John H Keess
How I Mark Papers - and why you should care
Updated: Jul 19, 2021
Let's be real - Maximising "z" time
Ok, undergrads. Let's keep it real. You have x hours in a day, and y tasks to accomplish. Moreover, you want to maximise z - the difference between x and y. x-y=z Because after all, z is where you sleep, work out, and drink beer. And who doesn't like that stuff? If you're at RMC, there is a good chance that the formula looks a bit like this: x-y(academic)-y(military)-y(fitness) = z, where
x< ya+ym+yf, and therefore z<0
Given the current impossibility of making the day longer, you have to accept no sleep, no fun, or cut at one of the y factors. You have to save time somewhere. And it's always tempting to put off big assignments. They take a lot of time, and given your natural desire to sleep, rest, and hit the gym today, it's easy to conclude that these assignments can wait. This is a really bad idea. I'm not going to scold you on the morality of putting work off - because I might as well scold the whole human race. No, I'm arguing that it's bad for your self interest. Because while the x-y=z formula applies to your day, your semester looks more like this
P = Performance coefficient
r= Result (i.e., your final grade)
e- effort put into your studies
Over the course of the semester, you only have so much time to put into your schoolwork. You will eventually hit exhaustion. Given that you're all clever - you wouldn't be at RMC if you weren't - you want to get the best value for your effort. Basically, you want to maximise p. If you do really well at the cost of all of your energy, you'll merely wear yourself out. If you don't put in any effort, well, the system is designed to catch that. Remember that leading Canadian solders is a privilege and a responsibility, not a right. We don't want you to burn out, but we do want you to work hard. When you're writing your essay, then, it's important that you put your effort in at the right time and the right place. Ok, so let's maximise P when it comes to writing. To do this, you must understand where your marker is coming from. This might shock you, but profs also operate on p=/re. Academics generally love to teach, love to research, love to write, have hobbies and families, and hate marking. So when it comes to marking, our definition of P is maximising the amount of learning for you and fairness of the course while committing the least amount of time necessary to achieve these ends.
This snapshot is a simplification, because not all of these criteria are created equal. If a student is an excellent writer that uses poor sources, all they've done is build a beautiful house on a sandy foundation. Moreover, if I don't have a clear order for approaching these criteria, I'll likely just sit and mull over the paper for awhile This is where funnelling comes in. I've developed a clear method for breaking down papers. It goes like this: Sources. The first thing I look at are the sources. When submitting an assignment, you should be using specialised academic literature as much as possible. This means going to Massey Library and the Canadian Armed Forces Virtual Library (CAFVL) to pull sources specific to your topic. Avoid the urge to head straight to Google or to rely on your textbook. If you don't have solid sources, you're capped at a B. Structure. The next thing I'll look at is structure. What I'm looking for here is a clear introduction with an argumentative  thesis statement, clear topic sentences, and a good conclusion. I'll also check essay length. By the end of checking structure, I'll generally have a good idea of where the essay will be capped. If the essay has good sources and a solid structure, for example, they can hit an "A". If they have a mostly good sources and a coherent, but fuzzy, structure, the essay will be capped at a B+. Factual, technical, and logical points. Now I check essays for their logical and technical bases. In other words, I ask "did the student get their facts straight?" and "does this essay make sense?" Usually, good sources and a clear structure will naturally lead to solid factual and logical statements, but not always. Although papers can change grade bands at this point, usually, I'm looking to place the essay within a range. For example, our coherent, but fuzzy paper might be very well argued and full of a applicable examples, which puts it in the B+ range. Style. What applies for factual, technical and logical errors also applies for style. Awkward, unclear style will push the mark down, usually within a letter grade, but sometimes between them. Final check. Before I assign a grade, I always ask the following questions: - Did I see a unifying idea, expressed in the thesis statement, throughout this paper? - Did this paper use detailed examples and evidence to support the unifying and supporting ideas? -Did this paper make good historical claims?
-Did this paper synthesise sources, or did it just summarise them? These questions are final check to see if the funnel worked.
Cool story nerd, what do I care?
So, why should you care about my funnel? Well, because it will help you set up your funnel. The simplest way to get a low P is to smash through a paper the night before. You'll almost certainly panic and head straight to Google, come up with sketchy sources, hobble together an argument, and end with a product that is logically messy and a stylistic mess. Your instructor will pick up your paper, see your mixed sources, and immediately throw you in the C band. Your poorly organised paper will stay in the low C band. Logical and factual errors will drive your score down, as will the stylisitic and grammar problems. You get a D.
Moreover, you'll end up exhausted anyway. Now to repeat the cycle with another class! Gross. ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
The simplest way to get a high P is to spread your work out over time and leverage outside resources. Since we're at a military college, let's take some insight from military planning. Let's break your paper up into phases, with each of those phases corresponding to a section of funnel and to outside resources. Phase 1 - Mission Analysis
The first thing you should do is create a project page in your bullet journal . You can use this page to plan your own timelines - when you will contact the Writing Centre, when you will contact your instructor, etc. If you don't use a bullet journal, that's fine. Pick a page in a notebook you use for your course and sketch out your plan. Take the assignment instructions. Use those assignment instructions to find a topic that interests you, craft a good historical question [blog post to follow]. Using this historical question - you don't need a thesis statement yet - spend a bit of time putzing around Massey Library - both electronically and physically - and the CAFVL to see if there are sources available. If you're having trouble finding a topic don't panic! Look through the course syllabus and see if you have any questions that pop up - geez, why would we study that? or that looks neat! What's that about? and thumb through that week's reading. If that doesn't work, write your instructor an email (or, Gods forbid, go see them in person / via videocall). If you approach your professor with a general area of interest and a general time period, trust me, they'll be able to leave you with at least a couple of ideas.
Now that you know you have a topic that interests you, a good question, and reliable sources at hand, let's head to Phase 2.
Phase 2 - Reconnaissance
During this phase, you'll find an answer to your question - your thesis statement. Begin by finding a couple of core sources and making good Cornell style notes. Further, make a basic timeline and a mind map of subsidiary questions. Don't get too fancy. For this post, I'll sketch out a paper comparing the Macdeonian phalanx to Roman legions:
Use the timeline and the bottom section of the notes to come up with your own rough answer to craft an outline. Here, we can see from our rough sketch that I'm going to focus on the political reasons behind the different force structures. Further, form the timeline, I can see that both the Macedonian army and the Roman Legion originate from the 3rd century BCE, and that the legions had decisively defeated the Macedonians by 146. So we'll bound the paper between 400 BCE and 0. A good outline includes a thesis statement, topic sentences that support that thesis statement, and sources. Send this outline to your instructor - they'll likely be happy to comment on it.
With your outline and main sources at the ready, you can now plug gaps with your main sources by finding specialised journal articles. You've nailed the first part of the funnel.
Phase 3 - Execution
Ok, so now you have a few products - a timeline, Cornell notes, and an outline. I recommend that you store all of this stuff in a simple file folder.
Now it's just a matter of filling out the outline and refining your ideas. If you're an undergrad, the easiest way to do this is a paragraph at a time. Using your mind map and your notes, carefully knock out one part of the outline every day or two, making sure to reference and it and relate it back to both the paragraphs before and after it, as well as the thesis statement. Will your paper go exactly according to plan? Of course not! But the outline will keep you focussed, and make it easy to find places to cut if you need to.
Phase 4 - Consolidation
In any attack, the consolidation is usually the most dangerous part. Your troops are tired, the edges are a bit messy, and you're vulnerable to a counter-attack. In the field, we use drills as a firm shoulder to prevent us slacking off. In terms of paper writing, we use self-imposed deadlines.
After you've finished the draft, let it lie fallow for a couple of days, then go over the essay for grammar, spelling, and comprehension. Have a friend on call to go over your paper for basic grammar. Make sure you set a firm date with your friend - this will help keep you on track. You project page will help keep you honest in this regard. Next, have an appointment with the Writing Centre. Most undergrads have problems with wordiness, flow, and structure. Work on these issues with the Writing Centre. Don't go to the WC for basic grammar - it's wasting their talents. Then all you have to do is to tidy up points from the WC. Consolidation takes a long time, but it's mostly getting feedback, and thus is lower effort. It's during consolidation that you get your best P.
Now imagine your prof picking up your paper. You spent the time picking a topic with good available resources early on, so that keeps you in the A band. You've carefully figure out a structure and outline that you ran by your instructor, using their expert advice to stay on target, and stayed in the A band. You have some difficulties with writing - who doesn't? - but by writing carefully and leaving time for review, you've either written an A paper or the highest possible scoring paper, given your writing ability. You're funnelled into a good mark. Moreover, you've probably spent less effort than you would have for an all-nighter. There have been no 0100 trips to Google, no exhaustion, and little wasted effort.
 The word essay comes from the French essai, or "to try." You should be trying to make a point. When I see a descriptive thesis statement like "this essay will describe hoplite battle in Ancient Greek warfare," it means that the student is merely summarising sources, not doing the kind of synthesis of ideas I want them to.