We don't have a (home) exam in my social media course (most recent blog post here) this year. The most important part of the examination instead consists of six seminar assignments. Each week's readings is examined in the form of a two pages long "essay" (400-1000 words) and each assignment is roughly equivalent to a question on an exam. The instructions for each assignment set some limitation and at the same time provide a framework and a focus, but the instructions still give students a lot of freedom to take the task in any direction they would like to. Since the course started, I have read, judged and graded around 20 of these essay per week and felt that while the language in general is quite good, the essays surprisingly often aren't. So one week ago, I shared these thoughts of mine with the students in question:
I have read quite a few of your assignments by now. This comment arrives so late in the course that it is of less use here, but perhaps it can be of more use later and in other contexts where you have to write texts (not the least your upcoming master's theses).
My feeling is that many, well, actually the majority of you students spend too little time thinking about what you will write and planning what you will write and that you instead just sit down and start to write something up.
It's better to spend 75% of the time planning, sketching, perhaps drawing up an outline, perhaps adding some headers and a sentence of two about what you will write about under each header - and only then spend the remaining 25% of the time producing the actual text. I get the feeling many of you spend 25% of the time, and sometimes less, thinking some about what you will write, and then too quickly sit down and try to squeeze out the required 400 - 600 - 800 - 1000 words for the assignment.
The result is that you reach the production goal (number of words), but that the text oftentimes is unfocused and difficult to follow. I often have a hard time to find a red thread or something that keeps the text together. It's rather a little about this and a little about that, a reference here, a quote there and then some opinions added. When I have finished, I'm unsure what the text actually was about, and going back to the start might not always help me to understand what The Issue you wrote about was. I instead find several smaller issues or just a string of ideas.
Beyond the concrete advice I gave above (on planning vs execution), I would suggest you pose a question somewhere in the first paragraph ("...so how does ... relate to...?", "why doesn't the music industry...?"). This will help me and you understand what the topic of your text is. You should let your eyes stray back to that question whenever you don't know what to write next in your text. It might also be a good idea to think about that question when you finish the text, perhaps add a conclusion to the question or a summary of your arguments?
I'm an experienced writer and while it's not fair to compare my texts to yours, I still encourage you to have a look at this "extended abstract" (500 words) that I submitted to a workshop only earlier this month. I can promise you that I live as I learn and did spend the vast majority of time thinking about and sketching out what I would write ("hmm, first I'll write something about ... and then..." "hmm, I need an argument that ties this and that together", "hmm, should things be said in this order or is it better to first state that..."). I only spent a little time actually writing up the final text. Do also note how much can be said in only 500 words - (the assignments for this course should be between 400 and 1000 words).
So, my question now is if other teachers share these experiences of mine? I don't know if I have higher demands than last year, but I (very subjectively) feel that this problem is much greater this year than it was only a year ago. So what has happened in the meanwhile? Has Facebook eaten our students' brains, or what? Is Facebook turning students into zombies (zombies have no higher faculties of thinking and are incapable of planning).
Just this week I sat for a day at the library to get some work done. A student sat beside me a for several hours I couldn't for the life of me see that she got any productive (study-related) work done. She listlessly leafed back and forth in a textbook, copied text from a hand-out (pdf file) to a MS Word document, played with her phone, listened to music, checked out Facebook and wrote text messages any number of times etc. Is this what our students do? Spend time "studying" but without getting anything done? I wonder if this student in question felt that she had put in "a day's work" when she left the library? What is your opinion about these issues?