I used to be appalled at the quality of my students’ writing on exams and other in-class assignments.
Now I’m slightly less appalled. Here’s what changed things:
About ten years ago, I got overly fed up with sloppy errors on exams and quizzes. Students would misspell the most basic words, and make standard homonym errors (such as there/they’re/their) and just sloppy phrasing. It was unbefitting of any college student, or actually of any student in general. These errors indicated an overall lack of pride in one’s work. Grading these could slowly eat one’s soul.
So then, here’s what I did: I told my students that any error in writing (grammar, diction, syntax, spelling) that would not be accepted by a middle school English teacher, wouldn’t be accepted in my class. I said that every single error would result in a loss of a tenth of a point. If you did the same error four times, then that would mean that you’d lose four tenths of a point. If you had a hundred errors, you’d lose ten points.
I put the policy in the syllabus, and I told students every time I handed out a quiz or exam.
When I started grading quizzes, I would mark down a “- 1/10” for every stupid little error. Even on short one-page quizzes which only contained short responses, there could have been up to a score of such errors for some students. Others had none, and many had just one or two.
So, instead of getting a full 10 on a quiz, an otherwise perfect quiz with two lame-o errors receives a 9.8. How would this affect a student’s grade? Negligibly.
Each semester, I would get predictable outrage from a few students (at the expensive private school), that I would try to teach something other than science. I asked if it was reasonable for a college professor to expect proper grammar and spelling of a college student regardless of the discipline. That usually quieted things down, though earning the respect of these students would be an uphill challenge. At my current job, it’s just accepted as par for the course.
What is the outcome of marking down points for sloppy writing? It’s actually amazing. Their writing improved dramatically. The writing more closely resembles the professional output they always should be generating.
This is what I find depressing about this whole affair. If students don’t think that they’re being graded on spelling and grammar, then they actually misspell words far more frequently, by about two orders of magnitude. They also are more likely to craft nonsensical sentences, use adjectives in place of adverbs, and use apostrophes with abandon except where needed.
My students actually can spell, and follow basic rules of grammar. They just don’t bother to do so unless it’s required of them.
If I make my students do it right in my classroom, that’s one small part of it becoming a routine. However, in one semester I can’t undo a decade of other instructors who weren’t maintaining similar standards.