Aside from exams, papers are probably the most popular means at
the university for evaluating students' abilities and skills.
Papers are difficult for a number of reasons:
- The paper is the standard means by which critical thinking is
evaluated -- and critical thinking is, by its nature, difficult.
- Since the paper is the standard means of communication in the
university environment, you will be marked not only on content,
but also on your adherence to the standards of presentation that
have been established for the discipline.
- Often, little useful guidance or constructive feedback is
provided to help you learn strategies that will lead to
successful essay writing.
- The "one chance" paper is not optimal for mastery, since
there is no opportunity to learn from your mistakes.
- The low frequency of writing assignments does not provide
sufficient opportunities for practice.
- Analyze the question meticulously. Your professor probably
put a lot of work into composing the assignment, so you should
put a lot of work into reading it. Look up every important word
in the dictionary, even if you are sure of its meaning (some
words have multiple meanings, or technical meanings that might
not be familiar to you). Pay particular attention to technical
terms. Make use of specialized dictionaries and glossaries
available in the Reference section of the Library. Find out what
criteria will be used in marking you paper. These may or may not
be stated explicitly. Make up a checklist.
- Find a model to work from, if possible; a marked essay that
has met the criteria effectively (i.e., received a good mark and
positive comments) and analyze it to see how it
succeeded. Be sure to analyze your own marked essays in this way.
It is much easier to work from a model than to try to meet
abstract criteria or guidelines, without knowing what the result
is supposed to "look like."
- Apply critical
thinking strategies. Remember that the process of writing
does not look at all like the finished product. The
process, which involves critical thinking, is not often neat,
tidy, orderly, or linear. It is actually often confused and
without a clear direction. These are characteristics of the
critical thinking process, but are not apparent in the finished
- Make sure that the finished essay meets all criteria, and
looks good. Leave enough time to edit carefully for
grammar, spelling, and format (eg. APA, MLA, etc.).
If you get stuck while you are working on an essay, or if you
have had trouble in this area before, be sure to make an appointment
with David Palmer-Stone . We can
help you work through your difficulty, then discuss the
strategies we have used, with specific reference to your own
concerns, so that you can apply the appropriate strategies on
your own in the future.
Periodically, we offer a free Essay Writing workshop. The purpose
of the workshop is to address participants' concerns, suggest
resources, and offer some strategies that may be useful for
dealing with the problems that occur at the various stages of the
writing process. Check our schedule of events.
The Modular Learning Skills
Course includes four modules that cover the stages in the
essay writing process.
The following handouts on writing papers are available at Counselling Services.
The English Department has a The Hypertext Writer's
Guide (on-line) that you can browse.
The Learning & Teaching Centre also has The
Writing Centre. Check it out too!
University guide to citation styles (APA, Chicago, MLA,
Links to information on references and
For information on Common English
Errors, check out Dr. Paul Brians' (Washington State
Some links to information on
Updated: May 2012