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Pepper Grinder: Word count policy changes for ANU postgraduate law students

By Callum Florance







If you’re an ANU postgraduate studying law, you probably received this email on Tuesday 5 April 2022.





The email outlined changes to the College of Law’s (‘CoL’) ‘postgraduate word count policy’, commencing in the Winter Session for 2022. This email came as a surprise for most students. The main concern wasn’t with the changes, though. It was the complexity of the current policy.


A number of students have reported their confusion with the current policy, so we asked CoL for clarity. On the face of it, all headings are included in the word count for non-research papers. This means that markers of research papers are likely to select the relevant text in a Microsoft Word document and then select word count (a more individualised approach), unless stated otherwise. However, markers of non-research papers are likely to look at the word count at the bottom of the Turnitin or Microsoft Word window (a more efficient, but less individualised approach), unless otherwise stated.


Have you been silently penalised for an assignment’s word count without your knowledge? Are you worried about your grades for an upcoming assignment because you had no idea about this policy? Are you trying to decipher the excess word penalty calculation? Here at Peppercorn, we’ve brought out the Pepper Grinder to answer some of your FAQs on how it works (TLDR: footnotes are no longer included in the word count, but the existing policy has some issues):


What will change from the Winter Semester of 2022?

We contacted the CoL and here is what they had to say:

TLDR...

“So, the basic change... is that footnotes will not be counted.”

Previously...

“The previous word length and excess word penalties for students in the Master of Laws, Master of Financial Management and Law, Master of International Law and Diplomacy, Graduate Certificate of Law and Graduate Certificate of New Technologies Law and for Juris Doctor students in LAWS8000 electives was to apply a global word count. This means that when calculating the number of words of a piece of assessment students must include all headings, text, and footnotes (excluding bibliography). Students should calculate this using Microsoft Word’s word count function.”

Now...

“The new word length and excess word penalties are calculated by the student using a word processing program applied to the text (which includes headings). The footnotes will not be counted, and substantive material (other than references and citations) in the footnotes will not be assessed. Appendices will be treated as part of the text unless they merely reproduce primary materials for the aid of the examiners. The course convenor may require that the word length be recorded on each page, as well as the total which is required to be recorded at the end of the assignment or elsewhere.”

What remains...

“The penalty remains the same as follows:

Unless a Convenor provides advice to the contrary in the Class Summary, the following (default) excess word penalty shall apply: the mark which is awarded initially will be reduced by half the proportion by which the word limit has been exceeded, eg if the word limit is 2,000 words, and the paper submitted is 3,000 words long, then the initial mark would be reduced by 25% of that mark”


What is the benefit of this change?

CoL: “The reason this change was made was to provide consistency for all law students; specifically, our JD cohort who were previously managing both the old version in the LAWS8000 elective space and the new version (which is exactly the same as the LLB current advice) in the compulsory course and LAWS4000 elective space. Our students have lobbied for this change for many years and both the LSS and ANUSA were consulted and completely supportive. In addition, this change is now in line with ANU practice in terms of word count calculation for postgraduate courses.”


Do markers have discretion in calculating word counts for research papers?

We asked the CoL whether markers will undertake a bespoke word count for research papers (e.g., by selecting the relevant text and selecting the word count function), unless stated otherwise. This is the CoL response:

“This is always at the discretion of the Convenor and there have been no changes to this practice with this update to the word length and excess word penalties advice.”


Do markers have less discretion in calculating word counts for non-research papers (e.g., problem-questions, final exam, case analyses, etc.)?

We asked the CoL whether markers will take the Turnitin word count at face value (i.e., the word count that appears at the bottom of the Turnitin window) for all other assessment types like HIRAC-style problem questions and case analyses, unless stated otherwise. This is the CoL response:

“This is always at the discretion of the Convenor and there have been no changes to this practice with this update to the word length and excess word penalties advice.”


Are reference lists included in the word count for research papers?

We asked the CoL, and they used the Graduate Research Unit paper (LAWS8301) as an example (TLDR: no):

“Word Count: The research paper must record the total word count on the cover page of the research paper. It is not necessary to put a word count on each individual page. The electronic copy may be checked for word length compliance.

Method for calculating word count:

  • the word count includes headings and footnotes;

  • the word count does not include the cover page, table of contents, acknowledgments and bibliography;

  • the total word count must be calculated by the student using a word processing program applied to the text (including footnotes) and the total word count for the thesis must be recorded on the cover page of the thesis;

  • appendices will be treated as part of the text unless they merely reproduce primary materials for the aid of examiners. It is recommended that appendices are not used for research papers.”


Do course convenors have complete discretion to change the word count policy for assessments through a statement of means of assessment?

CoL: “Course Convenors do have some discretion around the penalties applied and also have discretion to vary the method for calculating word count. However, it must be clearly articulated in the class summary under the assessment section and would also be flagged with the AD(E) to ensure the change was valid and appropriate.”


Are footnotes included in the word count?

CoL: “The footnotes will not be counted, and substantive material (other than references and citations) in the footnotes will not be assessed.”


Are appendices included in the word count (other than for research papers)?

CoL: “Appendices will be treated as part of the text unless they merely reproduce primary materials for the aid of the examiners. For research papers under LAWS8301, appendices will be treated as part of the text unless they merely reproduce primary materials for the aid of examiners. It is recommended that appendices are not used for research papers.”


Do course convenors have discretion on if, when and where a word length should be included?

We asked the CoL, including if they have the discretion to request the word length be recorded on each page (e.g., in the header or footer), as well as request the total be provided somewhere on the paper. Here is their response:

“The course convenor may require that the word length be recorded on each page, as well as the total which is required to be recorded at the end of the assignment or elsewhere.”


How is the excess word count penalty calculated?

We created a formula using the language used in the policy and asked if this was correct, including an example. They say the example is correct.

The default excess word count penalties are calculated as follows:

  • Penalty % = ((Word count / Word limit) x 100%)/2)

  • e.g. ((3000/2000) x 100%)/2) = 25% Penalty

  • Awarded Mark = Initial Mark - (Initial Mark x Penalty%)

  • e.g. Initial mark is 80%

  • (80 x 0.25 =20)

  • 80 - 20 = 60% Awarded Mark

CoL: “Unless a Convenor provides advice to the contrary in the Class Summary, the following (default) excess word penalty shall apply: the mark which is awarded initially will be reduced by half the proportion by which the word limit has been exceeded, eg if the word limit is 2,000 words, and the paper submitted is 3,000 words long, then the initial mark would be reduced by 25% of that mark. Your example is correct. There have been no changes to this penalty as it remains the same for both the old and new versions”


Do course convenors have discretion in devising their own excess word count calculations?

We asked if course have discretion in devising their own excess word count penalty calculations, provided they appear in the Class Summary. CoL responded:

“That is correct.”


Is it fair that students are not told to not copy the full question into their non-research assessments?

We asked CoL, noting that the current and changed policies impact students who include the full questions as their headings and that the students may not realise the questions are contributing to the word count. We also included an example:

· For example:

§ A student completes a problem-question assessment with a substantive word count of 1500 words and a word limit of 1500.

§ The questions for the assessment total 50 words.

§ The student includes the questions in their submitted assessment, totalling 1550 words (1500 words not including headings).

§ Then the student will be 50 words over the limit, unless the course convenor has stated otherwise.

CoL responded: “As you have indicated, there has been no change to this practice. If this is something you want to raise, I would recommend that this be done through the LSS/PARSA and in this way, a meaningful debate can occur at the College Education Committee.”

We have reached out to PARSA’s Coursework representative for comment (see below).

What is the purpose of the College’s current default excess word penalty calculation? (This entails a few sub-questions...)

We asked CoL how it would respond to criticism that the current policy is unclear and overly complex, here is their response:

“The college has responded by ensuring consistency for all law students by adopting the one process and thus providing clear and consistent advice.”

We asked CoL whether the current policy reflects a preference for word limits set as maximums, whilst not penalising students for being under the word limit. Here is their response:

“That is correct; there is no penalty for students submitting work under the word limit.”

We also posed the question that you are all probably wondering: would the CoL consider +10% flexible word limit before marks are penalised for their word count. For example, if the word limit is 3000, students need to be above 3300 before marks are penalised. CoL responded:

“Again, If this is something you want to raise, I would recommend that this be done through the LSS/PARSA and in this way, a meaningful debate can occur at the College Education Committee.”

We have reached out to PARSA’s Coursework representative for comment (see below).


What does PARSA think about the policy’s changes?

We put to PARSA’s Coursework Officer whether the current policy was fair and whether there might be discussion of the +10% flexible word limit at the next College Education Committee. Here is PARSA’s response (TLDR: PARSA supported and approved the exclusion of footnotes from postgraduate word counts, but did not respond to whether there would be further discussions on the unchanged elements of the current policy):

"PARSA's understanding is that the current word count guideline, including with regards to headings and the hard word limit, represents a long-standing policy adopted by the College of Law for LLB and compulsory JD coursework assessments. The substantial change made has been to extend the expectation that footnotes are excluded from word count consideration to non-compulsory JD electives and LLM courses. We are supportive of this change, as it ensures consistency between all coursework programs within the College, brings CoL policy on footnotes in line with other ANU Colleges, and encourages postgraduate students to practice sound academic citation skills without fear of being unfairly penalised. The revised word count policy was provided for formal consultation and approval from PARSA, ANUSA and the LSS at a previous College Education Committee before being finalised. PARSA has been in discussions with the College student administration team to ensure the specific change to footnoting requirements is clearly communicated to affected postgraduate students prior to commencement of the winter session."


Callum is a Juris Doctor student at the Australian National University and a Content Editor for Peppercorn


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