For a term paper in an online course, a student was asked to pick a country and compare some trend between that country and the US. The student chose to compare social media use, with Australia as the other country. But she got the paper back with an F grade, the adjunct professor writing on it that she was failing the student and that Australia is a continent not a country. The student appealed the grade to the professor and the university administration and sent in some evidence that Australia was unique in being both a continent and a country. Her grade was then revised to a B+ and the professor was fired.
What struck me about this news item was not that the instructor was unaware that Australia is a country but that, if the story is taken at face value, the professor seemed to be failing the student for what was a mistake of fact. These kinds of things happen when a professor gives an assignment and then looks at only the final product of the student, with no feedback in between. This is done routinely but is not the way to help students learn how to write.
This would never happen in my courses because of the way my courses are structured. While I do assign research term papers, what I do is have the student choose a topic very early on in the course, in consultation with me. The first writing assignment that is due about a third of the way through the course requires the student to write a paper that gives three different perspectives on the topic, written in as neutral a way as possible so that I would find it hard to discern what her preferred position was. The goal of this is to have the student realize that most issues have multiple ways of being seen and to research these alternatives.
The second writing assignment due about two-thirds of the way through the course requires them to take the perspective that they favor and then write two parts: one arguing forcefully and in a partisan way in favor of their preferred position, the other arguing forcefully against it. Again, both parts should be written in such a way that it would be hard for me to guess which side she is on. The point of this assignment is to make the student research the strongest case that can be made against their position.
The final assignment due at the end of the term is where they put this all together and make the case for their position while acknowledging that other points of view and opposing arguments exist and taking those into account when making their case.
For each paper, students are encouraged to submit their work and get feedback from their peers and from me before submitting the final versions. In this system, it can never happen that a student submits work that is sub-par or contains glaring errors of fact because it would be caught at many points along the way.
I started structuring my assignments this way when I realized that my goal as a teacher is to help students become better writers and not just produce a good paper. Good writing involves a process that takes time and requires multiple revisions. By structuring the writing assignments that mirror the process of good writing, I hoped to create habits that will stand them in good stead because those habits will be more useful to them than just producing a good paper.