Thursday, August 16, 2012

Coursera Thoughts Part Three

As usual, I've created  a bullet-point summary at the end of this post, for those who would rather not read the whole thing from beginning to end.

In my previous post I focused on some of the more vicious peer-review comments I’ve come across on the forums.  Today I want to look at some of the issues faced in receiving the essays to be reviewed.  The truth is, you almost can’t blame someone for getting frustrated, especially when some people are receiving blank essays.  How is this even possible?  You either type your essay in the block of space where you submit it or you copy and paste in.   Either way, something out to be there. 

But here is what I’ve seen on the forums, examples of some of the issues the peer-reviewers are facing: 
  • One person received an “essay” in which the writer said they were too busy and didn’t have time to complete the assignment.
  • Another person said that their essay was a mere 63 words and another with only 52 words.
  • More than one person says that the essay they received is for a previous unit. 
  • One person said that their Unit 3 essay was not on Dracula but on Twilight.
  • Another person received their own essay. 
  • And more than one person has received an essay with emoticons in it.
  • Yet another person said that the “essay” they received was actually a promotion for their book and even included a link to buy a copy.

It almost makes one reconsider my harsh attitude towards anyone saying that the essay is “worthless.”  I mean, is it any wonder that people get angry when they get an “essay” and end up reading an advertisement?  There is also the issue of plagiarism which I will discuss separately.  (Yes that means I’ll be writing another post.)

I’ve been harping on the whole "clear criteria" issue for the past two posts so let me say this clearly:  Coursera is very clear that the essays are to be 270-320 words long.  This includes the title and any parenthetical citations.  And if the written statement is not enough, the professor has a whole video in which he talks about how to write an essay.  In other words, there is no excuse for anyone to submit an essay that is fewer than the required 270 words let alone fewer than 100.

And then these people get upset when they see how their essay was peer-reviewed and say that the comments were mean and unfair?  The thing is, we are required to read the essays and review them.  There is no option to not review an essay.  You get stuck with what you get.  You do have an option to read more essays but, after reading one with an emoticon, would you want to read more? 

When you’ve gone to the trouble of reading the text, of writing an essay that is thoughtful and maybe even insightful, to open an essay for the peer-review knowing that part of your own grade depends on your reviewing essays, and to see something that blatantly disregards anything that has been clearly stated in the course syllabus/work expectations can feel like a slap in the face. Especially when you are juggling this course with real life.  

Why should you waste your time reading an essay that is an apology from someone who didn’t have enough time to write an essay but is now wasting your time by making you read one? 

Anyway, here are the problems as I see them:
  • Some students simply do not care.
  • Some students are here to “work” the system.
  • Some students are sincerely trying but falling short.

And now for a more in-depth look.

Some students simply do not care.
While I appreciate the better intentions of the person who wrote a letter saying they were simply too busy to read the text let alone write the essay, the end result is they are now forcing four people to read what they submitted effectively wasting the time of their fellow students.  This is not unlike someone giving a single word or even two word peer-review.  Why even bother? 

Some students are here to “work” the system.
I am assuming that the students who submitted the essays that come up short think they are getting away with something.   By submitting an essay at all, whether it has nothing to do with the assignment or doesn’t come close to the required word count, they still get credit for doing the work.  Even if they get two scores of 1, if they then leave comments (which, you may recall from my previous post, are not graded), they will average out to a C or maybe even a B.  Obviously the person who is only trying to promote their book is abusing the system.

Some students are sincerely trying but falling short.
Giving the benefit of the doubt here, I’m going to guess that the person who wrote about Twilight honestly thought they were doing the right thing.  Maybe even the person with emoticons in their academic essay is well intended.  And, frankly, if I were to receive a copy of my own essay, I’d totally give it a score of 6, 3 for Form and another 3 for Content.  After all, if I can write something better I will submit that.  I’m not going to waste the peer-reviewer’s time by not trying to give them my best.  

Here are some of the positives with the peer-review process:

Because of anonymity, the peer-reviewer does not know who the writer is. 
I’d like to think I am not the only who would read a terrible comment from someone on the forums and then be unable to put my preconceived notion of their stupidity or superficial to properly assess the essay. 

Because we are all reading the same content at the same time, the material is fresh in the peer-reviewer’s mind. 
I think this is self-explanatory but it also highlights the issue that many peer-reviewers have  regarding the carelessness with which some people are submitting their assignments. Several people complained during Unit 2 that they were receiving essays for content from Unit 1.  This week it seems to be worse because one person said they received an essay on Frankenstein (Unit 4) and others are receiving essays for Units 1 and 2.  

While I’m not overly fond of the scale system that has been designed into the course, it is simple. 
Well, it’s sort of simple.  Apparently, some peer reviewers misunderstood and thought that 1 was Excellent and 3 was Unacceptable.  Can you imagine the confusion of the essay writer, receiving only positive comments on their essay but receiving the lowest of the low scores?  However, the Work Expectations are fairly clear so it would be nice for everyone to read them with the same care as they should the text itself.

Peer-reviewers cannot exchange one essay for another. 
Each person is required to review four essays and is invited to read more, should they choose to do so.  They cannot, however, reject an essay.  It is luck of the draw.  You get an essay and you have to review it.  This is effective because it ensures that an essay, which is poorly written, will receive reviews.  I’ve no doubt we’d all like to receive essays that show potential or are absolutely brilliant.  And I’m not the only one who would rather not be polite when, maybe deep down inside, you want to say “Your essay is worthless.” 

And now, onto some possible solutions:

Peer-reviewers need a means of reporting inappropriate essays.
When a person receives an “essay” that is an apology from the writer saying they were too busy to read the text or write an essay, this is patently unfair to the reader.  There should be a way to flag such an essay and not be forced to even give it a 1.  It’s not fair to the essay writer, who put sincere effort into what they submitted but whose writing skills are inadequate, to receive the same score as the person who didn’t bother writing an essay at all.

It has been suggested on the forums that when a peer-reviewer reads an essay, it would help if they could see how other people reviewed the same essay.
The opportunity to see if your scores are on par with your peers can help keep anyone from being overly kind with the scores or overly critical.  I don’t think we should necessarily need to see what other comments were made; the numbers alone would suffice.  Not that this would necessarily change anything. Most people would probably stand by their initial response and not consider being more rigid or gentle with the next round of essays.  For those who really have no idea whether their scores are fair or not, this could help.

But you know what would help still more?  Examples of essays and ratings. 
I know, I’m harping on the same thing over and over again but without some examples, too many students are flying blind.  I see it in the contradictory comments n I receive.  I see it in the things said on the forums.  Or, if they simply cannot or will not supply students with examples then

This course needs a prerequisite. 
Yet again, I’ve said it before, but it would benefit those students who are truly in over their heads to have some core-curriculum courses laying a foundation upon which a course like this can build. 

So in summary:

  • Some students simply do not care.
  • Some students are here to “work” the system.
  • Some students are sincerely trying but falling short.

What’s Working:
  • Anonymity of peer-reviewer.
  • Everyone reading and writing about the same content at the same time.
  • Simplicity of grading:  Form and Content on a scale from 1-3 for a maximum sum score of 6.
  • Essays cannot be exchanged for another essay.

  • Peer-reviewers need a means of reporting inappropriate essays.
  • Peer-reviewers should be able to at least see if how they grade an essay is on part with how others have graded it.
  • All students should have examples of essays and the score to better understand the course expectations.
  • This course should have a prerequisite in which students learn how to:
    • write an essay
    • read an essay
    • score an essay


  1. Oh, so much to catch up and read here! (got my laptop back, yay!)
    I'm sorry to hear/read about the deaths in your environment. I really don't have anything clever to say (I doubt words help in these kind of situations anyway). *hugs*
    Your posts about Coursera are interesting to read. I hope for the people in charge that they consider your suggestions (and value all the effort you put in!).

    Also, I really like this layout/style. :)

  2. I'm just glad you have a laptop again. And yeah . . . things have been weird lately but it will pass. I'm hoping that there will be a chance to give feedback at the end of the course and I'll be able to link to my blog posts about it because I'm pretty much saying it all.