Exact Word Count for Undergraduates

Over the weekend a student wrote me to ask a question about an upcoming assignment. His query was a very basic but fair one. According to the assignment guidelines, each student is supposed to write a 500-word essay. The student asked:

it says the paper is to be 500 words. Are we limited to roughly that amount or is that just the minimum required?

My response was my usual boilerplate about word count. I said that the word count was a target, meaning that he could be a reasonable amount over or under that count.

Then I started thinking about my response. As a challenge, why don’t I have students write their essays to exact word count? Every student uses word processing software of some type to write their essays. College students have been doing that for the better part of the last thirty years. Word processors make it really easy to count words. It’s part of what they process, isn’t it?

The benefit of writing to an exact word count is that it forces students to edit their essays beyond running the spelling and grammar checkers. One of my colleagues in graduate school used to write paragraphs so that the last line of a paragraph would be flush with the right margin. In other words, he would edit until his paragraph was a fully-justified, four-sided rectangle.

Having students write to an exact word count would also help ensure more equitable grading. Although I’ve tried to avoid this particular bias, I have found over my years of reading undergraduate prose that the more-engaged (i.e., "better") students tend to write longer-than-average essays and get better grades. If every student writes to the exact same length, it would minimize the "verbose-essay bias" and ensure I am grading on written content not its form.

While it’s a little to try with an assignment due in a matter of days, I will experiment with an upcoming assignment for my Media Technologies class. They have three essays to write over the semester so I have some room to perform an experiment such as this one. If it works with exactly 500 words, maybe I’ll have them write to other counts, consisting of prime numbers like 571, 839, or 1013. After all, a word count is just an arbitrary number.

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