A critical criterion

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Over the last few weeks, The IB has been publishing Extended Essay reports for the May 2018 exams.  They are available for most subjects now.

I’ve been looking through them.  Some of them make sad reading, marks thrown away needlessly.  Most students should score in the top mark band for Criterion D, Presentation, at least for the elements of structural presentation.  And yet, and yet…  too many don’t.

Are the students who don’t get maximum points here careless?   Don’t they know what’s required? Are supervisors letting them down by not advising what to check?  Care here with that last though, of course:  supervisors are not permitted to tell students that the page number for (say) the Discussion section does not match the page number given on the Table of Contents page; they are permitted to advise students to check that numbers on the pages match those in the Table of Contents page.  The first situation is being specific and amounts to proof-reading and/or editing (neither of which are permitted); the second is general and generic, and advises the student to do the work of finding errors and correcting them.

Examiner comments regarding page-numbers bother me.  Not the comments themselves but the necessity for them.  I wonder how many students submit their essays in MS Word or similar word-processing programme – and have their page numbers re-adjusted if they are using a different size paper to the one the IB uses?  That could explain why examiners comment on graphics and images which are out-of-place in the text – these can tend to wander in Word.  It could explain comments regarding section headings at the foot of one page with the text starting on the next page, a change of paper-size can do this.  I suspect these are the causes of many issues.  I cannot help wondering (if this is indeed the case) why these students have not been encouraged to print to or save as PDF…  and then proofread the PDF files.

I might be completely wrong there, it might not be down to the vagaries of the software.  That said, many of the issues raised by examiners would seem to be down to casual or no proof-reading before submission, or maybe reading on the screen rather than printing out and proof-reading from hard-copy.

Proof-reading is an essential part of the writing process. It’s a pain, especially at the end of perhaps nine months of close connection with the essay. It is difficult to gain distance, and one just wants to hit Save and submit, be done with it, get on with one’s life and all those other pressing Diploma Programme needs.  But it’s worth it. It provides the polish which can distinguish a crafted piece of work from the average seemingly-not-really-caring work.  It can show real engagement (worth a mention in the Reflection on Planning and Progress Form?), and it could provide the extra point or two needed to make the next higher grade (and an additional point towards the diploma).

It is difficult to gain the necessary distance, to read what is actually there as against what the writer thinks was written.  In workshops, I recommend a number of ways to gain that distance, instead of or as well as printing out the PDF of the essay. These include:

  • using a different font
  • using a different size font
  • using a different colour for the font
  • using wider or narrower margins
  • reading aloud
  • viewing on a different computer or screen
  • and more.

I also recommend that students print and proofread their work at least three times, focusing on just one element each time:

  • proofreading once for meaning
  • proofreading once for punctuation and grammar (including agreement between subject and verb)
  • proofreading once for spelling (especially checking for consistency of spelling of names of people, places, organisations etc) (and not relying on spell-checking apps or auto-correction features).

If the page numbers have been added manually rather than allowing the software to do it, now is the time to produce a PDF version and proofread for those structural elements, the page numbering, the orphaned headings, and so on.  Any time changes are made to the word version, the page numbers on the table of contents should be checked once again.

One last check: the student should check that the version to be submitted is the final version, not an early draft, not one of those changed-fonts-for-proofreading purposes. We want to be sure that it really is the final version which gets uploaded.  So, one last check (of a PDF?), for layout and general presentation, checking that line-spacing is consistent, that the font is consistent and consistently-sized

Proof-read for all the things that examiners comment on …  I don’t want to compile a checklist for anyone. That’s not my job.  But checklists do help. They are nicely generic so do not constitute specific and inappropriate advice to students, they need to do the checking for themselves.

With regard to checklists, my recommendation is: read the general Extended Essay Report, May 2018 and make notes especially of the Criterion D advice; then read a selection of subject reports, especially the recommendations for future supervision, and the Criterion D comments, adding to the notes made from the general Extended Essay report.  The more reports you read in the different subjects, the better the understanding of what exactly examiners are looking for under this criterion, the better the advice you can give students, the finer the checklist you present them.

A further thought: don’t leave it to almost final submission before presenting the checklist to your students; you might find it helpful to feed them sections of the list as appropriate, as they work through the process, certainly by the time they are ready to present the one completed draft that supervisors may see and discuss before submission.  That completed draft will ideally be as complete as possible before the discussion (including a similarity or “plagiarism” check if you use similarity checking software or platform).    It is not complete at the discussion-of-the-draft stage, of course, as the student still has the opportunity to rethink and rewrite at this stage – but supervisors will probably want to spend time discussing argument and evidence during the discussion rather than the finer details of presentation.

The better presented the essay, the more impressed examiners will be on first read, the more they can concentrate on the essay itself rather than be irritated by peripheral matters. Presentation can make that crucial difference, even for – and perhaps especially for – weaker candidates.  Criterion D is subject-knowledge free, and can help towards achieving the 7 points needed for a Pass.  That crucial difference could be critical. Go for it!

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