Adventures in Ethics and Science

Because, as it happens, I tend to notice patterns in student papers, then end up musing on them rather than, you know, buckling down and just working through the stack of papers that needs grading.

In my philosophy of science class, I have my students write short essays (approximately 400 words) about central ideas in some of the readings I’ve assigned. Basically, it’s a mechanism to ensure that they grapple with an author’s view (and its consequences) before they hear me lecture about it. (It’s also a way to get students writing as many words as they are required to write in an upper division general education course; sometimes assignments need to serve two masters.)

Anyhow, because these papers are focused on the task of explaining in plain English what some philosopher seems to be saying in the reading assignment, there are plenty of sentences in these essays that contain phrases like “AuthorLastName {claims, thinks, argues that, writes} …”

And, in at least 5-10% of the papers turned in to me, the author’s last name is spelled incorrectly.

Among other things, I’ve noticed:

  • None of the authors the students write about (Feigl, Hempel, Popper, Kuhn, Longino, Maxwell, van Fraassen) is safe from having his or her surname mis-rendered … except, some semesters, Grover Maxwell. I actually wonder if the correct rendering of Maxwell’s name is connected to how sympathetic students are to his view.
  • “Kuhn” reliably results in the most misspellings per available letters (including “Khun” and “Kunh”), and the largest number of students turning in papers that include a misspelled version of this name (usually about 25% of the total papers).
  • While “Popper” is frequently misspelled as “Hopper”, it is even more frequently misspelled as “Pooper”.
  • A significant number of papers come in with multiple distinct misspellings of the same author surname.

As far as I can tell, there’s not a strong correlation between grasping the main ideas in the assigned reading and spelling the author’s name correctly. (I correct these misspellings but don’t count them negatively in working out the paper grades.)

And, I actually find myself slightly more bothered when I receive student papers that misspell my name (which is, after all, on the syllabus and the course handouts and such). But I don’t deduct points for those misspellings, either.

Back to grading those papers.


  1. #1 Chris Clarke
    November 9, 2009

    That’s a fascinating and rather depressing set of observations, Dr. Stermweidel.

  2. #2 Janet D. Stemwedel
    November 9, 2009

    Eh, the author name misspellings don’t depress me. If there’s a limit to how many details my students can handle at a time, the exact spelling of an author’s name is not the worst one for them to get wrong.

    What’s actually depressing is that no amount of coaxing has gotten the local elves to help me grade papers. At most they’ll make shoes out of them.

  3. #3 becca
    November 9, 2009

    Well if you have shoes to grade, wouldn’t Dr. Isis be willing to help you out?

  4. #4 Catharine
    November 9, 2009

    Pooper…I love it!

  5. #5 Wayne
    November 9, 2009

    I think that might be the result of an over-reliance on spell-check. Students are used to seeing names underlined in red, and so they either correct them with the dictionary entry (perhaps thats why you get pooper?) or they ignore it thinking that they spelled the name right in the first place.

  6. #6 Peter R.
    November 9, 2009

    And then, there is the common “casual” for “causal.” As in, “the casual relationship between action and reaction.” My students misspell authors names all the time too. It seems such a dumb mistake to make–the spelling is right there in front of them!

  7. #7 Alex
    November 9, 2009

    The other day in class, while discussing something about particle physics research at CERN, I had to correct a mispronunciation of “Hadron.” Yes, it was the obvious mispronunciation.

  8. #8 Tony P
    November 9, 2009

    I assume the papers are done in a word processing program. If so that might account for the messed up names.

  9. #9 RSG
    November 9, 2009

    If there is no penalty for misspelling, then there is no incentive to care about spelling, and they will never get better. Sloppiness is sloppiness, and almost always leads to more sloppiness in other areas. Attention to detail is an essential skill which students should be required to learn. IMO.

  10. #10 John Monfries
    November 9, 2009

    I’m marking exam papers at the moment and these patterns are very familiar. Getting the referenced author’s name wrong happens often enough, though so far I’ve been spared misspellings of my own name.

    I haven’t seen “Hadron” (LOL), but then I don’t teach science. Another occasional misspelling though is “pubic” for “public”. “This article underestimates the importance of pubic health.”

    Spellcheckers may indeed have something to do with it, giving a false sense of security when the intended word is replaced by another (wrong) word which is recognised by the spellchecker, so doesn’t get the red line.

    But needless to say, it doesn’t happen only to our struggling students. Our local newspaper here in Canberra had a spectacular example on its front page some years ago.
    The Ambassador of Indonesia at the time had the typically Javanese name of Wiryono. The front page report had him (several times, including the headline) as “Ambassador Wyoming”. Spellchecker fail yes, but where were the sub-editors?

    In comments on student essays, I usually remark on careless proofreading, but try not to let that influence me in giving the final mark. It’s more important that the students demonstrate a real understanding of the texts they have read.

  11. #11 Janet D. Stemwedel
    November 9, 2009

    If there is no penalty for misspelling, then there is no incentive to care about spelling, and they will never get better. Sloppiness is sloppiness, and almost always leads to more sloppiness in other areas.

    Oh, there is a penalty for spelling errors, grammatical errors, sentences that are so opaque that I can’t figure out what they are trying to communicate, and so forth. The one bit of slack I cut on these matters of “execution” is on the spelling of an author’s name (since that is likely to be less familiar to the students — and thus harder to proofread accurately — than the words they are using to try to explain the author’s view).

  12. #12 Noumena
    November 9, 2009

    I once had a discussion section of medical ethics in which 60% of the students consistently used `he’ to refer to Judith Jarvis Thompson. And this despite the other 40% of their class and their TA using the correct pronoun.

    I average six `aspects’ to determine paper grades; one of these six is mechanics, which includes grammar and spelling and using technical terms correctly (arguments are valid, not sentences). Usually this counts as a convenient rationalization for grade inflation, but usually 10% of my classes get marked down significantly just because they didn’t bother to spellcheck. I point this out whenever it happens. Sadly, there are always a few who don’t get it the second time around either.

  13. #13 Dario Ringach
    November 9, 2009

    It is always better to remember the ideas than the names… At least up to the point were you have to give credit to someone.

  14. #14 Peter Evans
    November 10, 2009

    Yepe, grading is not an easy process! I’ve developed an addin to Word (2003 & 2007) to help me survive assignment marking, speed up the process, and provide more detailed feedback.

    You can see at a demo at:

    Some features include easily define and insert reusable comments containing text, links and images; record and embed audio feedback; highlight and Google selected text; add and rescale marks etc

    More information, links to other eMarking systems, and a download link are available from:

  15. #15 Brandon
    November 10, 2009

    I’ve occasionally had discussions with students about similar things; in my experience such cases, where not obviously just an accidental typo, almost always admit of one of three explanations: dyslexia or related reading/writing difficulty, not revising at all (common among some of the brighter students), and writing papers while drinking.

  16. #16 llewelly
    November 10, 2009

    I think that might be the result of an over-reliance on spell-check.

    Since about the mid-1980s, word processors have allowed users to add words to the dictionary used for spell-checking. It is seldom a difficult task, and if you use particular last names, you should add them to your word processor’s dictionary. (Hempel, Popper, Kuhn, and Maxwell were already in my dictionary.) If a student can’t learn to spell, they should at least learn to use a spell checker properly.

  17. #17 Super Sally
    November 10, 2009

    I remember (but cannot now find in the family archives) a letter from an insurance company to Dr. Free-Ride’s father that he kept for a long time, after laughing hardily about it. In the 1 page letter response to some inquiry he had made his last name (same as Dr. F-R’s) was misspelled in 6 distinct ways. It was a winner.

    Quality Control!

  18. #18 leigh
    November 10, 2009

    No Poppery!

  19. #19 uqbar
    November 10, 2009

    Amazing (?) fact: There is no entry in Wikipedia for Grover Maxwell! However, he is referenced in an article about Scientific Realism.

    Perhaps you could tell us more about him in an upcoming blog article . . .

  20. #20 Jim Thomerson
    November 10, 2009

    Stories like this make me glad I retired in 1997. I hear worse stories from my local colleagues still in the classroom.

  21. #21 Physicalist
    November 11, 2009

    I once TAed for a prof. who had us deduct a third of a grade for each spelling error. (There were very few errors — especially after the first paper was handed back.)

    I count it as a point of (perverse) pride that at one point I docked a student for misspelling his own name.

  22. #22 dan
    November 21, 2009

    I was in a modern history class many years ago… We were to write a small paper of a couple thousand words… The teacher would pre-mark anyones paper multiple times, before the due date and let them correct the mistakes and resubmit. The catch was that he substracted 5 percent off the top of your mark for each spelling, grammer, and punctional mistake you made… Of course he stopped substracting at zero… (but DID write down your negative mark.) Very few people had their papers pre-marked, and large amount of student’s obtained marks in the low ten’s and twenties, and many got zero… I think he also subtracted 50% per day if the paper was late…

    My mark… 90% minus 5% for one misplaced comma… man was I pissed… serves me right as I didn’t get mine pre-marked either… live and learn…


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