« A plug for optimal currency areas | Main | The problem of poor whites »


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

I am not sure I understand the problem. If you ask a student to prove a mathematical theorem, you don't expect him to have invented the theorem himself, you expect him to understand the steps and implications.

Doesn't this apply to any other subject? Understanding what other people have written is the basic requirement. Maybe the problem is not the student, but the task itself. Maybe essays are just a bad idea. I never quite understood the point of them anyway. Give the student a problem to solve and I think you have a better test. If I can produce an proper essay but copying it on the internet, I have passed the test as far as I am concerned. But mostly because the test is badly designed...

What's the value in asking students to generate original opinions about a subject? Is it even possible? Surely by now most original thoughts on certain subjects have been explored already.

Understanding can be absent, with the student betting that the harried graduate student marking it is just going to ignore the incoherence of the somewhat-grammatical sentences strung together, and reward the use of keywords.

"Check the box" essay-writing is frequently a winning strategy in high schools with thousands of students to process - it only falls apart when there's only ten students and the essay is followed up by a seminar discussing the essay topic.


Relatedly, there was a study 10 years ago which found that scientists don't even read the originals they cite. This was found using misprints in citations which propagate. So Author A makes a mistake in citing an original work X. Author B reads Author A's paper and copy/pastes A's citation without bothering to read X.


Nick - hey, isn't student essays as collages one of my lines? AIO!

I agree 100% with your description of how students write. The question is: why is it a problem? Perhaps it isn't. Perhaps you are just being hidebound and resistent to new ways of learning and doing?

In another post I once talked about the difference between *describing* type topics and *explaining* type topics. That distinction might be helpful here.

- when people choose "describing" type topics, for example, describe the types of plugs used around the world, a collage approach works really well. Cut and paste, put in references, add in nice graphics and formatting. But what, really, have students learnt, other than a few facts about the world?

- for explaining type topics, the collage approach doesn't work so well, because it doesn't involve analytical thinking. All one ends up with is a description of other people's issues. But students use it anyways. Why? Because they don't know how to do anything else. In most classes, students aren't taught logical thought, rhetoric, methods of analysis. They aren't taught how to do original research using primary or semi-primary sources like archival records or large scale data sets. They aren't trained in applying theory to explain everyday life, or developing theories to explain something they observe.

These things can be taught. But it's hard work. Much easier to teach theory as a bunch of mathematical proofs, and get people to reproduce that on the exam, or to take an anything goes, come up with your own topic, approach to essay writing.

I think that the key distinction between a good undergraduate essay and a bad undergraduate essay comes down to those linking essays. Do they link up such that the essay forms a persuasive argument for a proposition? If so, it's a good essay.


Essays are the most cost-effective way of determining whether or not the student has learned how to understand and argue within a discipline. Examinations are also very good for this purpose, but also largely test coolness under pressure and don't test skills like diligence or the ability to gradually develop a case. Oral exams perhaps have the strongest relevance to the world outside academia, but they are hard to pull-off with a lot of students and ironically the only students who receive major oral examination tend to be those most likely to be insulated from the world outside academia i.e. PhD students.

"What's the value in asking students to generate original opinions about a subject? Is it even possible? Surely by now most original thoughts on certain subjects have been explored already."

There's two different senses of originality at work here: if two scientists independently come up with a theory, both have been original in the sense of being the origin of the theory, but only one can be original in the sense of being the first to come up with the idea.

It's quite possible for an undergraduate to have the first kind of original thought, but rare, which is why very good marks are awarded for it.

An excellent essay on the topic of plagiarism was published in Harper's back in 2007. It's called "The ecstasy of influence: A plagiarism".

Hold on a second. Why are students getting all the blame here?

Few professors even read undergraduate essays. They hire a marker, usually a poorly paid graduate student. The marker is supposed to read the essays, but no one actually verifies this. There is nothing stopping them from "sample-reading" - reading just a few snippets and skimming the rest - and assigning a grade on that basis.

For that matter, snipping paragraphs off the Internet is far from the worst form of plagiarism. Even 20 years ago, I knew students who simply recycled essays their friends had written in previous terms. No one ever got caught, even if the very same TA was marking them.

Today, you can just hire someone on the Internet to write your essay. They really are not remotely reliable as a means of evaluation anymore.

I am not sure this isn't the way people think and formulate their thoughts. It is just in the internet age, copy and paste replicates more accurately than memories did in the past.

I was a student for a very long time, and not an exceptional one. Just a regular, consistently 'B' student. And while I'm not wanting to contradict your experience, I have to say that I cannot fathom how one could even write a paper in the manner you describe. I always read several sources (usually journals, because I could plow through a large number of articles a lot quicker than books), until an idea sparked about what I wanted to write about and the theory or position I wanted to argue about it. How can I know which sources to which I can turn for support or counter-evidence if I don't what I'm trying to say in the first place? Even if one re-wrote the copy-and-pasted text, how could the final paper end being remotely coherent if it started out with a mod-podge of Google algorithm-selected paragraphs?

In a sense, I have to extend kudos to students who can successfully pull off an essay written by Google and merely edited by them, because I think it would be so much harder to

It's never really occurred to me to write an essay this way, though it does sound like a lot less work.

Still, this brings to mind "Everything is a Remix" (http://www.everythingisaremix.info/watch-the-series/), which pretty makes the argument that original work is just stringing together previously existing ideas in an innovative way.

Tyronen writes: "Few professors even read undergraduate essays. They hire a marker, usually a poorly paid graduate student."

Well, depends on where you are. I taught for nearly 40 years, mostly at schools without graduate assistants...without graduate programs. When I assigned papers, there was no one to read them except me. And my situation is much more common than the case of the professor with a horde of graders.

(In addition, I suspect that faculty at institutions with graduate programs read some of the undergraduate papers and *all* of the graduate papers.)

Let us put paid to the "poorly paid grad student TA" hypothesis. TA's in Canada are all unionized. They get $30/hour. They may be harried, but they are not poorly paid.

Two points:

(a) Have these students ever been taught how to write an essay any other way? Have they ever been taught the purpose of writing an essay? As a relatively recent student, I would guess not. Instead, they have effectively been taught that an essay is an assemblage of a certain number of words, double-spaced, because that is how "essay" is defined on assignment sheets from a very early grade.

(b) Perhaps as a result of the lack of instruction otherwise, many students who try to write an original analytical argument will get middling or poor grades despite putting in significantly more work than their peers. This is perhaps because they have never received coaching on how to move from "coming up with an interesting argument" to "supporting an interesting argument with evidence".

I was fortunate to receive help and direction at home about what an essay should be. Most people do not.

the same is true of many posts on economic releases; more often than not large sections are quoted verbatim without a cite...

just as an incidental, most creatvie thought is no more than a collage of what the creator has previously "copy/pasted" in his consciousness; collaging should not be discouraged, it should be judged as one would judge a collage...is it a good collage? new mix of images? unusual juxtapositions? then it is a good piece of work..

This is why I specifically put in my rubric that I am looking for original arguments and defense of your points against possible counterexamples if you expect an A. You are going to be docked points for just citing others people arguments and not using either economic theory or data yourself. Concerning cut and pasting, turnitin does a good job of finding rearranged sentences. Most students who would go about doing that are not going to reword ever clause in the paper. Two or three clauses in close proximity of something matching the database in whatever order is going to flag it on turnitin.

"the same is true of many posts on economic releases"

What are "economic releases"?

Having done various jobs after graduating before I returned to being an academic I have seen this from more than one perspective. In my view, academics are a bit over-zealous about plagiarism. What I think is important is that the student understands the content and that the sources are given credit. When I started work, I was encouraged to cut and paste for speed, but woe betide you if you didn't understand the content if asked about it. In a university you can ask for essays to be handed in after small group tutorials and pick a student at random and ask them to present and defend their argument in the tutorial; that should keep them honest. I even had one boss who, when I scrupulously gave credit for distinctive ideas and facts, told me to stop offloading responsibility!

Ironically, given your Plato example, I consistently tell people that the only courses in my undergrad that actually taught how to write an essay were philosophy courses. They consistently stressed good logic and argumentation as we as a well constructed piece if writing. It's a different style of essay than a research paper but it still made a big impact on how I write research papers now. Otherwise my experience is the same as other commenters. There is a sorry lack of attempt to teach good essay writing.

Tyronen: "There is nothing stopping them from "sample-reading" - reading just a few snippets and skimming the rest - and assigning a grade on that basis."

Other than the fact that most of them are consciencious, ethical and often want to provide constructive comments to their students (if for no other reason than, if you don't, your students will continue to write horrible essays that you have to read). If a student ever had any doubts about whether I had read their essays in their entirety, they could look to the lengthy comments in the margins and the often numerous grammatical and spelling corrections - I didn't mark on grammar or spelling, but I figured my students deserved to have it brought to their attention.

"I knew students who simply recycled essays their friends had written in previous terms. No one ever got caught..."

No doubt people get away from with cheating - if they didn't no one would do it - but people get caught. I have a vivid recollection of a law society discplinary decision which disciplined a lawyer for "conduct unbecoming" for selling one of his essays to a buddy while he was an articling student( http://canlii.ca/en/on/onlshp/doc/2008/2008onlshp65/2008onlshp65.html).

Kuri: "Even if one re-wrote the copy-and-pasted text, how could the final paper end being remotely coherent if it started out with a mod-podge of Google algorithm-selected paragraphs?"

Who said they're remotely coherent?

The problem with writing essays this way is much what Frances said: one can adequately describe by paraphrase and quotation, but one cannot generally argue this way.
In acarraro's image, this is like someone copying out the steps of the theorem without getting 'behind' the symbols to understand it; you'll only know the student has done so if he or she misapplies something.
In many subjects you can't ask someone to solve a problem to show he or she *does* know how to apply it; the only thing to do is ask him or her to make a (somewhat original) argument and support its premises.

Earlier stages of education are perhaps at fault in not preparing students to argue, or argue well.


$30 an hour? Unless the Canadian dollar is priced very differently from what I had imagined, that's not that good compared to what we get where I am.

I'm enjoying reading the comments. I'm not going to respond much to them, since I'm not really arguing a thesis here. (But can anyone else confirm or deny what my biased sample seems to be telling me about how some/many? students write essays?) I'm just going to join in.

I went to a good, academically strong, traditional (latin still compulsory) school in England. I don't remember writing many essays. I don't remember them teaching us how to write essays, unless they did it as we went along, or I have just forgotten it. As a philosophy undergrad at Stirling (and Berkeley) I wrote a lot of essays. Again I can't remember them ever teaching me how to write an essay (or how to cite/footnote/style and all that cr*p). I got lots of comments, but all arguing about the substance of my argument.

I have no idea if I could teach any student how to write an essay.

I would have loved an essay topic like: "Go read Plato, don't read anything else, think about it for a bit, then tell me whether you think Plato is great or totally wrong". I would have hated an essay topic where I was told to go to the library and find and read and cite a load of stuff, under the name of "research".

Determinant - W Peden: I think it's more like $40 to $50 an hour.

It depends on what is negotiated by the union. I graduated in 2006, it was $38 and climbing to $40. But there are lots of universities.

Undergrad TA's received half the grad rate. In my local, with lots of undergrad TA's, it made for interesting bargaining dynamics.


One gets the same thing in law. (I was a philosophy undergrad, but did a law course as an outside course.) In pre-honours history, we did a lot of essay writing without ever being told how, and in Canadian Studies I was able to do well based solely on the ability to write a good essay on a few hours' preparation.

Actually, I learned most about how to write essays in high school, especially from one exceptionally good history teacher who found time both to get us through a lot of material and spend a lot of time explaining exam & essay methodology, mainly because he was such a terrifying disciplinarian and genuine giver of preciously rare complements that (a) he wasted almost no time disciplining pupils because almost no-one misbehaved and no-one did so twice and (b) he could get us to do homework, every week, several times a week. In some ways, he was a great football coach who also could teach history and he believed in regular drill & high standards for both activities. Most importantly, he understood that most teenagers (especially boys) are not naturally good at expressing themselves and did everything in his power to improve our communication skills.

It only takes one class like that for essay-writing to never be fundamentally difficult again. He trained us in just one year (16-17).

Frances' distinction between "pursuading" and "describing" is interesting, because it occurs to me that in my practice, when I write things, how I write them depends on whether I'm trying to pursuade someone or describe something.

For example, a client might ask me to prepare a brief email outlining some element of the Canadian tax system (how the GST works, for example). I've probably written dozens, if not hundreds, of those kinds of emails, so my first instinct is to pull up one of my precedents and re-write it (and update it, as neccesary - as Rebel Notes, you have to know your material and it has to be right) to conform with my clients situation. And that method produces perfectly satisfactory results (especially for my client, who doesn't have to pay me to write something from scratch). I don't have to pursuade the client that that's how the tax system works, they're prepared to take me at my word.

But that wouldn't work at all if I were trying to prepare a submission to pursuade the CRA to back off of a position. Even if I had a precedent dealing with similar issues and facts, I'd still have to rewrite large swaths of the precedent to produce a finished product that was pursuasive and acceptable. In practice, I might be able to reuse some sections (i.e. summaries of the law - again, provided they're still correct) which are descriptive in nature, but beyond that the precedent isn't useful for much beyond form.

I'd never thought about it like that before, but it makes sense.

(To illustrate the nature of that teacher a bit: I remember once getting full marks on a practice exam question, only to find out that I had just as much red-ink on my answer as anyone else and to be told where to improve. Even full-marks don't imply that one's work can't be better.)

Bob Smith,

There's a further distinction between persuading and explaining, namely that in the latter case one assumes a fact and tries to explain why it is the case by deriving it from premises, whereas in the former case one tries to reach a fact from shared premises.

And Rebel's right about citation being used to offload responsibility in the real world. My clients usually don't care about my sources, the sources are there so that if they ever come back to me and say "your advice was wrong" and I'll have a paper trail to prove that it was well-founded when given and that I wasn't negligent in giving it. I suppose it does give them some comfort, when they get the opinion, that it isn't complete nonsense.

My favourite posts on WCI are the teaching related posts (usually from Nick and Frances - thanks guys).

At the (Canadian) school where I am a grad student, we get paid a touch under $30 an hour to work for 196 hours per TAship. However, we are paid for the full 196 hours irrespective of how much work we actually do. My estimate is that most TAships require somewhere around 120-140 hours of work, although I have had one where I got very close to the 196 hour limit. So the effective pay rate is usually (but not always) a fair bit higher than the headline rate.

My TA union recently went through a bargaining process, and they were absolutely atrocious. We went on strike to obtain (along with a very small pay rise) provisions that redistribute surplus amongst TAs (from lower year PhD students to upper year PhD students) while simultaneously reducing the quality of TAs.

Anecdote I may have already told but: early '70's, Advanced Macro. We had an assignment. Our team ( the B one) was struggling, as were the other teams, including the A. At that time, banks would distribute monthly papers to universities, equivalent to today's electonic newsletters. Unlike most og my colleagues I was an avid reader. At some point, I recognized that the problem seemed to be lifter from one of them. Went home and brought the relevant issue back. Our team got an A and so bafflement ensued, as the A team got a B. We explained to the class how we got the solution. Uproar. We had cheated! Then the prof, who of course knew all along how we had succeeded, simply asked:" Who among you read these papers?" Nobody among the A's answered. "Then do your research.Do you think your future boss will object that you answered your mandate by getting the right data?".
Of course, at the next assignment, the A team got its A and we returned to our usual B ( a B was very strong at Laval in those days).
The prof was Pierre Fortin, as usual a source of wisdom...

While writing well is an important skill for students, maybe to assess the question "Do these students understand the material?" the marginal utility of oral exams are increasing.

If you have 100 students, it will take 4-5 4-hour blocks to have each student give a 5-10min oral exam. But shouldn't it take much longer to grade essays? I think you can learn a lot more about whether someone knows something about something by asking them a question face-to-face than making them "write" 2000 words about it over the course of weeks.

I say this as a student who was recently mortified after drawing a giant blank during an oral exam.

Determinant: "TA's in Canada are all unionized. They get $30/hour."

Um.....no. Not in my neck of the (academic) woods.

@ Gene Callahan:

a partial list of what i was refering to is on the sidebar here:

The vast majority of everything written is done this way. I cant even quantify the number of social science books I have read that are essentially doing the exact same thing. They take a bunch of stuff that was previously said and synthesize it into their words. Richard Florida, for one off the top of my head, has made a successful career of it. If what you are describing is plagiarism, then it isn't just students doing it, it's pretty much everyone except for the 5% or so of scientists that are responsible for nearly all of the original discoveries.

Within the blogoshere, I would say about 50% of everything that is written is, so and so said this (with a link), I say this or that about the original this, rinse recycle repeat. I think an even higher percentage or journalistic writing is done that way, mixing in an interview sometimes.

This is how many undergraduate economics textbooks are written. Just sayin.

Personally, I have no problem with it.

As my public finance prof was fond of saying: "That's Buchanan 's job to discover and mine to repeat."

lovely Youtube here NR

I agree that problemsolving is the way to do it and also find Wolley's distiction between describing and explaining intriguing.So do we see farther when standing on the shoulders of giants ? Nietzsche would disagre(Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1882) "On the Vision and the Riddle"), but when i read a most of Krugmann's stuff, a Brad Delong or Andy Harless compact, yes even your own post on triangles, i'm all: "Spread the word" like Cyrus from Walter Hill's "The Warriors"

I was fortunate enough to read a little Confucius when I was a kid. Somewhere he said not to be a petty scholar. Well, what you describe sounds pretty petty. And I have to wonder about the assignments.

I remember in middle school getting assignments that could be answered by looking the questions up in an encyclopedia. This was before I had read Confucius, but I knew that just copying from the encyclopedia was wrong. Still, what came out was quite close to what was in the encyclopedia. ;) In college I did experience grading by checklist. It made me lose respect for the instructors. I also had one prof who gave assignments that reminded me of middle school. OC, you couldn't just use an encyclopedia, but basically you could look up most of the answers. As a result, I did not think much of him, either.

As I was reading some of the comments here I thought of those diagrams in books that teach ballroom dancing that show where to put your feet. You don't just want students to be able to cut and paste those diagrams, you want them to be able to put their feet in the right place at the right time.

When working on his books Robert Louis Stevenson used to read what he had written to his twelve year old son. I wonder if it would be a good idea to ask students to write as though they were explaining their ideas to a bright twelve year old. :)

Recently I ran across the idea of assigning papers that you would want to read. :) Here is the URL: [link here NR] In this and other posts Hawks has a number of good ideas. :)

Min: I sometimes tell my students to write as if they were explaining it to one of their classmates who had missed this particular topic.

Instructors often have unreasonable goals in requesting original argument or in requiring citations. They forget the many years they have spent on the same subject matter.

The usual consequence of requiring citations or orginal though is that both precludes a beginning student from having his own ideas. It forces the pattern you describe: the professor well knows someone who has made your claim before. So if the student doesn't cite, he claims plagiarism or that the student failed to be original. The student has one way out: first find the citations, then build the essay around them--otherwise you won't have the references. A first or second year student simply does not have the experience to first argue then add the requisite citations.

When I was studying constitutional law, the professor had a very good approach to essays. He gave us a list of books on legal philosophy. We had to pick one and review it. The benefit of legal philosophy is that you aren't bound by knowing caselaw. So the need for citations outside the book is limited. Instead you needed to review the material, extract the key points, explore implications the author didn't consider, and criticize the authors logic.

This is what most students need, both to learn about the subject matter and be capable of analyzing arguments.

Instead most professors pursue a petty system of ego stroking that elevates their role in society as the progenitors of truth. Ie, abusing the students by encouraging argument by authority. This is not what undergraduate students need.

Indeed, citations serve a very different purpose outside the classroom: helping to place a work in historical context (background) and allowing omissions, ie don't describe what you did, just day you fiollowed the same method as X or used Ys data in this place.

Min: " I wonder if it would be a good idea to ask students to write as though they were explaining their ideas to a bright twelve year old. :)"
One of my profs always told us to write to be understood by our future boss who would the equivalent of a dumb twelve-year-old I presume...

I have lots of co-op students and they have to write work-term reports. The have difficulty, even the good ones. I have to help them step-by-step through their argument and help them think about writing a narrative. "We want to do this experiment to measure this hypothesis. In this experiment X is a potential background. Therefore, I studied X like so to ensure it will not contaminate our signal. Here is the analysis. In conclusion This method shows the amount of X left over is less than ...."

The cut and paste essay does not easily allow for development of clear a narrative or analysis.

The comments to this entry are closed.

Search this site

  • Google

Blog powered by Typepad