Thoughts on Essays

By Neuroskeptic | June 26, 2017 2:39 pm

I’ve recently been doing some of every academic’s favorite activity – marking student essays (papers).

Here’s a few observations on essays and on marking them.

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1. Marking Essays is Subjective

This is a bit of a truism: it’s fairly obvious that not everyone will agree on how to grade an essay down to the exact mark. Unlike with, say, a multiple-choice exam, marking an essay is not a mechanical process. But it’s easy to forget this when the marks are there in black and white (or red). It’s easy to assume that an essay that scores 68 really is better than one that scores 66, or A is better than A-. It might not be.

The level of between-marker and within-marker consistency in scores will depend on the markers, courses and subjects. But the agreement will never be perfect. I would say as a ballpark estimate that mark differences of less than 5 (out of 100) shouldn’t be taken too seriously.

2. Style Is Very Important

The style of writing – which includes everything from English proficiency to the clarity of expression and logical flow – is extremely important. In fact, in most cases it’s more important than theĀ  content of the essay. A factually shaky but beautifully-written essay will be marked higher than an unreadable work of genius.

This is because while essays are marked on both style and substance, a poor style makes the substance seem poor. If your writing is unclear, you’ll be marked down twice for it: once for poor writing, but then again for having a ‘disorganized and confused argument’, because your argument will seem disorganized and confused, even if it was clear in your mind.

Sure, this isn’t fair: in an ideal world, markers would be able to look beyond style, and recognize the underlying substance, but the truth is we usually can’t. Or at least, we don’t have time to do that. If it takes time and effort to work out what you’re trying to say, most markers will assume you’re not saying anything.

3. Essays Are Artificial

Don’t expect that writing essays is preparing you to write scientific papers. I don’t know whether papers in the humanities are essay-like, but in science they are far from it. For one thing, you will rarely if ever be writing papers alone as a scientist: instead you’ll be coordinating and negotiating between multiple authors, something that essay-writing doesn’t prepare you for.

Style is also less important in papers than in essays. There is an art to writing papers, but writing a good paper and writing a good essay are two different skills. Many papers in good journals are full of clumsy writing, but no-one cares, because the content – in the form of tables and figures – is strong. In less prestigious (but still legitimate, peer-reviewed) journals, it’s common to see English and grammar mistakes that would get a student marked down badly. So, if you don’t excel at writing essays, don’t worry too much about your future prospects in science.

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  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

    English omits future tense, noun gender, diacritical marks – and still they complain. Korean Hangul (synthesized in 1443) has 19 consonants and 21 vowels. Of 11,172 possible Hangul syllables, 256 have a cumulative frequency of 88.2%; the top 512 reach 99.9%. That won’t save you.

  • Erik Bosma

    Lore ipsum etc, etc.. How well I remember my first essay. Too bad I only remember the first two words now.

    • Erik Bosma

      Whoops, that was ‘Lorem ipsum…’ My memory is slipping.Hey Unc!

  • Erik Bosma

    As if there are just 2 choices available. Another example of this either/or thinking that is so popular. How about someone hand in a great essay that is both well researched and has excellent grammar?

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Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.

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