Offering Students Encouragement As They Revise

Ann Burgess, Biocore Program, UW-Madison
In the following email sent to all students in a large course, Dr. Ann Burgess—former director of the Biocore program—encourages Biocore students to keep working on their revisions, even when they feel overwhelmed by criticism.
Re: Enzyme Catalysis Paper

Biocore Students:

I wanted to offer you some moral support as you tackle revising your Enzyme Catalysis papers.
*We want you to succeed.* 
Read over the comments from your TA and think about the issues that he/she brought up in the discussion sections this week. If you are confused about any of this come and see us—Marcie, me, or your TA. We really want to help you. We also encourage you to contact the Writing Center, 6171 White Hall (263‑1992). We decided to reduce the weight of this first paper to 1/2. The revised version will be weighted 2.
*Your grades are based on the big picture much, much more than on the details.* 
Here is what I mean by big picture: in grading the papers, the TAs ask:
  • Can I understand what the experiment was designed to test and how she went about it?
  • Are the appropriate data here and expressed in a way that I can immediately get the picture?
  • Do the conclusions make sense based on the data? (Although it is fine to say what YOU expected to find, you must base your conclusions on what you actually observed. Also, beware of over‑interpreting differences that may simply be experimental variation.)
TAs also commented on details, but these affected your grade very little. Nevertheless, it is important to fix these in the rewrites. Some examples of details: not showing actual data points in your figure, reporting your data in too many significant digits, labeling your figure Graph I instead of Figure 1, incorrect citation of the lab manual.
*We hold you to high standards and want to help you reach them.*
Here’s what the grades mean:
A Truly excellent paper. All sections address their relevant issues in a clear and concise form that communicates an impressive understanding of the topic at hand. Paper is a pleasure to read.
AB Very good paper that is missing a few of the characteristics of truly excellent papers. Most sections communicate a high degree of understanding, somewhat more variable than A.
B Good paper, complete and adequate, reasonably thorough though not impressive; demonstrates understanding.
BC Not adequate or has parts that are not adequate, demonstrates some understanding.
C Many problems, e.g., missing key components, misunderstanding the experiment or data, drawing inappropriate conclusions from the data.
D Major problems.
*Please keep working at this.*
I know that it is very disappointing to put a great deal of time and effort into a paper and then get feedback that it needs work. Writing is a process—you learn to write well by writing and rewriting, not by hearing me talk about it. It truly will pay off in the long run. The feedback we get from Biocore students years later is that one of the most valuable things they learned in Biocore was clear thinking and writing.
I welcome your feedback on ways that we can help you (and future classes) improve your writing.
Best wishes,
Ann Burgess