• In-Class Essays: More Important Than Ever

Cover ICE shot

(This posting includes a PowerPoint which you are welcome to use with your students.) *

As I was reading Elio’s two-page essay, I was amazed at how good it was. In fact, it seemed too good, way better than anything he had ever written.  Although I was sure someone else had written it or had given him extensive help with it, or it had been downloaded from the internet, I couldn’t prove it. When I mentioned to him that it was so different from his previous papers, he just smiled and said that he had worked very hard on it over the past two weeks.

It would be a travesty to pass a student like Elio based on his out-of-class essays (OCEs). From reading most of his assignments, I was confident that he did not yet have the skills to be successful in academic classes, especially English Comp. Also, our higher-level ESL courses would lose all credibility in the eyes of the campus if unprepared ELL students were being allowed to take their courses.

According to research, because of the ease with which all students (not only ELLs) are able to download essays and plagiarize, more and more academic instructors are basing a large percent of their students’ grades on their performance on in-class papers written under a time limit. Thus, instructors have recommended that we include in-class essays (ICEs) in our ESL courses.

Reasonable expectations for in-class essays.

To pass our Writing courses, we can make it a requirement that students demonstrate their ability to write both OCEs AND ICEs. In other words, if a student writes excellent OCEs but unacceptable ICEs, s/he cannot pass the class.

Needless to say, the expectations for an acceptable ICE are different from those of an OCE. These are some of the expectations.

1) Organization of ideas. We don’t expect students to be able to present deeply supported ideas under a time limit. However, they should be able to organize them in a way that is logical to the reader. We can help them with this on their first ICE by requiring that they write a list of ideas before starting. These do not need to be formal outlines, nor do they have to be extensive. Moreover, these can be made optional in future essays, but most students tend to choose to use them after seeing their value.

2) Sentence styles and vocabulary. Students sometimes use up precious time trying to write sophisticated, complex sentences with varied starts. Naturally, we don’t want them to just write Subject + Verb patterned sentences.  However, we can reassure them that their ideas will be well connected if they can include conjunctions (e.g., and, but, so, or) in some sentences and subordinators (e.g. when, because, if, after, while) in some and start some sentences with transitional expressions (e.g., Also, However, Therefore).

3) Grammar. Students are trying to demonstrate that they have the ability to control their grammar. This means that, although they will probably make more grammar errors on their ICEs than their OCEs, those mistakes should not interfere with the ability of the reader to understand the ideas. Also, there shouldn’t be so many basic grammar errors that we would question the writer’s level, and thus, disqualify them from passing.

Concerning grammar, a big mistake students tend to make is to not edit their ICEs. Students often try to write up to the very moment that the time is up. To reduce this temptation, before they start an in-class essay, we can explain that students who haven’t quite finished their essays, but who have few simple grammar mistakes, will get a higher score than the reverse. Also, we can tell them to stop writing with 10-minutes left and to check their grammar. If there is time remaining after that, they can continue writing.

In addition, students often struggle to finish their essays in time due to an over-reliance on dictionaries. We can circumvent this habit by not allowing them to use the internet or electronic dictionaries. Also, we can assure them that they won’t be penalized for spelling mistakes.

(For an effective system for requiring proof-reading of grammar, see • Easy Editing-Awareness Technique for ESL Students)

Powerful reinforcement: Testimonials from previous students.

To reinforce the three points above, in this In-class Essays Strategies PowerPoint, I share with students what previous students said about how to be successful.

SURPRISING BENEFIT for Students: In-class essay requirements can help students improve the quality of their out-of-class essays.

If students believe that they only need to turn in impressive OCEs to pass the class, some will be tempted to plagiarize or download essays or have someone write their essay for them.  However, once they understand that, to pass, they still need to write acceptable ICEs without any outside “help,” they quickly realize that writing their own OCEs is the best way to develop the skills necessary to pass both the OCE and ICE requirements.

SURPRISING BENEFIT for Teachers: In-class essay requirements can reduce teacher stress.

It can be stressful for teachers who have students like Elio (in my introduction above) who turn in exceptional papers that obviously were not written by them. If the teacher cannot prove that the students “cheated,” s/he will be unable to justify failing them if their grade is dependent on just their OCEs.

However, students’ ICEs will clearly show their true writing skills.  If those are weak, the teacher can use those to clearly demonstrate to the students that it’s best for them to repeat the course..

For a collaborative process for evaluating students’ writing, see 

• This Process Contains Huge Benefits For Writing Teachers, Students and Programs.

• User-Friendly Writing Panel Process: Time and Energy Efficient And Effective 

• An Early Course Correction: Making Sure You Are Evaluating Your Students’ Writing Accurately Before It’s Too Late

For helping students develop self-editing skills, see   Most Effective Technique for Marking Grammar 

For more about dealing with plagiarism, see • Effective, Stress-Free Approach to Dealing with Plagiarism.  

David Kehe

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