|Type of paper:||Essay|
The rampant and indiscriminate use of academic sources in student essays is largely due to the set of conditions that characterize test essays themselves, which force students to overuse citations, such as unavailability of time and opportunity during test taking. Essays are administered in a very tiny window in which the requirements are, on standard, utilization of all provided sources (even ones that are contrary to the general argument being made). Students must show skill in in-text citations and general coherence of ideas which are, primarily, at least to the reader, supported by these sources offered. While this may, at face value, seem like a set of reasonable conditions, they cultivate a culture of haste when taking tests; the objective is to finish at the appropriate time. The constricting and counterintuitive measures upheld by College Boards and college placement bodies, and, derivatively, the nature of tests and test essays administered is largely to blame for the over-reliance and indiscriminate use of sources during assessment.
The most disastrous effect, however, is that students will only learn to formularize test and essay taking, adopting a mechanistic approach that does not encourage creativity in essay writing. This is possible because the time limits imposed on students is a consequence of time and budget constraints that hang on the institutions that administer these tests as well.
These constraints not only mean that students will use sources widely but ensures that, to meet the quantitative requirements of wordiness, they make connections, conclusions that are wrong, and attribute sources to secondary parties. In an ironic twist, the same conditions underlying the administering and scoring of tests, i.e., discouraging paraphrase evaluation, apply to the administrators of these tests themselves. This fact is lost on them, and over time this incongruence seems to have calcified into a culture of denial where "The College Board...does not admit...any errors."
Drafts. One of the most vital and rather basic processes of writing a good essay is writing drafts. Drafts allow for an initial momentum in the project and a flow of ideas. These ideas are sifted in the second and final draft. Without drafts, the initial work of most authors would be wanting. In "Shitty First Drafts," Lamott comments on how none "...of them [writers] writes elegant first drafts." Lamott makes a rather interesting observation about how few writers "...know what they are doing..." in the initial stages of the draft and how child-like it is.
It is interesting, therefore to consider how college boards and stakeholders rationalize tests that do not allow for drafts even if the allocated time would be minimal. There is little logic between this particular variance and the very obvious fact that applies to professional writers universally. It is therefore not surprising when students, working in line with testing institutions, make up a bunch of wild and false theories, link them to actual historical events and make pseudo-intellectual conclusions that pass muster in The College Boards.
Another interesting fact to note is that college essays are frequently set to test a topic that seems to have been pulled out of thin air. One of the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA) items is the make-an-argument prompt which, in their literature, claims to test how well a student considers other options and acknowledge that their answer is not the only perspective (Council for Aid to Education).
Students will likely not have covered such a topic, and more often than not, it will be foreign to them. Proponents of this tactic will argue that it develops, "...tools for critical thinking." However, unfamiliarity leads to a frantic search for the familiar. Because of the culture established by College Boards, these students will seek to overutilize and wrongly utilize sources to compensate for efficiencies in familiarity with the subject matter.
Students will often result in an overuse of sources when the sources themselves are vague, inadequate, and inappropriate. Document Based Essay Questions (DBQs) are particularly notorious at this. As seen in the May 2007/08 English Language and Composition Test (College Board, English), the sources given did not lend themselves to a strong analytical foundation of the subject matter. Using excerpts from encyclopedias (as a primary source), and the equivalent of a third party quotation of another's words and what amounts to book reviews do not scholarly sources make. In such a scenario, where the student is presented with sources that themselves are shallow and incongruent, that student will only lean on them to make a point.
Circular reasoning. However, because the sources above are fallible in their reliability to be authoritative, the student has no course but to use circular reasoning in formulating arguments that comprise the essay. One major sign of such reasoning is the indiscriminate and wrong use of sources. Additionally, the DBQs promote the improper use of sources wrongly by failing to restrain the use of too many quotations explicitly. It also does this more subtly by setting the minimum number of resources to be used. This is not an arbitrary number as the sources given will usually be three, and in a prompt where the body of the essay is made of three paragraphs, the unspoken cue is to use all sources in each of the body's paragraphs. Scoring guidelines make no mention of critical assessment of sources and their use, and in fact, the College Board notes that scoring is determined by, "...combining the sources...", to support an "...argument and accurately citing all sources." This attribute appears to be a deficiency inherent in DBQs, but of course, this problem is linked to the constraints that test institutions set themselves.
The College Board perpetuates this reliance on citations by emphasizing the score of the exam being key determinants for likely credit, placement and college admissions, over grades. The test, as a result, becomes the core reason of the curriculum and since the way to pass that test is to be quantitative rather than qualitative, students internalize these messages and enact them in test essays. Worse yet, some teachers guide their students on how to pass on the DBQs. This reinforces the wrong techniques involving the poor use of resources among current students and those who follow.
Data Smog. Perlman builds on Daniel Shank's concept of data smog and elaborates how essay tests perpetuate the poor use of sources. Students are currently faced with a huge bombardment of information that usually leaves them in stasis concerning scholarly sources. Instead of the focus of essays above being on teaching skills of how to filter this massive exposure to information, these essays make it clear that good scores are contingent on a quantitative use of detailed citation information (Milewski et al.,). The unspoken message is that plainly false information can subsist with and or substitute for accurate information. As mentioned throughout, the clear signals show a policy of rewarding quantity rather than accuracy, a strategy that will translate to student source overreliance.
The poor and overuse of sources among students are shown to be a factor, largely of the making of relevant authorities mandated to perform an assessment that determines advancement. Students, on their own, cannot influence guidelines and proper procedure. Unless there is a top-down, and a radical paradigm shift in test essays, there should no criticisms be leveled at students.
Council for Aid to Education. Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA): Critical Thinking, Analytic Reasoning, Problem Solving, and Writing Skills-Definitions and Scoring Criteria." 9 July 2007 <http://www.cae.org/content/pdf/CLA_Scoring%20Criteria.pdf>.
Milewski, Glenn B., et al. A Survey to evaluate the Alignment of New SAT writing and Critical Reading Sections to Curricula and Instructional Practices. Research Report 2005-1. New York: College Board, 2005.
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