Emphasizing Grammar in Undergraduate Courses

Tired of Students’ Grammatical Errors? One Professor’s Strategy for Setting Expectations and Providing Feedback

I have embarked on a journey to address student writing issues. For years, I have corrected papers, inserting commas, noting punctuation, fixing poor use of possessives, and indicating the correct usage of “adolescence” and “adolescents.” So, I let students know at the outset of class that there were fourteen grammatical issues that they should have mastered already, and if not, they would be given the opportunity to master them in class. I let them know what appears below.

For this course, you should already know…
1. what is a complete sentence. (No fragments or run-ons)
2. to place a comma after an introductory subordinate clause or phrase.
3. to place a comma before the conjunction of two independent clauses.
3A. no comma is needed when there are two subordinate clauses linked by a conjunction.
4. to place a comma after a word that is being explained.
5. how to use an apostrophe to show possession correctly.
6. how to match the subject with the correct pronoun.
7. not to capitalize “high school” unless it is in the name.
8. that punctuation almost always should be placed inside quotation marks (with APA style exceptions)
9. to use semi-colons correctly but sparingly.
10. how to use its and it’s, their, they’re, and there, your and you’re correctly.
11. how to use these words correctly: adolescents and adolescence
12. to avoid using we, us, they, or you without defining to whom you are speaking or addressing.
13. to use more precise language than “deal with.”

Subsequently, I also provide a checklist with these same items that students have to initial indicating that their paper adheres to all of these conventions in grammar and writing. At the bottom of the checklist, the students have to write “I am not a grammar violator!” I really thought that letting them know upfront what grammatical issues are expected and forcing them to review them when they submit a paper would help ameliorate these lingering problems. I posted the checklist to the class website, and every single student remembered to submit their checklist with their paper.

But, the errors did not disappear as readily as I hoped. Students continued to commit these grammar violations, and I noted which violations they had committed by number each time it appeared. I decided that those who committed more than three violations would receive a grammar citation which would require them to complete an exercise as part of grammar school to remove the citation. Failing to remove the citation would prevent me from grading subsequent written work. For the most part, about 90% of the class received a citation. Although many would benefit from several reviews of grammar, I decide to only to issue a citation for the predominant violation. The students are currently in the process of working off their citation.

In discussing this experiment with colleagues in the department, I discovered a colleague who is doing something similar to address writing concerns. A different colleague then challenged our approach as plugging up holes far down the system (since we mostly teach juniors and seniors) rather than pushing back better writing instruction into lower division and preceding courses focused on writing. His idea was provocative, and I agreed that, ideally, the department would be able to collaborate with writing instructors to beef up mastery of some writing. For now, I will continue on my grammar violation intervention experiment.

By Robert Weisskirch

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