Can Surface Errors Sink? A Multidisciplinary Experiment in Essay Evaluation

Document Type


Presentation Date


Conference Name

International Writing Across the Curriculum Conference

Conference Location

University of Texas, Austin, Texas


Grammar, spelling, and punctuation errors. Instructors across disciplines have long lamented reading student writing with these problems. But if the content of a student essay shows a higher level of perception, analysis, or critical thinking than is expected, does this outweigh attention to or render unnoticeable surface-level errors?

This presentation explores whether content can trump form such that an impressive discussion of subject matter distracts from grammar, spelling, and punctuation errors. The discussion shares the results of an informal study on one campus where a compositionist asked instructors and professors from different disciplines to read, comment on and/or mark, and grade student essays. These essays all reflect subject matter typical of an introductory course in each instructor’s field, with different degrees of impressive treatment of the subject but equal amounts of surface-level errors.

The audience is invited to read and evaluate portions of the essays as well as view responses from instructors who took part in the study. The remarkable results of the study open discussion of the attention paid to surface error in student writing and what that means for how we engage student writing across disciplines.


English Language and Literature

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