Information Sheet #156

January 18, 2011

Mistakes Are a Fact of Life:  Errors in College Student Compositions

 

[Information Sheet #22 (January 1989) summarized an article by Bob Connors and Andrea Lunsford on error patterns in college student writing.  In this Word Shop I have summarized what Andrea and Karen Lunsford discovered in a replication twenty years later of the original study.* ~Bob Marrs]

The Connors and Lunsford 1986 study examined over 21,000 papers from 300 teachers around the country, analyzing what errors teachers marked and how they responded to those errors.

Table A: Errors in Descending Order of Frequency (1986)

Error

# found in 300 papers

% of total errors

% marked by teacher

No comma after introductory element

3,299

11.5%

30%

Vague pronoun ref

2,809

9.8%

32%

No comma in compound sentence

2,446

8.6%

29%

Wrong word

2,217

7.8%

50%

No comma in non-restrictive element

1,864

6.5%

31%

Wrong or missing inflected endings

1,679

5.9%

51%

Wrong or missing preposition

1,580

5.5%

43%

Comma splice

1,565

5.5%

54%

Possessive apostrophe error

1,458

5.1%

62%

Tense shift

1,453

5.1%

33%

 

In the 1986 study, spelling errors were so overwhelming that Connors and Lunsford decided to focus on the remaining error patterns.  Their data on the 10 most common error patterns are provided in Table A.   Connor and Lunsford drew several conclusions from their study:

• Teachers vary widely in what errors they identify.

• Teachers leave the majority of errors unmarked.

• A shift in error patterns from previous studies suggests “a declining familiarity with the visual look of a written page.” 

• The number of errors per 100 pages has been remarkably consistent in studies throughout the 20th century. A study in 1917 revealed college students making an average of  2.11 errors per 100 words.  Students in a study from 1930 were making 2.24 errors per 100 words, and the Connors and Lunsford study identified 2.26 errors per 100 words.

 

One purpose of the new study in 2006 was to determine how student writing and faculty response practices have been influenced by dramatic changes in the composition field in the past two decades. For example, virtually all of the 21,000 papers in the 1986 study were hand-written; twenty years later, virtually all papers were submitted by students using a computer.  Another major shift occurred in the average length of papers: the 2006 papers are two-and-a-half times longer than papers submitted in the 1986 study (cf. Table B).
    

Table B:  Average Length of Student Essays (1917-2006)

Year

Average Paper Length

1917

162 words

1930

231 words

1986

422 words

2006

1038 words

 

Another major shift was evident in the types and range of assignments that students were writing.  Papers in the 1986 study were primarily personal narratives, followed by reports and readings of literary texts.  Table C identifies a dramatic shift in genres in the past two decades.

Table C: Classifications of Papers Submitted (2006)

Type of Paper

# in Sample of 877 Papers

Researched argument/report

287

Argument with few/no sources

186

Close reading or analysis

141

Compare/contrast

78

Personal narrative

76

Definition

21

Description

18

Rhetorical Analysis

16

Other (Proposal, fiction, process analyses, book reports, interviews, cover letters, etc)

54

Implications of this table:

• In composition classes, an emphasis on personal narrative has been replaced by a focus on argument and research, a conclusion supported by a substantial increase in argumentation-based textbooks published in the last two decades.

• Student writers now concentrate on inquiry and investigation–and this shift correlates with the necessity of composing papers that are more detailed and developed in their arguments.

Observations concerning teacher comments on papers in the 2006 study:

• While the nature and length of student papers has dramatically changed, there has been relatively little change in how faculty respond to student papers.

  As was demonstrated in previous studies, teachers vary widely in what they choose to mark; faculty often choose to focus on a few specific error patterns and ignore others.

• In both the 1986 and 2006 studies, an overwhelming majority of teachers mark the papers by hand, and most markings identify highly visible and easy-to-circle mistakes–including wrong word usage and spelling errors.

• The 2006 study did reveal a small decline in the percentage of errors marked by teachers (38% of all errors in the 2006 sample compared to 43% in the 1986 study). On the other hand, faculty were reading papers over twice as long, and in many instances it was clear that these papers had gone through previous drafts and peer review sessions.  The comments verified that many students had received extensive feedback on earlier drafts.

• The 2006 sample does indicate that most writing teachers have “integrated an understanding of writing as a process, along with peer review and reiterative drafting, into their pedagogies.”  But even with this evidence of increased student revising and editing, the average error count per 100 words remains virtually identical to the percentages in previous studies.

• One surprising discovery in the 2006 study was that fewer than 10% of faculty used any technological programs to assist in providing feedback to students (the most common exception was a few faculty’s using the “comment” feature in Microsoft Word).


Table D identifies the ten most common formal errors in the papers in the 2006 study:

Table D: Errors in Descending Order of Frequency (2006)

Error Pattern

# found in 877 papers

% of total errors

% marked by teachers

Wrong word

3,080

13.7

48

Missing comma after introductory element

2,150

9.6

28

Incomplete/missing documentation

1,586

7.1

46

Vague pronoun reference

1,495

6.7

27

Spelling error (includes homonyms)

1,450

6.5

54

Mechanical error with quotation

1,444

6.4

47

Unnecessary comma

1,175

5.2

29

Unnecessary/missing

capitalization

1,168

5.2

42

Missing word

1,024

4.6

48

Faulty sentence structure

996

4.4

30

 

The next ten error patterns (accounting for about 25% of all errors): missing comma with nonrestrictive element; unnecessary shift in verb tense; missing comma in compound sentence; unnecessary or missing apostrophe (including the  its/it’s confusion), run-on sentence, comma splice, lack of pronoun-antecedent agreement, poorly integrated quotation, unnecessary or missing hyphen, and sentence fragment.

      The 2006 study demonstrates that while students had significantly fewer spelling errors in their paper (with the exception of an increase in homonym errors), most students were struggling with appropriate documentation and citation of sources  (researchers ignored errors in bibliographies due to their high error count).  On the other hand, the 2006 study identifies many common error patterns in previous studies no longer prevalent in the 2006 sample: wrong or missing verb endings; wrong or missing prepositions; unnecessary shifts in pronouns; wrong tense or verb forms; lack of subject-verb agreement; missing commas in a series, and dangling modifiers.  And the sample revealed virtually no influence of IM on digital lingo and writing styles.  “The students in this sample seemed aware of the ancient principle of kairos and wrote with a sense of what is appropriate for formal college writing. . . . [the student papers resolutely stuck to] traditional usage, organization, and style.”  It was also intriguing that only 25 papers in the sample included any kind of images; students in their first-year college writing classes concentrated on producing “traditional print-based texts.”

Conclusion

“Noticing errors depends . . . on the reader’s context [as Joe Williams demonstrated in his classic essay “The Phenomenology of Error”]. If the writing is perceived as professional prose, and if it is cognitively challenging and interesting, then readers do not notice errors.  The rate of error in our study, then, should also be seen as rate of attention to error.  When readers look for errors, they will find them. . . . Those who believe that we ought to be able to eliminate errors from student writing may need to realize that mistakes are a fact of life and, we would add, a necessary accompaniment to learning and to improving writing.”

 

“Mistakes are a fact of life.  It is the response to the error

that counts.” ~Nikki Giovanni


















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