Friday, January 22, 2010

Coding Surface Errors

So what is a surface error, anyway? It's usually the kind of thing a student would call a "grammar mistake." It might be a misspelling, a comma splice, or a problem with number agreement. When I coded my data, I decided the best way to standardize my coding was to code those things that handbook listed as an error. Since the department required us to use the sixth edition Diana Hacker's "A Writer's Reference," it was the obvious handbook choice. I knew the handbook well, and I knew that it was a required text for the classes I was studying. I read through each paper marking errors according to the section Hacker covered them in. This method isn't perfect. Some "errors" are actually stylistic choices. But interviewing each participant about each error was out of the question, so I marked them as errors anyway.

Then I counted the errors in each paper. But I figured it was the concentration of errors that was important, not the absolute number. That is, if a student wrote a single paragraph which contained three errors, that translates into a higher concentration of errors than a student who wrote a ten-page paper with the same number of errors. So I calculated each student's average number of errors per 100 words.

The really tricky part is that I decided to divide the errors into "cognitive errors" and "performance errors." Cognitive errors follow a certain mental logic and are fairly consistent. A student may consistently write "a lot" as "alot." Performance errors are slip-ups. A student may type "they" instead of "the." I hypothesize that procrastination should show stronger correlation to performance errors than to cognitive errors. Performance errors may pop up when a student is rushed and doesn't proofread. But cognitive errors are difficult for students to catch in their writing, since they don't usually realize that they are making a mistake at all. So proofreading is unlikely to help, unless the student gets outside help from a friend or tutor.

So how exactly can I look at a grammatical mistake and know what caused it? How do I know if the student merely made a mistake or whether they misunderstood the rules of writing?

Two ways. One, I looked for patterns. If a student always puts a comma before prepositions, that's a cognitive error. They're clearly using a rule, even if it's not the right rule. On the other hand, if a student only once fails to capitalize the word beginning a sentence, there's no pattern. It's not likely to be a cognitive error.

The second way I determined if errors were cognitive was based on my experience as a writing tutor and teacher. I knew that certain errors were more likely than others to be cognitive errors. For instance, students who violated punctuation rules when joining independent clauses were often obeying the "comma when you take a breath" rule. Knowing that certain types of error were quite likely to be cognitive allowed me to classify an instance as cognitive if a pattern wasn't totally clear. But if I couldn't tell, I classified errors as performance errors.

I also calculated cognitive and performance errors per 100 words.

I Remember Coding Data

So I'm working on my methods section. But, you see, it's been a couple of years since I actually conducted my study. I've moved twice since then. So my memory is fuzzy and my records are poorly organized. It took me over a week before I tracked down the questionnaire I used. Now my next goal is to write about how I actually coded the data. Luckily, I put a great deal more thought into coding than I did in formulating the questionnaire. And luckily I recorded at lot of those thoughts on this blog. So I don't have to reconstruct quite as much.

Basically, I looked at three things in the students' papers I collected. Length, surface errors, and use of evidence. So let's start with the simplest one, length.

Length is pretty straightforward. I counted the number of words in the papers. Some of the students who wrote the papers probably weren't familiar with this method of determining length, since they'd enlarged their margins and font size to make their papers physically larger. I did the word counts by hand, since I had hard copies of the papers. I didn't count words that were part of citations or headers. Only the actual body text. I did count words that were part of quotations.

I felt that length might not compare well across classes, because even though the three instructors were working with a pretty standardized syllabus, they might have had very different ideas of what length requirements meant. An instructor who automatically failed any paper which didn't meet a minimum length would likely receive longer papers than an instructor who considered length a guideline to help students figure out how much depth to go into. If such differences existed between the instructors of the classes I studied, I didn't want them to overshadow differences that might be associated with procrastination. So I found the median length of paper in each class in addition to an overall median length for all the papers. I considered a paper short if it fell in the first quartile of length in its class and long if it fell in the fourth quartile.