Most of them, and I, survive

If I said something like”That was fun”, then I’d be lying. Any of you who have had to mark student essays or exams don’t need to hear this, but people who have never been exposed to these tasks are often strangely naive about the intellectual calibre of the typical student – and the typical human being, for that matter. Both are generally rather pointless on various standards – economic, social, and metaphysical, to name the three biggies.

But while the failure rate was predicatably high (yes, I finished my marking an hour or so ago), they did do better than expected. And I can share the following hypothesis with you: When you limit a student’s ability to waffle, she tends to be more coherent.

Now this may not seem particularly insightful to you, but bear in mind that most people have inflated opinions regarding their coherence and verbal elegance. This can lead them to over-elaborate, using 10 times as many words than are in fact necessary. In doing so, they go down side-alleys, and soon aren’t really answering the essay or exam question at all.

For this exam (which, as discussed earlier, was more a way of taking their temperatures rather than fully examining them, I gave explicit instructions for the students to write short (600 word or so) essays. And this did seem to result in some focus – with the safety blanket of “saying whatever the hell I can remember about topic X” ripped away, the students instead typically at least stayed on message. They did of course misremember various key theoretical points, but usually at least wrote something I could follow, which was a pleasant (and unexpected) surprise.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.