By Gary Deel, Ph.D., JD
Faculty Director, School of Business, American Public University
A complaint heard every now and then in the halls of academia — for both brick-and-mortar and online schools — is that a university’s curriculum and assessments focus far too much on quantity and not enough on quality. This protest comes not just from students, but sometimes from faculty, too.
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Why do we require that certain assignments have a minimum length requirement? Often, accreditation standards insist that institutions meet certain rigorous thresholds in their coursework.
But this answer isn’t really a satisfactory reason — no more satisfactory than “because they said so.” Shouldn’t we focus purely on the quality of the message being communicated through a student’s writing in an assignment, and not on how many words or pages they use to communicate that message?
This is an age-old philosophical debate among educators. For several reasons, I believe that the evidence stacks heavily in support of length requirements, notwithstanding the requirements of accrediting agencies.
A Length Requirement Count Clarifies Expectations for Students and Faculty
What purposes do length requirements serve? First, a length requirement for a written assignment can be a tool to clarify expectations for both students and faculty members.
Those who view quality versus quantity as a zero-sum game and insist that the quality of a student’s writing should prevail over the quantity of a student’s words must come to terms with the fact that this argument — carried to its ultimate conclusion — would arrive at an absurd position. An example would be the notion that 10 extremely well-written words should, in theory, be eligible for the same credit as 1,000 less well-written words.
After reading this scenario, many educators would assert that this argument veers a touch too far into the realm of hyperbole. There must be a point at which length matters, right? Surely there must be some minimum standard of effort.
But this is precisely the problem with the argument that quality is everything and quantity is nothing in a student’s writing. It gives no guidance at all, to students or faculty, as to what is expected in terms of academic rigor. Consequently, it opens the door for untethered subjectivity on both sides.
If there are no instructions regarding a length requirement for a written assignment and a student submits 10 awesome words because that student genuinely feels they are sufficient, is that student wrong? If the instructor penalizes said student — without adjudicating quality and purely because the student only submitted 10 words — is that instructor wrong?
Many educators tend to react to hypothetical situations like the ones above with an insistence that ‘common sense’ should apply. The student and/or the instructor simply ought to know better, right?
But the problem with common sense, as we all learn over time, is that it isn’t common. Often what we each attribute to the ideological concept of common sense is actually just our subjective sense of reality that others don’t share. And that’s not because they’re wrong. It’s because they’re simply not us.
For this reason, length requirements in written assignments and forums serve an important purpose in clarifying expectations for students and faculty. Understandably, students want to know how high they are expected to jump, and instructors want to know exactly how to assess such jumps. Length requirements serve both of these demands.
It’s worth noting, however, that not all length requirements are created equal. For example, many length requirements require a certain number of pages for papers.
Unfortunately, using page numbers as a metric for length requirements tends to create more problems than it solves. What type and size font are required? What size is the page format? How large should the margins be? What about pages with tables, pictures, and graphs?
Answers to these questions can drastically change the number of “pages” that a certain amount of writing yields.
For this reason, it is generally far better to establish paper length requirements based on word counts. In this way, fonts, margins and other variables have no effect on the overall work product quantity, and the instructor has a much clearer measuring stick for assessment. Length requirements by word count also carry the ancillary benefit of convenience for instructors, as automatic word counters in learning management systems make assessing length a painless process.
Length Requirements Help Students Develop Attention to Detail and Work Ethic
In addition to clarifying expectations, length requirements also serve to teach the importance of attention to detail and work ethic. When I worked in business and industry, writing and submitting reports to superiors was a part of my daily duties, as it is in many professions. If I failed to include important components or to be thorough with my work, this would almost certainly be noticed and not to my benefit.
By including length requirements as one of many criteria by which an assignment is assessed, we educators communicate two things to our students. The first is that following instructions matters, and the second is that effort matters.
Following instructions and putting in effort are skills that are inarguably important in the workplace. So if we really see our mission in higher education as the preparation of students for successful careers, then helping students develop these skills fits nicely into our objectives.
‘Quantity or Quality’ Is a False Dichotomy
Opponents of length requirements do make one good point: Quality does matter. Let’s say that an instructor assigns a 500-word paper on American history, and a student submits a 500-word paper having nothing at all to do with American history.
Clearly, the student’s lack of adherence to the assignment instructions must be strongly considered and weighted during the grading process. But this doesn’t preclude the notion that length requirements can also be a legitimate component of instructor assessments.
Rubrics are an invaluable tool for assessments, because they allow instructors to weigh grading criteria and apportion credit accordingly. Rubrics contain categories which include formatting requirements, content, grammar and the timeliness of submissions. Including length requirements as a component in these rubrics need not negate the value or importance of the others.
Precisely how much (or how little) length requirements should weigh into the overall grade calculation of a given written assignment is a matter of genuine debate. We obviously want the length requirement to matter enough that it motivates students to follow instructions and put in the expected effort.
For example, we wouldn’t want a length requirement that would be worth just 10% of an overall grade. By this standard, a student could then expect that he or she could completely ignore length expectations and still earn 90% credit.
On the other hand, we educators don’t want length requirements to weigh so heavily that they completely overshadow other rubric components related to quality. For instance, we probably wouldn’t want to implement a rule which says that if a length requirement isn’t met, the submission receives an automatic zero. This rule would truly give no consideration to the quality of work produced by a student.
As an educator, one strategy that I commonly utilize is a rubric which caps the maximum credit at the percentage of the length requirement met by a submission. As an example, if an assignment requires 1,000 words and a student submits 800 words, then the maximum credit for which the student is eligible (before assessing any other criteria) is 80%.
In other words, the length requirement deduction would be 20% in this scenario. This strategy is flexible in that students can lose anywhere from one to 99 percent of their academic credit, depending on the severity of the shortfall in length.
It’s also worth noting that, in my experience, students tend to view this strategy as a very fair approach to assessing length. They generally understand the justice in the idea that if you only submit half an assignment, you are only eligible for half the credit.
The idea that length requirements are antithetical to quality assessment is a tired one, and it is not an argument that holds up to scrutiny. Length requirements have a proper place in higher education assessments as one of many tools educators use to produce the very best graduates for the next generation.
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About the Author
Dr. Gary Deel is a Faculty Director with the School of Business at American Public University. He holds a JD in Law and a Ph.D. in Hospitality/Business Management. He teaches human resources and employment law classes for American Public University, the University of Central Florida, Colorado State University and others.
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