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An open letter to Dr. Dagenais

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To Dr. Dagenais,

We, the undersigned students of SOCI203, wish to politely discuss a concern that we collectively share, in hopes of reaching a solutions-oriented consensus. We wish to emphasise that we respect you and the educational system, but see a hurdle that we must all overcome together, and ask your input.

We believe that the performance expectation for the midterm dated Oct 24, 2022 is unrealistic, and the resultant grading will unfairly impact students' averages, curttailing our future options and restricting our progression. We request that you reconsider your grading rubric for this midterm to consider the information below, and that in future you refrain from setting this unfeasible goal to us, and to other students you may teach.

On the exam structure: We must provide 300 word answers to each of 3 of the questions, for a total of 900 words. Per the T.A.s, this must be by hand, in pen, with no reference materials or notes. We are granted the duration of the tutorial session; 1 hour. We, the students, are not privy to any arrangements with the T.A.s, but either they must be present for greater than the 1 hour they are contracted to provide, or else 5 minutes each at start and finish are lost to distribution and collection time, further impacting the students. The remainder of this letter presumes the T.A.s will work the extra time, but emphasise the risk of further lost time to students should the T.A.s stand by their contracted schedules.

In standard English, 900 words represents approximately 4,500 characters. However, common writing of the past few decades is written at grades 9-11 or sec. 3-5 levels (Dunlap, 1951; Wasike, 2016). As we are expected to express more complex thought, there will be a commensurate increase in the number of characters written. For university undergraduate level writing, 900 words would require approximately 5,500-6,000 characters. This requires an average speed of 92-100 characters per minute be maintained for 60 minutes.

In an experiment conducted in 1996, Sawyer et al. concluded that the average top speed of a group students copying a prepared text was 488 characters over 5 minutes – or 97 cpm. However, we are not copying, we are composing. The requisite pauses for thought, proofreading, and correction drives the actual required speed even higher, well into the triple digits, and impossibility for most. We also point out that in 1996, student use of computers was far less than today; people had more practice at writing; the number would be lower if repeated today. Any students with usually non-disabling health concerns with hand writing or cramping are unfairly affected even further, as they may not have accommodation on file since the overwhelming majority of other classes operate paperless with typed work. Even ignoring these numerous issues, the number found by Sawyer et al. is not possible to maintain for 60 minutes, as muscle fatigue affects even experienced writers.

We agree that some advance preparation for a midterm is to be expected. However, we submit that it is not possible for students to produce 900 original words of any quality under the conditions established, much less at a university level of coherence and performance, while retaining legibility. With notes and preparation forbidden, we posit that the highest realistic number of words that can be handwritten in 1 hour would be 500-600 words in total – or 170-200 words per essay at maximum. This would still require the median student engage in diligent writing at a rapid pace, with limited time for thought or proofreading, but would be far more possible.

We call for you to revise future planning for the second midterm exam tentatively scheduled for Nov 21, and if using the same format, for the final exam in December. The revised form this may take could include take-home writing, invigilated in-person typing which is faster than handwriting, authorised “cue-card” notes with defined limits, or as a final resort, a reduced word count. We wish to highlight that the final two still place unusual physical strain on people when hand-writing is so rare nowadays, and place additional work on the T.A.s to decipher handwriting compared to reading computerised text. We encourage adoption of one of the earlier options.

We understand that it is not feasible to fully rewrite the expectations for Oct 24 with such short notice while reaching all students. We do however note that this leaves us in a condition of potential risk. To ameliorate that, we implore you to share with all T.A.s that a sliding-scale leniency should be accepted for this midterm, wherein two-hundred-word answers of quality, OR three-hundred-word answers with some errors, should both be considered to have satisfied or exceeded the expectations and to grade accordingly; these two options to be verbally relayed to all tutorial groups at the start of the invigilated exam on Monday.


Your students


Dunlap, C. C. (1951). Readability of Newspaper Items and of Basic Reading Material. The Elementary School Journal, 51(9)

Wasike, B. (2016). Preaching to the Choir? An Analysis of Newspaper Readability vis-a-vis Public Literacy. Journalism, 19(11), 1570–1587. https://doi.org/10.1177/1464884916673387

Sawyer, C., Gray, F., & Champness, M. (1996). Measuring speed of handwriting for the gcse candidates. Educational Psychology in Practice, 12(1), 19–23. https://doi.org/10.1080/0266736960120104

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