Workbook Tips

(rev. September 27, 2017)

Review these workbook tips before and after you do each assignment until they are familiar. Many are adapted from my Peer Review Guidelines, which apply to formally writing-intensive classes.

First, what is your workbook?

Actually your workbook is shorthand for all your written assignments. In the past, this was a literal file in Google Drive. Starting fall 2017, I'm using Westmont's Course Management System (Canvas) instead. Questions and file uploads will all happen through there. But I'd still like you to think of all these assignments as comprising a metaphorical 'workbook' with which you've had opportunities to work with course material and get more proficient at using it.

Some advice on your workbook assignments:

Give yourself enough time.

At the very least, read through the assignment once in a while starting a week or so before you need to start writing. You want it to percolate so your response comes through discernment, not just reaction. Consider how the readings might bear upon the topic. If you get an idea, write it down before you lose it.

Address the whole question.

Review the whole assignment, identifying all of the little questions within it. Make sure you address all aspects of the question explicitly and thoroughly.

It will help if you go back and forth repeatedly between the assignment and your response to make sure they align.

Students often ask me, "What are you looking for?" as if my stated questions are some kind of smokescreen hiding the mysterious real question. I assure you, my questions are not allegories. They are not 'prompts' meant to 'prompt' you to express yourself or at least write something. These assignments are merely what they claim to be. Just answer them!

Structure your answer clearly.

Organizing your responses should be pretty straightforward. You can often step through multi-part questions sequentially. An introduction can help as long as it is a brief, crisp abstract of what you will be arguing.

Depend upon the course materials and document your sources.

As I grade your workbooks, one of my three most common comments is, "Rely more on the readings and lectures in developing your response." I stress this in every assignment, and I stress it here. Yet students fail to draw on the readings again and again.

Perhaps your earlier schooling has trained you away from using sources the way you should, because you could get high grades just by 'expressing yourself'. Perhaps you procrastinate and don't give yourself time for a proper response. Perhaps you simply haven't done the reading and are trying to bluff. So be it. Hey, I've been there too.

Nevertheless, your work-book is there for you to work through a problem or a task using the concepts, lectures, and readings. The point is for you to gain familiarity and understanding. If you don't use the course materials, you aren't doing that. Both your grade and your comprehension will suffer.

Of course, when you draw on someone else's work, cite it appropriately (with quotation marks if using their words) or you will be guilty of academic dishonesty, whether or not your failure is intentional. Reproducing the exact words of any source without including them in quotation marks, or reproducing thoughts of outside sources without documenting them, is plagiarism. My draconian warnings about plagiarism are here. Once the due date for your assignment has passed, I do not accept excuses, and I punish academic dishonesty by failing the student from the course.

I can tell whether you are using sources 'structurally' (in a way that makes the source indispensable to your argument, so that removing it would substantively weaken it) or 'ornamentally' (added after the fact or gratuitously, so that removing it would not really change the argument). Don't answer the question and then fish for 'quotes' that will give the appearance of relying on the material. They won't give the appearance; in fact, frankly, they will give the appearance of deception.

Write well.

You should write well all the time, whether you are journaling, e-mailing, writing in your workbooks, or submitting research papers. Use

  • correct spelling,
  • proper commas,
  • proper apostrophes,
  • complete, straightforward sentences (no sentence fragments, run-on sentences, and so on),
  • noun/pronoun/verb agreement, and
  • consistent verb tenses.

This is college, people. Write well. If you can't yet, learn how right away. Writers' Corner is a great resource.

Answer logically, persuasively, and thoroughly.

Another one of my top three comments is, "Go deeper."

Students are anxious about how I will grade your assignments. Yet you seem totally satisfied when my comments basically come down to suggestions that are already here, which you should have known already! This paradox puzzled me for a long time. Eventually I concluded that almost all of you know what to do; you just want to know whether a teacher like me is actually going to hold you accountable for doing it. Then you can decide whether the grade and the learning are worth the effort.

I remember visiting one of my professors in graduate school for a tutorial, and noticing a stack of take-home finals on his desk. On the top was an undergraduate's exam, open to the essay question. My professor — an excellent teacher — had awarded 0/40 points, and had simply written "Don't waste my time!" in the margin. I haven't done that, but believe me, every professor has been so tempted.

Holding up that commitment to college-level work every semester can feel unrewarding and even demoralizing in the face of stacks of shallow or tired observations, bluffs, and lowish grades. It isn't what college is supposed to be. It isn't why either you or I wanted to come here. It wastes enormous time and money, and it certainly doesn't honor Jesus Christ.

So let's quit playing games, shall we? Life is too short. Will I actually hold you accountable for doing college-level work? Well, here's a preview. These are some of my usual comments on written assignments that don't get A's:

  • The assignment asks you to do [X, Y, and Z], but you treat the topic generally and vaguely. Review the assignment and make sure you address each part specifically.
  • This is a good basic answer; for improvement, develop it much more deeply.
  • If you hadn't spent so much space on [X and Y], which aren't part of the assignment, you would have had more space to develop [X]. Stay focused on the question!
  • Where are the course materials? Use them to develop your answer. That's the main point of these exercises.
  • You could draw more thoroughly on the sources you use. For instance, how could you have used [book X] and [book Y] to sharpen your observations?
  • Your response is on the right track, but suffers because you have misunderstood [concept X or author Y's argument about Z]. Go back and review that [lecture or reading] to see what is really being argued. (This is the only comment on the list that I think a student might not reasonably know to expect.)
  • Proofread your work!
  • The first half of your introduction doesn't actually tell me what you're going to do. Cut it and get right to the point.
  • This essay feels rushed. Did you leave enough time to do it?

If you can see me writing any of these comments on your answer, then assume I will at least be thinking it and grading accordingly. You are free to leave things the way they are and accept the low grade. Or you can address them beforehand and develop much better writing and studying habits, earn higher grades, and learn the way you hoped you would in college. It's your future and your choice.

Be competent and dependable.

I don't mean this to sound either lofty or curmudgeonly; it is genuine advice. I sometimes do incompetent and undependable things, and they inconvenience and even harm others as well as distress and embarrass me. In fact, I am probably the greatest source of stress on my own life.

So try hard to have your 'act together'. Be on time, follow all directions, and in general don't put undue burdens on your audiences. Your fellow students, your teachers, your present and future family, and your future employers will be grateful for such dependability.

If you don't have your act together, take small steps, one week at a time, to get it together. For instance, first work on scheduling and planning, then on consistency, then on whatever next thing needs work. Solidify one good new habit before you move on to the next: "Brick by brick, my citizens."

When you do make mistakes — and you will — be very judicious in resorting to excuses. Make sure they are true, reasonable (if not compelling), and rare. People prefer apologies. Make these genuine, brief, and constructive.