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Let's say that a professor gives a series of problems, among which the students must solve and present one appropriately, an assignment (in mathematics) as it has always been done at university. The professor is accustomed to presented solutions having between one and two sides of the page, but the student presents seven sides. The solution presented is correct, and it is not difficult nor unnatural, but the student gives many details and justifies many things, lengthening the task a lot. Could this level of detail be a problem for the student when it comes to grading? (In addition to being a time management problem in itself, but I just wanted to know if it could be a problem in terms of grading work).

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    This is too dependent on the philosophy of the faculty member to have a satisfactory answer in my opinion. Apr 24 at 15:38
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  • @IAG what is your position in relation to this question, the professor and the hypothetical student? Are you a TA? A student? Why I am asking: if you are a student, how do you know what the customary answer is?
    – CGCampbell
    Apr 25 at 11:54
  • Could you please write in regular English, rather than this odd propositional voice that adds nothing but makes the post less clear? Apr 26 at 23:02
  • Comments have been moved to chat; please do not continue the discussion here. Before posting a comment below this one, please review the purposes of comments. Comments that do not request clarification or suggest improvements usually belong as an answer, on Academia Meta, or in Academia Chat. Comments continuing discussion may be removed.
    – cag51
    Apr 27 at 20:18

8 Answers 8

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Could this level of detail be a problem for the student when it comes to grading? (In addition to being a time management problem in itself, but I just wanted to know if it could be a problem in terms of grading work)

Yes, this can present an undue burden on the grader. I was a grader in a graduate-level algebra class once, and one undergraduate student turned in problem sets that were 5-10 times longer in terms of page count than the others. This student expressed the desire to be very thorough, but I was forced to sift through all the details I wasn't looking for to find the details I was looking for.

Extrapolating from homework to professional work, you never want to waste your reader's time.

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Two things to consider.

First, is there a stated maximum length? If so, conform to it.

Second, is a seven page exposition actually better than a 1-2 page presentation? Do any of those details actually matter?

Two stories:

Many decades ago my father took a business class in the case-study model. Each week they analyzed a business situation and had to write up their analysis and recommendation. There was a strict 250 word limit on the analysis, and the professor would literally stop reading at that point and grade based on the first 250 words. Why? The president of a company wants a short, crisp, succinct path forward to decide on. Details can be discussed later.

More recently my daughter also had a class focused on cybersecurity analysis. Again, all assignments were even stricter in their length limit. Here is the situation. This is our analysis. This is the proposed path forward. Again, all in less than one page

Now, this sort of writing is hard. Very hard. (As Mark Twain - actually Blaise Pascal - said, "I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.") You have to distill everything down to the core essence of the problem. But you, the presenter trying to influence people, need to know this core essence and why it is the core essence. And if you spend seven pages wandering around, noting 17 different irrelevant details, and somebody else lays out the critical steps in one or two pages, guess who is more convincing? Seven pages sounds more like throwing everything against the wall and hoping some of it sticks.

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    Yes, echoing this, correctly identifying important details (as opposed to losing them in a sea of details...) is important. Not all details are of equal significance (whether or not from some "purely logical" viewpoint this might seem so). Apr 24 at 21:16
  • Well, I should have mentioned I spoke of mathematics.
    – IAG
    Apr 24 at 21:41
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    @IAG The advice in the answer applies equally well to mathematics. Apr 24 at 23:59
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    Did Mark Twain actually say that?  Blaise Pascal said something very similar, though: “Reverend Fathers, my letters did not usually follow each other at such close intervals, nor were they so long…  This one would not be so long had I but the leisure to make it shorter.” [Blaise Pascal, /Lettres provinciales/, Letter XVI, 1656-12-04, translated]
    – gidds
    Apr 26 at 17:06
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    @JonCuster “You shouldn't believe everything you see on the Internet.” — Abraham Lincoln
    – gidds
    Apr 26 at 17:32
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There is a balance you must strike between being detailed and not having enough details. If I asked you to prove that the function x squared is convex, you just take the second derivative and that's where the discussion ends after a little more exposition. Anything more than that is you not being concise, and that's not good.

However, if you're tackling a problem in a new, unique way that you can defend, then this isn't so bad. In other words, you must learn to say only as much as you need to, unless there's a great reason for saying more than just what the answer is.

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I'm pretty sure I've taken off points for "correct answer plus a lot extra that didn't need to be there".

The worst case is where the student seems to be guessing a lot of contradictory answers -- BS'ing. Not as bad is when a chunk of the answer is irrelevant or wrong. Rarer and not as bad is where the correct answer is over-explained in a way that shows they didn't understand it (for example: "the American civil war was due to the South thinking the North was moving to abolish slavery, due to incorrect astral projection by leading Southern psychics".

In theory, it might be fine to have the "real answer" clearly marked, followed by 4 more pages of mostly correct reasoning, clearly marked as "not my answer, unless you need more -- I thought turning it in this way was easier than actually figuring out the appropriate level of detail". But in practice too-long answers often feel like "I think all of this might factor into an answer but can't figure out which part is important". A silly example might be giving driving directions: "turn the key, put the car into gear ... drive down 2nd Avenue at 30 mph ... ". The extra detail shows they don't know the difference between "directions" and "how to drive".

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    +1 for the driving example. It's technically correct, but it's not helpful and only distracts from the actually important instructions. Great analogy!
    – Dnomyar96
    Apr 25 at 9:47
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    There is a simple solution for the "BS" that I wish teachers would adopt, namely take away points for every single piece of nonsense. You can ensure the score for each question is at least zero, but the point is that the marking scheme should penalize nonsense heavily to ensure that none is produced on purpose.
    – user21820
    Apr 25 at 15:40
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Echoing parts of the other (excellent) answers: "writing too much" (yes, there is an issue of judgement!!!) is not good. At an extreme (which I've seen many times), people just "write down everything they know", as some sort of attempt to address the question at hand... and hope that somewhere in all that is a good response to the question!?!? :)

Yes, the supporting details are quite often interesting! :) But, in communicating with other people, to present them with an ocean of details, without distinguishing the salient points for the matter at hand, is really not helpful. Like saying, in response to being asked to find the derivative of xx², to say "well, first, let's construct the real numbers, ... after developing set theory and first-order predicate logic..." :)

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  • For some reason, the formula formatting isn't working for me here. I tried fixing, failed, reverted. Maybe it's a local problem for me, but I see other pages fine. (Not sure if mods can delete my attempted edits or not.) Apr 25 at 0:07
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    @DanielR.Collins Note that Academia is not included in the list of MathJax enabled sites given in this network Meta answer. If that's correct for this site, then the "formula formatting" won't work here. When you wrote "I see other pages fine", did you mean other pages on this site contain MathJax which works? I, at least, never have seen this but, if you have, then I suggest that Meta answer should be updated accordingly. Apr 25 at 2:28
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    @JohnOmielan: Thanks; I was comparing to other SE sites. Apr 25 at 4:48
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    Yes, the brain dump answer. I used to tell students that if 50% of the answer was relevant and correct, and the other 50% wasn't relevant (even if correct), they would get 50% of the mark. Most of the time irrelevant details show that you haven't understood the question. Apr 25 at 9:44
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    Thanks, @DanielR.Collins! :) Apr 26 at 18:44
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The other answers are quite good, and focus on some of the practical concerns regarding how much or how little you should write in mathematics. However, I think that there is also a sociocultural aspect which is being missed.

The culture of mathematics values concision. Brevity is generally considered quite desirable, perhaps to the level of fetishization. Many mathematicians will argue vociferously that, given two proofs, the shorter should be preferred, even if it obscures the exposition.

One of the goals of instruction, whether explicit or implicit, is to train students. Part of that training is teaching students how to act as professionals in their field. Assignments should, in principle, help students to build the skills that they will need in their professional lives (as practitioners of whatever it is that they are studying). As such, if a proof can be written in 2 pages, but a student turns in 7, there is a problem, and the student should be corrected.

Ergo, it would not be entirely unreasonable for an instructor to penalize a student (particularly in mathematics) if they turn in a proof which is significantly longer than what is expected. Turning in an overly long proof (or other assignment) indicates that a student has not really understood good mathematical style, and possibly that they have not really understood which parts of the proof are worth mentioning, and which parts are trivial enough that they can be elided.

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I experienced exactly this with a very early problem in a C programming course in 1996. The problem was to do some input-output, which I indeed implemented exactly as specified (IIRC take a couple numbers as input and then print their sum and products), but I also added the ability to pass the parameters on the command line and produce the answer from that.

Since that wasn't part of the problem description I got docked, fairly I think.

There were other things that particular professor docked for that I find far more questionable, such as simply never allowing use of the -> member-access operator, he insisted that (*ptr).member be used instead, always.

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I would expect the professor to provide his/her own guidance on the length and rigor of answers.

And I'd expect students to do their reasonable best fit in with this, particularly if it's a large class and the professor clearly hasn't the time for 7 pages from every student.

However, your own initial output may well come to 7 pages and this may well be the result of your own efforts on the question. Nothing wrong with that. That is the measure of where your mind was in relation to this problem before tackling it.

But after sorting out the problem isn't it only natural for anyone to re-examine their elaborate output and then seek to reduce it to its essential steps ? And, while doing that, isn't it common to see connections that you feel you should have seen all the time but didn't ? Some of these missing connections could shorten your submitted answer considerably. And that should tell you that your improved answer is moving in the right direction.

So keep refining it and see if you get it down into the length zone anticipated by your professor.

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