That was fairly quick and unexpectedly mostly painless, because I did something I haven’t done before, and that now I’m going to have to do every year. These are all first year students who generally have that deer-in-the-headlights look in class, and I have to coax them to participate. So this year I dedicated one class hour to how to answer an essay question. I told them that grammar and spelling matter, and that one simple recipe for a coherent answer is to describe a few facts and details, and then synthesize in a concluding statement. Facts without synthesis doesn’t mean much, and synthesis without outlining the basic things you’re explaining makes it sound like you haven’t been paying attention in class. We went through a bunch of examples in groups, and I’d evaluate and give them a likely score on the spot.
It worked! The quality of the answers went up — knowing that I had reasonably high expectations meant they took the questions very seriously and answered carefully. It made them much more pleasant to read.
The catch is that it’s expensive. This class only meets twice a week, and dedicating a class hour to something so basic meant that there were other things I didn’t have time to cover. I hope this is a skill they remember, though, so I don’t have to do it again in every class they’re in.