College Writing Tips: Respond to both X and Y

My teaching career began in the fall of 1997 when a faculty member experienced a heartache about a week before the semester began. During the intervening years between then and today, my peers, colleagues, and even those in business & industry, have noticed a tremendous decline in people’s ability to write.

Recently, I spent many hours grading writing assignments. These writing assignments ran the gamut from “short answers” to “essay” to 3 page response-type papers. My response papers are based on listening to two podcasts. One podcast is an economics podcast discussing the geographic traits of snack food. The other podcast is a mesmerizing account of a couple of Americans traveling throughout a South Asian country.

The more I read, the more patterns in writing emerged. Not just patterns in though; writing involves considerable thinking. I tend to reason writing reveals thinking, how a person thinks, how a person organizes thoughts and information. Writing reveals a considerable amount of information about a person, and I can understand how writing makes people nervous. I’m nervous merely writing this post, but I’m dealing with it.

Writing for higher education doesn’t have to involve the level of stress people attach to writing assignments. Understanding some simple concepts, requirements, goals, and using the education which was provided from ages 6-18 (maybe 16 in Kentucky) can alleviate anxiety surrounding writing.

Below, I am going to walk through some of the common errors I find in writing. Not only will I identify errors but I’ll explain how to adjust thinking processes to help direct attention to formulating better academic responses to writing assignments.

Writing Tip Three: Answer both “x” and “y”

Most students, probably close to 85% of students, actually, do not answer questions in the form of “how is X different than Y?” appropriately. These “compare and contrast” expect the student to answer both sides of the argument. Both “X” and “Y” must be addressed. Failure to discuss “X” and “Y” results in incomplete answers. To remove ambiguity, I’ll use an example.

“Why is population density not as good of an indicator of Quality of Life as physiologic density might be?”

(A)Population density describes the number of people per square mile. The higher the number of people per mile, the more crowded a place is. Crowded places are sometimes not nice places to live.

(B) Population density is a measure of the number of people per square mile; how disperse people are. The population density is calculated by dividing the number of people by the number of square miles in a state or country. Physiologic density is calculated by dividing the population not by the total area of a state or country but by only the amount of farmland in the country. Rural areas usually have less people living on the land. More people live in cities. So, a high physiologic density can mean more urban life, less rural life. The population density figure will be lower, indicating people are more spread-out, more elbow room, and perhaps give a false indication of a better quality of life, whereas the physiologic density may provide a better measure of how crowded a place is, how close people may live to one another, and how little elbow room is truly available.

Yes, (B) is more verbose than (A). However, (A) is not enough. (A) is not a good answer as only one side of the comparison is considered, and no supporting examples are provided. Response (B), on the other hand, is far more complete and discusses both population density and both physiologic density. Furthermore, (B) makes an attempt to compare and contrast (A) and (B). (B) also provides a limited example in contrasting rural vs. urban populations.

“Why is the Kelvin temperature scale for scientific measurements than either Fahrenheit or Celsius?”

(A) Zero (0) on the Kelvin scale is true zero, the lowest temperature anything can be.

(B) Zero (0) on the Kelvin scale is absolute zero, the absence of molecular movement. Nothing can be colder than 0 Kelvin. Both the Celsius and the Fahrenheit scale have somewhat arbitrary temperatures which are identified as zero (0). For instance, on the Celsius scale, 0°C is the temperature at which water freezes, while on the Fahrenheit scale, water freezes at 32°F. Neither Fahrenheit nor Celsius temperatures indicate a complete lack of heat.

A student who wants to separate his(her)self from the pack of students in a classroom, a student who wants to stand-out among their peers, will figure out how to do stand-out. Typically, standing-out does not mean making a spectacle of one’s self in the classroom. Standing apart from peers is best done through performance and classroom effort, homework, papers, and effort on projects, leadership in groups, and, of course, class participation. Spectacle students create a facade of interest. Honest, motivated students will apply knowledge from other courses or life experience to augment their work in the classroom.

Faculty take note of excellent work. Excellent work, thoroughness, can result in student being singled-out for scholarships, work-study, grants, or other benefits. Faculty will provide references to motivated, thorough students which can go a long way towards finding better, interesting, more lucrative employment opportunities.

Faculty work very hard to improve thinking, analysis, and interpretation skills of people, to challenge and coach students. The rigor of university is specifically to coach these traits. Resistance to coaching is resistance to learning and self-improvement, thus those students who complain are complaining about improving themselves. Obviously, a complaining student is essentially arguing for the maintaining the Status Quo of the their own ignorance.

Don’t stand in the way of your own success.

Next: “For the love of all that is holy, use spell-check.”

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