Do you “ding” students for errors?

by Andrea R. Olinger

If you ding, don’t, or are still debating your policy, check out Anne Curzan’s recent column for The Chronicle of Higher Education’s Lingua Franca blog. A linguist at the University of Michigan, Curzan notes that a significant number of her students report having points deducted for grammatical errors, and she talks about why this policy, while well intentioned, is problematic.

First, there’s little agreement over what constitutes an error (e.g., hopefully instead of it is hoped that? use of third person plural pronouns when the referent is traditionally seen as singular, as in Everyone is entitled to their own opinion?).

Second, she argues, “much of what gets called ‘grammatical error’ is not error, linguistically speaking, and it’s not always about grammar per se.” Falling into this category are the use of other dialects of English, “stylistic infelicities” like lack of parallel structure, and evidence of language change (e.g., on accident is replacing by accident among younger speakers).

At the end, Curzan describes how she does address language and punctuation in students’ writing. She doesn’t ignore them; in fact, she declares that “[i]t is my job to notice them and alert students to their presence, as they hone their mastery of standard edited English.” But she doesn’t “ding.” Her strategies include circling or underlining, not crossing out; making notes in the margin about other language choices the student could make at that particular point; requiring students’ to revise or respond to written comments about the language; and grading for content instead of language.

Curzan’s arguments gel with what we discuss in our WAC workshop on Working with ESL Student Writers (see, for instance, our handout on Working with Error). As Curzan implies, these strategies can be used with all students, not just ESL writers.

What are your thoughts on Curzan’s position? Have you yourself been, er, dinged by an instructor when you were a student? Let us know in the comments.

4 thoughts on “Do you “ding” students for errors?

  1. Andrea – there is a philosophical issue at root here. If you otherwise use writing so students can discover the subject matter through their own experiences, shouldn’t they discover grammar in a like manner, and then do so when they are ready for it rather than because the instructor forces the issue?

    It is not the same thing, but many students don’t proofread what they submit. They make what are clearly mistakes (like typing a single letter instead of the full word). I so sometimes bring that up, either ensemble in class or once in a while on an individual piece if the obvious errors are particularly glaring.

    I’d like them to enjoy the writing. If they do and they make an obvious effort to get better at it, then they might appreciate suggestions on the grammar. Until then, it seems to me more like nagging. I hate to be a nag and I doubt it is very effective in changing the patters of how students go about doing their work.

    • Lanny, thanks for your comment! I appreciate that you’re seeing the issue from the students’ perspective. I agree that it’s really best when the desire to improve comes from the student.

      To get to the second point you raised, I’ve heard of some instructors building in proofreading time the day the paper is due–before students hand in their papers, they exchange papers with a peer who proofreads or they proofread themselves.

  2. In Spanish, we certainly do. Our errors are not often related to a matter of saying “hopefully versus “it is hoped that”. Rather, the errors in our students drafts tend to be the equivalent of saying something like “It hopes is that”, which would cause the reader to be immediately confused.
    What I am discovering is that since our students are not used to their English teachers telling them that they have errors, they seem offended that we are taking points off for that. In English composition class, the emphasis is so much on content -it seems- that they come with the same attitude to Spanish Composition. Moreover, many of them don’t realize that writing in your first language is quite different than writing on a foreign language. I have been hearing more and more students say lately “but I am such a good writer in English!” In a way, I do feel that in writing across the curriculum, students are getting different messages, but I don’t know if that is necessarily a bad thing, as long as students are told that the writing skills they learn in a course may not apply to other courses.
    I am not convinced of this position; I am merely contemplating it. I would be happy to hear/read what others have to say/write.

    • Florencia, thank you for your fascinating and provocative comments! I recall that there’s research in the ESL writing literature (Ferris?) that talks about how students want and expect error correction. It’s interesting that you’ve seen the opposite (or, maybe not the opposite, but at least resistance to being marked down for errors). What a great idea for a research project–students’ attitudes about error correction in foreign language writing classes and where these attitudes come from.

      Writing across the Curriculum folks really do try to dissuade faculty and students of the notions that there is one way to write and that a single course (whether ESL writing, or first-year writing, or any other writing-intensive experience) can teach someone everything they need to know about writing. But these ideas are so entrenched that I’m not surprised to hear students are saying things like “But I’m such a good writer in English!” And I’m guilty myself of not really eliciting language-specific differences. In my Rhetoric classes, we talk a lot about how different professors, courses, and disciplines vary in writing conventions and expectations, but very little about different languages vary (i.e., intercultural rhetoric).

      You’re making me me think that there needs to be a lot more interaction between folks who teach language (not just English) and folks who teach writing all across campus!

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