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Department Standards for the Evaluation of Written Work

Vassar College provides the following definition of its standards in the evaluation of students' work. The rigor of this standard confirms the value of a Vassar degree.


Indicates achievement of distinction. It involves conspicuous excellence in several aspects of the work.


Indicates general achievement of a high order. It also involves excellence in some aspects of the work, such as the following:

  • Completeness and accuracy of knowledge
  • Sustained and effective use of knowledge
  • Independence of work
  • Originality


Indicates the acceptable standard for graduation from Vassar College. It involves in each course such work as may fairly be expected from any Vassar student of normal ability who gives to the course a reasonable amount of time, effort and attention. Such acceptable attainment should include the following factors:

  • Familiarity with the content of the course
  • Familiarity with the methods of study of the course
  • Evidence of growth in actual use both of content and method
  • Full participation in the work of the class
  • Evidence of an open, active and discriminating mind
  • Ability to express oneself in intelligible English

The Department of English is guided by this standard as its members read and evaluate students' papers. The following criteria translate the more general terms of the college standard into terms specific to the demands of our discipline. Instructors are encouraged to review these definitions with their classes at the beginning of each term and to provide students with copies. This material is also available in the English Majors' Handbook, in print and on-line.

Acceptable work will demonstrate the skills that a teacher may fairly expect from students admitted to Vassar who give their papers a "reasonable amount of time, effort and attention." Over the course of the semester, students show their developing "familiarity with the content and methods of study of the course" and provide "evidence of growth in the actual use of method and content" primarily through their papers. The following conditions describe an "acceptable" paper, a base line from which the student's work develops and matures. An acceptable paper will:

  • Be free of casual errors of the kind that can be avoided by careful proofreading. The computer's spell-check will catch some typographical errors (but not all of them); students are responsible for proofreading their papers. Acceptable work will also be free of simple errors of fact.
  • Be substantially free of serious or consistent errors in grammar, punctuation (including the punctuation of quotation) and spelling.
  • Show evidence of a conscious effort on the part of the writer to achieve clarity, conciseness and control in the use of language. "Thoughtless" writing—that is, writing that comes to the page   automatically, without conscious attention to matters of style—relies heavily on vague diction (things are interesting), weak verbs, highly generalized nouns and modifiers, passive verbs,       expletive constructions (those ubiquitous "its" that do not have clear grammatical referents, as in "it is significant that…"), and other sources of imprecision and structural wordiness.             Conscious effort will result in more vigorous stylistic choices and in syntactic logic (e.g., appropriate distinction between subordination and coordination in sentence structure). Please note:     effective self-consciousness in the writing rarely develops without revision; papers begun and completed the night before they are due usually show evidence of casual or hasty composition.
  • Demonstrate coherent thought as evidenced in the structure and development of individual paragraphs and in the relationship between paragraphs (transition).
  • Identify and develop an argument (where relevant to the assignment) through representative references to the text sufficient to generate some conviction in a reader who might not otherwise accept one's interpretation. Imagining a knowledgeable and resistant reader who will no be convinced by mere quotation helps the writer develop and confirm a literary argument. Quotations are not "facts," but ambiguities subject to interpretation. For every substantial quotation one offers, provide a comment (analysis, not summary) that "reads" its details. A paper that cites quotation from the text in support of an argument and uses quotation effectively shows "familiarity with the methods of the course."
  • Meet the conditions of the assignment.

Work of a high order will accomplish what the acceptable paper achieves. In addition, the B paper will show:

  • Evidence of independent and original thought in its reach beyond classroom discussion, its use of primary and secondary sources (where research is relevant to the assignment), its reading of detail from the text, and generally in its approach to the topic.

An achievement of distinction incorporates the basic skills of the satisfactory paper and the more refined skills of the B paper. In addition, its excellence shows in: 

  • The intellectual and imaginative risks it accepts. These risks may appear in the writer's "take" on the assignment, the originality of the argument, the rigor of its challenge to other arguments, its reasonable resistance to "received opinion," the depth of the writer's engagement with the material, the extent of his or her thought, the range of significant reference, the discovery of appropriate structure, the convincing invention of the form, and the grace and conviction of the style.