Advice on Quizzes

Quizzes in my classes are meant to measure class attendance and preparation. As a result, these quizzes are almost always given at the beginning of the class period; students who come into class late without a valid excuse (one that has been approved in advance if at all possible) disrupt the lecture and disturb remaining students in the course, and will not be given the chance to make up the quiz.

My quizzes are generally short, usually containing five questions, for which students are given five minutes at the beginning of class. Of these five questions, about half (two or three) generally cover material from the most recent class lecture, and the other half generally cover material from the assigned readings for the class period in question.

Very few of the questions on my quizzes are meant to be "trick questions"; a student who comes to class on time every day and who has read over all of the assigned readings before class should have very little difficulty achieving grades of at least four out of five on the typical quiz.

If you miss a quiz or receive a low grade, don't worry too much. The final quiz grade for the semester (usually accounting for approximately ten percent of the overall course grade) will be determined by taking each student's five highest quiz grades from the semester. I typically plan to give between six and ten quizzes per semester, depending on a variety of factors that sometimes lie beyond my own control; this means that the lowest quiz grade will definitely be dropped (even if I only give six quizzes), and additional grades after this may also be dropped if I am able to give seven or more quizzes for that course.

There is no truth to the rumor that I will not give a quiz in the class period immediately following another quiz (and therefore that a student can safely skip the next class period after a quiz without having to worry about missing the next quiz). Decisions about whether or not a quiz is to be given are generally made on the basis of numerous factors that students can not predict, including (among other factors) the number and nature of assigned readings, the expected length of the lecture and associated class discussion (where a quiz will be less likely if I already expect the lecture and discussion to fill the entire class period), and the amount of time available to the instructor for preparing and photocopying a suitable quiz.

Advice on Research Papers

Paper topics in my course are very straightforward. That is, if you follow the entire assignment completely, you are likely to do very well; I do not use "trick grading" techniques that reward or penalize students with grading criteria that are not obvious from the assignment sheet. This is why my paper assignment sheets tend to be so long and detailed: I believe in making the entire assignment clear up-front. With that said, though, there are still some common problems that show up far too often on each of my paper assignments:

Do The Entire Assignment

Be sure to cover every part of the assigned topic completely. I grade student performance (whether on papers or essay exams) by how well students address each individual portion of the assignment. If an important part of the assignment is left out, then I am forced to give the student a zero for that part of the grade, which can quickly be impossible to overcome in the overall paper grade.

Do The Correct Assignment

I assign a very specific topic for each student in my upper-division courses. For PSCI 4821 ("International Conflict"), this means each student is assigned a particular war from the past two centuries; for PSCI 4820 ("Geography, History, and International Relations"), each student is assigned a particular territorial claim. Once a topic has been assigned, it is vital that the student research that topic; topics should be clearly indicated on the class syllabus, making clear which countries were involved in the war and when the war lasted (for PSCI 4821) and which countries were involved in claims to which specific territory (for PSCI 4820). If a student attempts to research a topic that is different from the one that was assigned, I will have no choice but to penalize the student by grading the paper with respect to the originally assigned topic (which will typically produce a dramatically lower grade than was expected). If you are unsure about the topic,e.g. if you can't find a war that was fought between these countries in this time period or if you can't find a territorial claim between these countries over this specific piece of territory, please check with me before assuming that the syllabus got the details wrong. And if for some reason you simply can't find any useful references in the library, talk to me about switching to a different topic; if you switch without my approval I will still grade your paper with respect to the originally assigned topic.

Avoid Plagiarism

Because of student confusion over the use of citations and the problem of plagiarism, I created an entire Citations and Plagiarism web page to explain the problem and solutions. Students are expected to consult this page if they have any confusion over why, when, and how to cite sources; as I note on all my assignment sheets, failure to cite sources correctly can be construed as plagiarism and will be punished by a very serious point deduction. This deduction may reach as high as five letter grades (fifty percent of the total possible points on the paper), meaning that the highest possible grade that the student can receive on that assignment would be a fifty percent ("F"),even if it was a publishable quality paper that didn't cite its sources. I will typically deduct the full five letter grades on the second paper of the semester if the problem persists; the penalties on the first paper of the semester may be somewhat lighter, depending on the nature and severity of the problem. My general guidelines for penalties on the first paper are as follows:

Evaluate Internet Sources

Because of consistent student problems in using Internet sources unquestioningly as reliable and unbiased sources of information, I created an entire Using and Evaluating Internet Sources web page to explain the problem and its solutions. Students are expected to write a full paragraph evaluating any Internet source used in researching their paper, in order to determine the origins of the source and any potential biases that may be involved. Failure to do so will result in a penalty, the severity of which will depend on the nature of the problem. If only one source is involved and it is not central to the research behind the paper, the penalty will likely be one letter grade or less. If Internet sources form the backbone of your research, though, and/or if there is a very egregious misuse of the source (such as treating a propaganda piece as reporting unbiased facts), the penalty could be two letter grades or more, depending on the magnitude of the problem in your paper and its impact on your research.

Note that major newspaper sources from countries that are not involved in the war or territorial claim are not subject to this requirement of a one-paragraph evaluation for each source. For example, a New York Times article on an event that did not involve the United States -- whether obtained from the NYT web site or from Lexis-Nexis -- does not need to be evaluated. Any other Internet source must be evaluated though, and for topics involving the U.S., even the NYT or other U.S. newspapers must be evaluated for potential biases. If you have any doubt,please ask me about it (or simply evaluate each source anyway; I won't penalize you for doing too much in this respect).

Advice on Essay Examinations

Review Sheets and Grading Expectations

First, you need to be aware that I have high expectations! By giving you the questions a week in advance, I ensure that nobody will be surprised by anything on the exam. But because you have a full week to prepare your answers, I have higher expectations for your work than I would if you never saw the questions before the exam.

I suspect that most of you would prefer this approach to the alternative, which is to show up at the exam with no idea as to which terms or concepts would be on the test, or what the essay question will be asking. Think about this when you get the review sheet for both the midterm and the final: can you be sure that you would have been able to answer these questions adequately without having known in advance that they would be on the test?

Helpful Exam Strategies

Prepare to answer every question on this review sheet. Do not try to guess which questions will be on the test, because I will not decide until the last minute, and I choose questions randomly. Past selection methods include throwing darts, rolling dice, and using one of several computerized random number generators.

Be sure to explain your examples! Just telling me "(example: Cuban Missile Crisis)" doesn't show me whether or not you understand the concept being discussed. Whether you are answering an essay or an identification question, you need to explain how this example is relevant and what it shows about the concept.

Be sure to allocate yourself enough time to answer each question. It is important to manage your time wisely, so that you can answer each question fully; many students spend so much time on one question that they are forced to rush through later questions. On the other hand, be careful to spend enough time on each question. Many students rush through the exam to make sure they finish, only to finish early and leave the exam with time remaining (and with important parts of the answers incomplete).

Give me your own ideas -- I expect more than a mindless repetition of my lectures or the readings. Prove to me that you understand the material and can integrate course materials with your own thoughts.

Draw from both lectures and readings. There are always students who figure that "if it's important he must have covered it in lecture, so I don't need to waste my money on the books/articles" or "if I do the readings, then I'm sure I'll know everything important for the test, without having to waste time listening to the lectures." Not coincidentally, such students rarely do well on this type of test. If you leave out important material that was covered in class,or important material from the assigned reading on a topic, you are likely to lose points.

Advice on Essay Questions

My undergraduate exams usually include one essay examination, which is drawn randomly from the three essay topics included on the exam review sheet.

Read the essay question carefully, and be sure to answer each part of the question. Some essay questions include three or more separate parts, and each of these parts will be graded separately (so failing to address one of the parts of the question guarantees you a zero for that portion of the essay's grade). The biggest loss of points on most exams comes from leaving out part of an answer.

Similarly, be sure to answer the specific question that is asked. It's amazing how many students try to answer exam questions with general information that they learned in the course, rather than trying to answer the question. These answers can be summarized as "What I think I learned in this course" or "Why I think geography matters in IR" -- which may or may not be correct, and may or may not be interesting and well supported, but will almost certainly earn a mediocre grade. Remember, I grade how well the answer addresses the question that was asked, so a very good answer on a different subject won't do very well.

Don't worry about a flowery introduction to your essay that wastes a whole paragraph restating the question. You can safely assume that the instructor will be aware of the exact wording of the question, so you don't need to repeat it. This can be especially important in an essay exam where time is limited; such an introductory paragraph can waste as much as 5 minutes out of 50 minutes available to you for the entire exam, and it won't help your grade at all.

"Quote questions": Some of my essay questions require you to use material from the course to evaluate a quote by some leader, scholar, or other prominent person. In this sort of question, I am not asking you to give me "the right answer" that you think I would have put down if I were taking the test. Instead, I want to see how you interpret the question, whether or not you agree with this interpretation, and how effectively you can use course materials to support your argument. When such a question appears on one of my exams, there will often be some students who earn "A" grades by agreeing with their interpretation of the quote, while others earn "A" grades by disagreeing (and still others earn very poor grades despite claiming to agree/disagree with the quote) -- it is much more important to present a well thought out answer that is supported by the course materials you discuss than to claim that you agree/disagree with the quote,

If you run out of time, don't just stop your answer mid-sentence; I can only give you partial credit if you show me what you were planning on doing with the rest of the answer. I always keep a countdown of time remaining on the exam, usually marking off time in ten-minute increments on the chalkboard or overhead projector, and then announcing verbally when there are 5 minutes left (and usually when it's down to the last minute or so). If you get to the 5- or 1-minute mark and realize that you won't be able to finish the entire answer, it's in your interest to give me an outline (in as much detail as possible considering the time left and the amount of material you still need to cover) showing what you were going to say in the rest of your answer. This way I can at least give you partial credit for answering the question; if you don't do this then I am forced to give you a "zero" grade for any portion of the question that you did not answer.

Advice on Identification Questions

My undergraduate exams usually include three identification questions, which are drawn randomly from the approximately thirty topics included on the exam review sheet.

Be sure to answer the appropriate number of questions. Every semester I have used this exam format (dating back to 1994), at least one student has tried to answer too many or too few of the identification answers. This may be because they wanted me to take the best answer or simply because they didn't read the assignment, but either way, it can only hurt your final grade. The time it takes to answer an extra identification answer is time that you will not have for the rest of your exam, and I will not guarantee you that I will even take the best answer when calculating your grade -- I may take the first answer, or I may decide randomly which answer to grade.

Be sure to address both theory and evidence on the topic (as discussed in class and in the assigned readings) wherever relevant. The theoretical arguments on a topic (HOW and WHY some factor is thought to matter) are usually a very important part of the "definition" portion of the grade, and evidence on that topic (how well the theory has been supported by the available evidence) is usually a very important part of the "importance" portion of the grade.

Some of the concepts on the review sheet are theories or concepts covered in class, while others are examples (like "Cuban Missile Crisis" or "Schlieffen Plan"). For these examples, the "definition" portion of the grade will require you to identify the topic, which most students do pretty well. Many people have a harder time with the "importance" portion, though, for which you will need to discuss why the example was brought up in class. For example, which theory was this example used to illustrate, which patterns does this example fit, or in short, why do we care?

Give complete answers and support your arguments (explain exactly what you mean, and provide examples where possible). One or two sentences is not adequate for a definition or for the importance of a concept; the best answers usually spend a whole paragraph each on definition and importance (as in the example below).

Try to tie multiple topics together wherever possible. A natural tendency when preparing an answer is to stop as soon as you have found something in the notes or readings that appears relevant. An "A" answer in many cases, though, will require that you address several different topics from the syllabus, because many concepts are covered under several different topics.

Sample "A" Identification Answer

This is a genuine answer from a previous FSU undergraduate course of mine. Please note that the same concept may well require different answers to earn an "A" grade in different courses. Thus, I have different expectations for the term "anarchy" in a general Introduction to International Relations course, an upper-division International Conflict course, or an upper-division Theories of International Relations course; an "A" answer in each course would have to be tailored to the specific concepts, lectures, and emphases of the course in question.

"Anarchy": The term anarchy is defined by Hobbes (and realists in general) as the absence of a Leviathan (an overarching, centralized government control) over the nation-states. Hobbes compares domestic politics to international politics this way. Individuals in the state of nature have no governing apparatus and therefore individuals have competing interests and goals leading to conflict. The development of the nation-state helped to provide order to the individuals within the state as a Leviathan. However, there is no such institution for nation-states.

Anarchy implies three things: (1) states are individual actors with competing interests and therefore a "self-help" system that is zero-sum occurs; (2) this increases the chances of conflict between states; (3) conflict can only be limited, not stopped. The notion of anarchy is important to IR and its study for several reasons. It is a means by which analysts explain war in IR. More importantly, it is a key element in the way analysts view the world. Realists see power and anarchy as the overriding problems or situations in IR. Idealists recognize its existence but argue that international law and organizations can help solve the problem of anarchy by providing a sort of Leviathan.

Note specifically that this answer does a good job of explaining the concept in some level of detail, beyond the common answer "anarchy means the lack of a world government." The student went well beyond such a simple answer by discussing where the concept came from (Hobbes) and by comparing international anarchy to domestic order under the state government. With regard to the importance of the concept, this student did a good job of showing some of the consequences of anarchy for international relations, therefore linking this basic concept to a variety of other topics covered in the course (ranging from causes of conflict to obstacles to cooperation,and noting the role of international anarchy in both realist and idealist thought).

Note also that this is an "identification" answer, not an essay. The same general ideas apply for essay answers, though, particularly in terms of thinking well beyond simple answers and thinking in terms of interconnections among concepts covered in the course. Of course, the length and level of detail in an essay is expected to be much greater than in an identification answer such as this.


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Last updated: 10 May 2013
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