03/13/2014 09:30 pm ET Updated May 13, 2014

Quality Over Quantity: The Case Against Essay Length Requirements

Imagine you're an analyst for a Fortune 500 company. One day, your boss asks you for a memo breaking down the pros and cons of a potential acquisition. Your boss further stipulates that your analysis must be at least five pages long. Even if you could convey the information more efficiently, don't bother. It's gotta be five pages.

Confused? Welcome to the world of most high-school students.

In assigning essays, English and history teachers typically include length minimums. As far as I can tell, the logic behind such requirements is that (in theory) they ensure a certain intellectual rigor. By demanding a number of pages or words, the thinking goes, teachers force their students to move beyond superficial observations into deeper analysis. Unfortunately, I believe that length minimums do not achieve that goal. Quite the opposite, in fact.

When I started out as a high-school English teacher, I included a length requirement in my essay assignments. As I read those first essays my students turned in, I was alarmed to discover that many of them, even some of the better ones, contained quite a bit of... let's be kind and call it fluff. A body paragraph would start out with a strong topic sentence followed by pertinent evidence, but then, somewhere in the analysis, the paragraph would wander off into areas that were at best tangentially related to the thesis. Other essays featured conspicuously wide margins or a font so large as to suggest my students were worried about my eyesight.

Needless to say, all of these issues were the result of attempts to reach the benchmark I had set (in this case, five pages). While it may be tempting to blame the students, that would be a mistake. Even if you think that they ought to have no problem filling five pages, the fact is many of them do. That students are struggling with something is, of course, not sufficient reason to eliminate it. However, a length requirement is not just a challenge to some students; I believe it is detrimental to nearly all of them. By insisting on a minimum (and, frankly, arbitrary) number of pages or words, we are incentivizing filler. Rather than encouraging students to state their argument succinctly, we are ordering them to stretch it out, often to the point of absurdity.

Two caveats: first, there are some smart but lazy students who currently benefit from being forced to reach a certain length. However, I believe there are far more students who, faced with such a requirement, wind up focusing on the quantity instead of the quality of their words, conflating thoroughness with verbosity in the process. All of which leaves them confused and often bitter, convinced that academic success requires jumping through hoops.

Furthermore, if we eliminate length requirements, some students will undoubtedly try to take advantage of their newfound freedom by turning in essays that are far too short. In that case, teachers ought to respond with an appropriately low grade and an explanation of what the essay is lacking. In other words, they ought to teach.

I care deeply about this subject and, though I'm tempted to go on and on about it, I won't. I've made my point.