Great Essay? Get Serious!


In my classes, I warn students that I have a list of words and phrases they can never use. Words such as “basically,” "like," “overall,” “you know” and “literally.” Why? Because, basically, the vast majority of first-year students, like, you know, literally have no idea how to use literally. One student told me, “I literally died when I saw the exam.” I stared at her for a few moments and said, “so I’m talking to a ghost?”


“Great” is another word I would put in exile, specifically in peer reviews. Even before we went into online or remote pandemic mode, I told my students on the first day of class that they need to get rid of what I call the “coffee cup mentality.” Too many of you come in here, I tell them, thinking “I am a coffee cup. I’m empty and your job as the teacher is to fill me up.” 


Ironically, students are bored when teachers try to do this, lecturing on and on and assigning hundreds of pages of reading which are followed by high-stakes exams. What I mean is that students have to take more responsibility for their education, for what they want out of a course. Online courses raise the stakes even more. Students who were already multitasking in F2F classes can now sign in on Zoom, turn off the video, and do anything they want while the class goes on. Even if they get caught, they can claim they stepped into the restroom or that their device was momentarily disconnected from the Net. 


One way students can take some responsibility and help fill their own cup is to take writing peer reviews seriously. Writing “Great essay! You had a great thesis and some great quotes” doesn’t help the reviewer or the writer get better. 


What is the best way to help a writer get better? If you are a sports fan like me, you hate commentators who tell you what you just saw on TV. “Jones just drove by him for the layup.” Be like the commentator who gives some suggestions: “Jones drove by him because he went left and he knew the defender was expecting him to go right. Look for Jones to milk that until they adjust.” 


Try this:


• Briefly praise what deserves praise without repeating anything the writer wrote word for word. Be specific, for example: I love your idea that Victor Frankenstein has made male reproduction possible using technology. 

• Ask a good question or two that will help the writer build on what was done well: Can we say, however, that technology fails because his monster goes berserk?

• Gently point out a weak spot: Where do women fit in here? Huxley has shown us in Brave New World that women don’t need men to have a society. All they need is sperm. 

• Finish on a positive note: This was an exciting first draft and I expect the final draft is going to be awesome.



  1. Takes me back to Plato. Students are empty vessels needing to be filled! Tap on them, and the most empty one makes the most noise.


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