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Word count or number of pages?  
4th-Jan-2013 12:03 pm
QUESTION
I'm about to begin another semester of teaching, and this time I'm planning to require an approximate word count for papers instead of number of pages. That's primarily because of many students who persist in composing multiple paragraphs that are rather short and end up having lots of white space at the end of a paragraph's last line, because of those occasional students who just can't seem to get the hang of not hitting return twice between paragraphs, because of a few who indent paragraphs ten spaces rather than five, and because of those who put far too much space at the tops of pages.

What about you? Do you specify a word count or a number of pages?
Comments 
4th-Jan-2013 05:06 pm (UTC)
Word counts are the norm in the UK. I have no idea what pages mean!
4th-Jan-2013 05:18 pm (UTC)
My previous institution in the UK specified number of pages, which meant students would mess around with font size and spacing to stretch or compress their essays to fit. I much prefer word counts.
4th-Jan-2013 05:10 pm (UTC)
I use word count and then say (approximately x pages) because most students don't have a good sense of how word count relates to pages, and pages are how they budget their time. For those who ask, I tell them that I write a pretty consistent 250-275 wpp and that's the number I use to generate approximate page lengths.
4th-Jan-2013 11:29 pm (UTC)
This! Assigning word count is good for the font inflaters and margin stretchers. But I find page counts easier to "visualize," in the sense of understanding what size project I should be undertaking, so I give them an "(approx. X pages)" hint too. Most of the classes I took as an undergrad and in grad school (in the US) specified page counts, so I think in those terms.
4th-Jan-2013 05:17 pm (UTC)
word count. and the penalties for going over or under and what i consider to be over or under are all printed in the hand book so there can be no complaining afterwards.

edit: i should add i also ask them to print the word count at the bottom too. marks deducted if they don't include the word count.

Edited at 2013-01-04 05:18 pm (UTC)
4th-Jan-2013 06:03 pm (UTC)
I require by word count, and I ask them to include their word count in the first page header (under their name, the date, etc.).
4th-Jan-2013 11:29 pm (UTC)
Ooh, great idea! *steals*
4th-Jan-2013 06:05 pm (UTC)
I think word counts and page requirements are sort of silly. In my experience, such things tend to yield inferior papers that are polluted by verbose language, repetitive sentences and ideas, lack of clarity or focus, and in many cases pure rambling that may include bloated and unnecessary quotes.

Instead, I suggest a page range to students. For instance, in a current course I'm teaching I suggest that "most good papers will be between 7 and 12 pages in length" and note that this page range is not absolute. I further elaborate that a well-written, focused, and concise paper that meets all criteria and is shorter than 7 pages may earn full credit while an unfocused, imprecise paper that is longer than 12 pages may not.

I prefer to emphasize quality writing over pure quantity. One way to boost quality writing is to have students complete a paper and then ask them to reduce the entire paper's length by some percentile (e.g. 25%). I've not tried this yet, but teaching students how to revise for brevity and focus is a great way to cultivate keen writing skills.
4th-Jan-2013 06:27 pm (UTC)
To a point, I agree that they're sort of silly. I'm going to specify a word count for my English Composition classes because many students in that course are doing their first college writing and are getting used to developing paragraphs and essays. For upper-level courses, I have been and will continue to be more lenient.
4th-Jan-2013 06:36 pm (UTC)
For me, the page count is about keeping the papers shorter rather than longer. A lot of my students are incapable of making a concise, well thought out, and well referenced argument. I couldn't care less if they go under, but I stop reading if they go over. Thus, my guidelines tend to be expressed as "no more than X pages, 1" margins, 11 or 12 point font, double spaced." ... etc.
4th-Jan-2013 11:32 pm (UTC)
I think an approx. page count is useful for giving a sense of the scale of the project you're looking for -- how ambitious the research question should be, or whathaveyou. But totally agree with you on quality over quantity (obviously), and on the preference for concision. Intriguing idea about asking students to write a paper then cut it by 25%. I have often had to do that when submitting work to journals with word limits (or in Europe -- character limits!!), so it's a "real life" skill as well as a potential concision enforcer.
5th-Jan-2013 02:02 am (UTC)
I don't think a page range is actually different from a page count - I use the terms interchangeably to refer to a number of page(s) appropriate to the assignment. Real rebels - like a high school teacher I once had - just say "as long as it has to be to be good."
4th-Jan-2013 06:11 pm (UTC)
I actually never thought about it, and I always did by pages. If they had pulled any page-stretching stunt on me (with kerning, larger fonts, extra spaces, etc.) on something so piddly as a 5-7 page paper, chances are they were using few enough words that they hadn't developed their arguments enough, so I'd ding them on that.
4th-Jan-2013 06:31 pm (UTC)
These courses are mostly English Composition, and I have students write rough drafts of at least the first few papers of the semester, and that's when I call them down on using big fonts, too much white space, etc. I hope to nip this problem of not enough writing in the bud, with those first drafts, with a minimum word count.
4th-Jan-2013 06:38 pm (UTC)
English was my field as well. My concern is that with word count, what you're going to find is what one of the above commenters mentioned: awkward and excessively worded papers. I think that in this case, since you're doing drafts of papers, that those who stretch the page count with trickery are going to have underdeveloped papers anyway, so you'll have plenty to comment on for them to expand the paper to a more reasonable length.

Or to put it another way: do you really want to add copyediting for excessive wordiness to the list of things you'll need to do on each paper?
4th-Jan-2013 11:34 pm (UTC)
do you really want to add copyediting for excessive wordiness to the list of things you'll need to do on each paper?

Isn't it already on the list? In my experience students metamorphose into pompous, verbose poseurs as soon as they sit down to write an academic paper (they seem to think such pretension is required in order to impress the prof), and English Comp classes are largely about talking them off that ledge and getting them to see that plain, clear, muscular prose is usually more effective in making an argument.
4th-Jan-2013 11:36 pm (UTC)
Ok, more copyediting for excessive wordiness, then. Because word limits will certainly encourage it.
5th-Jan-2013 01:58 am (UTC)
I do a page count because I'm lazy, but there's nothing wrong with a page count. I just prefer hard copies and don't know how the's prove it.
5th-Jan-2013 03:57 am (UTC)
Pages. Because it's easier for me to count pages than words.
5th-Jan-2013 02:55 pm (UTC)
I won't be literally counting the words, but eyeballing them.

The students who tend to turn in papers that have not been sufficiently developed also tend to be ones who will claim, "Hey, I have words on three sheets of paper! That's a three-page paper!"
5th-Jan-2013 04:50 pm (UTC)
I've switched from a page range to "X words, not including notes or bibliography (approx. Y-Z pages)" in the last couple of years, for the reasons given above. And I state that I will not accept papers 250 words more or less than the required word count, so it comes out as the same thing as saying "8-10 pages" or whatever.

Tip for anyone who uses Turnitin: the Turnitin paper analysis function contains a word count. So as soon as papers are handed in, I flip through them on Turnitin to make sure they fit the parameters.
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