Helping Students Avoid Meta-Essay Moves

Fostering in students more sophisticated approaches to cited essays is part of the transition from high school to college.

Paul Thomas
6 min readDec 17, 2021
Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

Maybe it’s the multiverse?

Or possibly the ever-evolving and shifting social media world that encourages young people to be the center of their own images and videos?

Well, actually, this is not going to be yet another “kids today” post by an aging educator. In fact, I know both the problem I am addressing (meta-essay moves) and the reasons why students practice them (direct and indirect lessons in school-based writing).

One of my favorite examples to help students reconsider their assumptions about writing essays as students is the brilliant Since The Beginning Of Time, Mankind Has Discussed What It Did On Summer Vacation. It is a stand-alone master class in deconstructing the overstatement as the opening sentence of essays in school by students.

Despite covering this satirical essay by The Onion in class and despite my repeatedly emphasizing that students should never open with overstatements, students persist, turning in subsequent essays with the overstatement first sentence and the clunky traditional introduction (more overstatement) and then trying out a couple interesting paragraphs that match the lessons we conduct in class for engaging openings.

I mark that first sentence/paragraph and urge them to delete and focus on the better work following. And then, the next essay circles right back to the overstatement and clunky introduction.

This situation is but one of dozens of examples of students finding unlearning more challenging than new learning; many of my students earned A’s on their essays in high school, essays that began with overstatements and clunky introductions making grand proclamations.

Success is a powerful lesson for young people in school where grades are both the goal and motivation. However, artificial success is also a powerful deterrent for authentic learning — such as the inherent problem with using templates, the five-paragraph essay (equally as harmful for writing as training wheels for learning to ride a bicycle).

Another area I struggle to foster in student essay writing is avoiding meta-essay moves.

The classic example of meta-essay moves is the “This is what I intend to prove within the course of this essay” thesis approach (see The Onion satirical essay). I rarely have students still clinging to that (thankfully).

But what persists are meta-essay moves (bolded in examples below) around the use of sources in cited essays, for example:

  • According to The Journal for the Study of Sports and Athletes in Education, anything more than twenty work hours a week can result in problematic grades or psychological well-being (Fuller, Lawrence, Harrison, Eyanson, & Griffin, 2019).
  • Most of the sources used tended to use the definition of disparity provided by the institute of medicine (Cook, et al.,2012; Williams & Wyatt, 2015; Wang, et al., 2013).
  • Many articles and papers done on these topics jointly don’t go far enough when splitting up classes to paint an accurate picture of disparities faced by different persons at various levels of class with varying races (Braveman, et al. 2010).

I joke with students that I anticipate something like the following when I read their meta-essay moves in cited essays: “When I got the assignment for this paper, I searched online through the library and found sources that included research on the topic I am writing about.”

These meta-essay moves about integrating sources is grounded in MLA style (and some of my motivation for addressing this is helping students recognize different style expectations among citation style sheets) and in a less obvious self-consciousness and insecurity among students as writers.

I provide students resources that guide them in ways to revise and integrate sources in sophisticated ways that emphasize the patterns found in their sources; my refrain is “write about what you learn from the sources and not about your sources.”

Students often have had disproportionate experience writing cited essays as textual analysis, requiring extensive quoting and using MLA citation. When they shift to other disciplines and different citation style sheets, they tend to remain trapped in meta-essay moves and narrow uses of evidence (quoting only).

I have, then, added to concepts traditionally used when integrating source material — quoting and paraphrasing — what I call “synthesizing” (from my resource material):

Prefer synthesis of multiple sources and discussing the conclusions (patterns) from those sources — and thus, avoid quoting and simply cataloging one source at a time. Take care with proper APA parenthetic citation; note the use of commas, page numbers with quotes only, and the placement of periods, for example:

From the 1980s (a hot decade for rebooting origins, highlighted by Frank Miller’s Batman) and into the early 2000s, Captain America’s origin continued to be reshaped. Notable for a consideration of race is Truth: Red, White and Black from 2003, which details a remarkable alternate origin as a medical experiment on black men (echoing Tuskegee), resulting in Isaiah Bradley ascension as the actual first Captain America (Connors, 2013; Hack, 2009; McWilliams, 2009; Nama, 2011).

Ironically, of course, we almost never hear a word of protest about the abundant misinformation found in our U. S. history textbooks (Loewen, 1996; Zinn, 1995), primarily because the misinformation better supports the meritocracy myth our schools are obligated to promote for the good of the society.

Recent scholarship on this concern for diversity and the achievement gap among races and socioeconomic groups has shown that when we attempt institutional approaches to “critical issues,” the result is corrupted by the system itself, resulting in a widespread acceptance of the work of Ruby Payne (1996), work that has no research supporting the “framework” and work that reinforces the assumptions (deficit thinking) about race and diversity that are common in our society (Bomer, Dworin, May, & Semingson, 2008; Bomer, Dworin, May, & Semingson, 2009; Dudley-Marling, 2007; Gorski, 2006a; Gorski, 2006b; Gorski, 2008; Thomas, 2009).

Fostering in students more sophisticated approaches to cited essays is part of the transition from high school to college, but lessons from high school are incredibly resilient since my students often report they received A’s on those high school essays.

Yet, I persist because moving students away from meta-essay moves accomplishes two writing goals.

First, students are encouraged to recognize and avoid empty, filler text in their writing. “Many researchers have conducted studies on this topic” is a waste of text space, and frankly, that emptiness erodes any student’s credibility and authority.

Next, linked to the first point above, students need substantial writer/scholar moves to establish and develop their credibility and authority.

Again, students often admit they have written “research papers” by stacking up their sources and mechanically walking the reader thought those sources, one at a time, as if the essay is about the sources and not some authentic topic.

This is why they have the urge to write “my sources.”

The result is an essay whereby a student is a mere conduit for Source 1’s thoughts on The Scarlet Letter followed by Source 2, Source 3, etc.

My emphasis on synthesis of sources introduces to college students a fundamental move by scholars, reading source material to learn about a topic through identifying the patterns found in a body of research. Except when providing evidence (quoted text) during textual analysis, writers/scholars assert their authority through paraphrasing and original expression (synthesis is creating something new from assembled parts; the newness is the synthesis, even when the assembled ideas are not).

In short, paraphrasing/synthesis shows understanding in a more sophisticated way that simply selecting other people’s words.

Maybe students today are compelled to use meta-essay moves in the same way they post selfies on Instagram or videos on TikTok, and maybe there are valid reasons they want to keep themselves the center of their stories.

And while we do acknowledge the use of “I” as credible and common in scholarly writing, students must avoid the sort of meta-essays moves that erode their credibility.

At least until the Marvel Multiverse spills over into our daily world, and then, none of this will really matter.



Paul Thomas

P. L. Thomas, Professor of Education Furman University, taught high school English before moving to teacher education.