficiently on more than two or three problems at a time. Those who have severe writing problems usually are unable to eliminate them in one semester. It is better to give students a couple of attainable goals for which progress can be seen than to tell them to slay the Hydra; as some goals are reached, new ones can be added. It makes little sense, for instance, to spend time discussing how to handle nuances with students who can’t develop a thesis or formulate an argument. I walk such students through the process of deciding how to organize their essays; for some, that can be as basic as paragraph structure.

By far the most common direction I give, however, is showing students how to take a big issue, slice it down to size, and delve into the details of that slice. For example, students who wish to emphasize vestigial Victorianism in Edward Bellamy’s utopia are redirected to consider how they might make that argument by focusing on the novel’s gender relations. But the goals are mostly individual ones. If the problem is a lack of clarity, editing becomes the goal; if it is an unsubstantiated argument, seeking evidence takes precedence.

Using this simple checklist, assigning short papers, and allowing rewrites have improved immeasurably the quality of writing and comprehension in introductory courses. Colleagues who have used the system report similar experiences. If nothing else, the commentary sheet makes students more careful as it signals them that they are being evaluated on numerous levels. By requiring papers to be typed and by opting for check-offs and short commentary, I have cut my grading time by more than one-third, even when I factor in student office visits and reading rewrites. This gets papers back into students’ hands quickly and allows them to decide on their options.

The method is not infallible, and it doesn’t address many problems. I’ve had to learn that there are some realities I have to accept, and some writing problems I can’t fix. Academia still remains mostly print-oriented, and the very act of basing evaluations on written work is a form of the social Darwinism I deplore. I accept that I’m stuck with grades, and that most academic institutions expect students to be able to write.

Another problem relates to the old clich,, “you can’t make chicken soup out of chicken feathers.” Students whose thinking is superficial can be encouraged to think more deeply about issues, even forced to reevaluate, but that does not guarantee they will achieve full comprehension. Nor does it address questions of creativity and style as fully as it might. Argument-centered essay assignments place evidence, logic, and organization at the forefront. This leads some students to develop “safe” papers that lay out easily “proved” theses in a straightforward manner, rather than to take a more adventuresome course. I find that most of my paper assignments are more engaging than blue-book exams, but some of the results are still flat stylistically. I’ve made an uneasy trade-off of clarity for style in those cases, but I’m still searching for ways to get both more consistently. Through the years, I have changed my commentary sheet. Lately, I have paid more attention to checks and comments relating to analysis. As some colleagues rightly pointed out, earlier versions put too much emphasis on mechanics and not enough on substance.

In addition, some students enter college with skills that are so deficient that it’s impossible to address them adequately in the time allotted. My method does little to address the problems of students whose writing deficiencies are deep-rooted. I simply try to identify them early and put them in touch with academic assistance councilors whose expertise in learning problems usually exceeds mine. For the erstwhile idealist, that’s another disturbing social Darwinian implication, but the fact is, many such students won’t make it and perhaps shouldn’t have been in college in the first place. I have come to accept, reluctantly, that I am a fallible instructor engaged in educating a large number of students in a less-than-perfect academic world. My method works well with students who are in the process of discovering their abilities, polishing rough skills, and coming to grips with new ideas. It makes those students better writers and more thoughtful scholars. Some of the strangers even become history majors!


Sample Grading Checklist for Essay Commentary




Thesis/focus well-defined
Well-stated arguments
Vivid/effective examples
Use of specific detail
Good internal logic
Good intro/conclusion
Creative/lively style
Fine command of topic
Superb synthesis skills
Fix grammar/syntax
Recommend rewrite


Need more clear focus
Need deeper analysis
Give more examples
Use more detail
Check contradictions
Rethink organization
Rework intro/conc.
Fix awkward language
Adjust tone or mood
Fact/concept errors
Consult more sources
Cite sources

Additional comments:



Robert E. Weir is an assistant professor of history at Smith College, and a visiting assistant professor in the graduate school of Labor Relations and Research at the University of Massachusetts/Amherst. His research focuses on Gilded Age culture and the Knights of Labor. The author wishes to thank Robert Blackey and Howard Shorr for aid in revising this article, and for helping him rethink the content of the system described therein.