College Writing Tips: Point Values

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.

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.

College Writing Tip Seven: Always consider the point value of a question.

The use of learning management systems provides a valuable suite of learning tools and options for both faculty and students. Sometimes, though, these LMS’s box us in as much as they help. What defines a “short answer” and what defines an “essay” question. Faculty have different definitions which may not easily correspond to the assessment option “checkbox” provided in Blackboard or Canvas or Edmodo.

A way to gauge the amount of effort required for a writing assignment is to consider the questions point value. Typically, point values are directly related to the elements necessary for a complete answer, e.g. one point per element, reason, themes, etc. the question requires the student to acknowledge. Points are added on for grammar, spelling, and punctuation, depth and breadth of details. Plus, some faculty allow for some leeway for writing skill and tone.

Yes, writing can, and is, qualitatively graded.

An instructor may post all questions as “short answer” and vary points. Some topics may be worth 5pts, some 10pts, some 15, some 50. I would hope the instructor would choose another option for a 50-pt writing assignment other than “short answer” but not all faculty are savvy about LMS technology.

So, what is a student to do?

First, pay attention to the instructions. Then, pay attention to point value. A writing assignment worth 15-pts cannot be treated with the same regard as a writing assignment worth 2-pts, or 5-pts. Giving all writing responses the same time will consume time allotted for the exam, resulting in submitting a potentially incomplete exam.

When I give writing assignments, I vary points. Questions worth 2pts don’t require much. These telltale questions are typically could be answered with a single word or phrase.

Define “environmental lapse rate.”
“The environmental lapse rate refers to the change in temperature as a function of altitude within a given column of air.”

Define “devolution.”
“Devolution refers to a small group or groups of disaffected people who seek some form of autonomy from a federal government.”

These questions are simply definitions which a student should be able to place in their own words, or at least not the words of the authors.

More detailed questions will have higher point values.

“Identify and discuss three regions within the United Kingdom which illustrate the phenomenon of devolution.”

“Explain the utility of each of the following imagery types: visible, infrared, and water vapor.”

Each of these questions would have value of at least 10-pts or more. Each has three basic elements which much be addressed (1pt x3). Then, each must be discussed (2pt x3); and a point for spelling, grammar, punctuation.

Regardless of how the LMS classifies the writing assignment, the student has knowledge inferred from point value as to how much effort, time, and informational content is required for an appropriate response.

There is no mystery.

Review an exam before beginning the exam. Look for short answers and essay questions and note them. Plan on spending more time on essays, less time on short answers. Consider the time available for the exam, then balance effort across the exam sections. Do not simply “jump in” to the exam.

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