An essay is a traditional form of assessment in relatively academic and some professional areas. It takes the form of a piece of writing specially composed by the student to address a question or topic set by the teacher, usually within a set word-limit. It is extremely flexible and easy to set: unfortunately this also leads to a great deal of sloppiness in its use.
- Any topic which requires the ability to construct and sustain a written argument.
- Any circumstances where the ability to construct and sustain a written argument is not a major criterion of the assessment.
- Equal opportunities: essays demand a wide variety of skills, some of which may be totally irrelevant to what you need to assess. Lack of any of these skills can severely disadvantage a student who is otherwise competent in the substantive area of study.
- It is easy to be seduced by those same irrelevant qualities: a well-presented and beautifully-expressed essay often attracts disproportionately higher marks than its content would warrant.
- Essays undertaken out of class are particularly insecure in the sense of being vulnerable to plagiarism.
- Setting an essay early in a module, so that it will be complete by the end, can mean that surface learners focus their reading and efforts solely on the set topic, to the exclusion of the rest of the module content.
- Students frequently put a lot of effort into their essays: they are entitled to similar effort put into the feedback. Unfortunately, the method is heavily back-loaded: essays are easy to set but very time-consuming to mark properly.
- Moreover, essays assess so many things at once, that it is important for validity and reliability that the proportion of marks allocated to each marking criterion should be clarified in advance.
- If essays are submitted for summative assessment at the end of a module, the considerable opportunities they afford for formative assessment are often lost. Having completed the module, students may only look at the grade and ignore the comments, even when you have put a lot of effort into generating them.
- Where the bulk of module assessment rests on a single essay, it may engender high degrees of anxiety, which may quite severely impair a student's ability to give of her best.
- See also Projects
- Consider several short assignments as an alternative to the "big" essay.
- Determine the marking scheme before you start marking. Share it with the students — better still, get them involved in drawing it up!
Incidentally, and rather self-indulgently, I had a go at one of my son's set essays a while ago, free of all the constraints about how someone might see fit to assess it. How would you mark it? (There are at least two spelling mistakes)
Indeed, I'm an avid consumer (via RSS, Arts and Letters Daily, and the Browser -- I accept no responsibility for the consequences of following either of those links) of what are known nowadays as "op-ed" columns in high-end journals. How would they fare as essays submitted for assessment, in an appropriate discipline, of course?
Created around 2002; latest revision March 2013