“What If I Don’t Take Notes?” Requiring Rough Work Along With Essays

When I was an undergraduate, submitting an essay meant just that: printing out an essay, making sure my name was on it and handing it in to a professor or teaching assistant. On my first day as a teaching assistant at the University of Toronto, though, I was in for a surprise. The professor for this course wanted something more than just the essay. 

The syllabus of the course I was assigned to contained this instruction for students:


“Rough notes must be submitted with all essays. An essay without rough notes will not be considered complete and will be subject to late penalties.”


Before arriving at the University of Toronto, I’d taught at a German high school, spent two years as a TA at the University of British Columbia and then taught my own courses at a university and a community college. In my years as a student and as a teacher, I’d never encountered a direction to submit rough work along with written essay assignments.


I didn’t understand it.  I’d seen professors give essay-writing tips or refer students to writing resources in their syllabuses. Was this direction to submit rough notes also intended as a form of essay-writing help?



I thought about how I would have reacted to such a requirement when I was a student. I’d employed a variety of note-taking strategies, ranging from scribbling in a notebook and placing stars next to essential material to a highly organised system of 3X5 cards arranged in packs according to the source from which the notes were taken. For some assignments, I barely took notes at all, preferring to have books open and photocopies spread out on my desk and just dive in to the writing. Even if I had handed in these notes along with my essays, why would a professor want to see them? Would I have been penalised for unorganised note taking? What about the essays for which I’d produced no notes at all? Is note taking really essay help?


And anyway, shouldn’t the final product—the essay itself—be all that matters? When the Pulitzer Prize is awarded, the committee doesn’t consider rough drafts of articles or early versions of novels.


The professor who assigned rough notes became a mentor who had a profound effect on my development as an educator and academic professional. (He’s also a guest blogger for us here at EssayJack.) Through pedagogical discussions with him, exposure to his teaching philosophy and observation of his teaching practice, I grew to understand and value the rough-notes requirement. I maintained it when I served as the instructor for this same course years later. I also adopted it for all the other courses I taught.


So what’s the point of making students submit their notes? I think about it this way:


The Pulitzer committee may not want to see rough drafts, but as educators we’re not only evaluating the strengths of a final product. We’re also helping students improve and develop sound practices that will lead to good essay writing. We’re teaching students how academic essay writing works. Scholars assemble notes into a draft and revise that draft into a book or article for publication. Sometimes they even continue revising and correcting after a book is published. (I once caught a howler in a book by a renowned historian; he corrected it for future editions).


Most professional writers don’t transform a blank screen into a finished piece of writing in one go, so we must teach our students all the steps involved. EssayJack helps students confront the terror of the blank screen, and good note taking serves a similar purpose. But students who have never learned to take notes and are not in the habit of doing so are not likely to start on the basis of a strong recommendation from an instructor. Requiring them to submit their notes requires them to take notes (or to take more and better notes), and good note taking is linked to better learning and academic success(See those links if you don’t take my word for it.)


When I explained the rough-notes requirement to a class, there were always a few students who said, “What if I don’t take notes?” My answer was that this was a good opportunity to start, since otherwise they’d get a zero. I also told them that I was also once a first-year student who could get good marks without systematic note taking, but when I embarked on a senior honours thesis I saw how essential note taking, outlining and drafting were to successful writing. Forcing students to take and submit notes now will ensure that those skills are there later, not only in their studies but in their careers as well.

Hot Dog Prof

 (Me explaining something—possibly rough notes—in a hot-dog costume. It’s a long story.)

This leads to another benefit of requiring rough notes for essay writing. The language in the syllabus quoted above said rough notes, but in practice this meant rough work: not only notes but also outlines and drafts. This was good for students. Knowing that we wanted to be able to follow their paper’s development—from ideas to notes to outlines to drafts to final submission—encouraged students to work from outlines and to revise when they otherwise might not have, leading to better structured, conceived and considered essays.


Having notes, outlines and drafts was also good for teaching assistants and instructors, though. Teaching is about helping students learn, not just doling out marks. Being able to look at all of this rough material helped us identify what the students had and hadn’t considered, what directions they had set off in and then abandoned, what sources they had consulted but not cited and what lines of thought led them to their arguments and conclusions. Rough notes allowed me to give more meaningful feedback. I could make comments that didn’t only evaluate what students had written but also spoke to their process and methods. Sometimes I was able to highlight something in the rough work that could have transformed an essay. Being able to ask why a student chose not to pursue a particular argument or angle helped me be a more effective teacher and to leave my students with more insight that they could apply to future work.


iStock-670425032Finally, looking at rough work helped me evaluate cases of plagiarism. Sanctioning students for failing to follow academic conventions of attribution should always have a pedagogical purpose, especially when plagiarism is unintentional. (This will be the subject of a future blog post.) For example, sometimes I would see that students took notes verbatim and then later mistook passages taken directly from a source for their own paraphrasing of the material. While they were still responsible for the content of their essays, seeing what went wrong by looking through their notes allowed me to intervene effectively and suggest safeguards to ensure that the student didn’t make the same mistake again. Being able to show notes to the Dean’s Designate, who is responsible for deciding on punishment in the case of plagiarism, also allowed me to advocate for a sanction that was appropriate and not overly punitive.


In short, mandating that students hand in their rough notes is a valuable teaching tool. It can be used in conjunction with EssayJack as part of an arsenal of techniques and writing resources to help students do their best work at every stage of the essay-writing process. Good essay writing proceeds from good note taking. Of course, EssayJack also has version history, so students can share earlier versions of their draft essays with their TAs, professors, and/or teachers all along the writing process. While there’s lots of research to suggest hand-written notes are better, if students prefer to live in the digital world, we’re there for them too.


The take away point in all this? Requiring students to submit rough work is a way to help with essay writing.

Notes, outlines and drafts are important components of the essay-writing exercise. Notes give us the tools to help our students improve and grow more effectively.

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