The student essay as an assessment technique – an obsolete technology?

This post is a bit of a diversion from normal service, but it’s been inspired by some things I’ve been reading recently on essays (or ‘papers’ for my North American readers) and student assessment. The first was this piece on plagiarism and essay-mills, and the second was this piece here. Both highlight some current issues with assessment methods at university/college level, such as plagiarism, something which I’ve also covered before.

So anyway, in keeping (vaguely) with the theme of this blog I thought I’d take a look at the essay/paper as a technique (or ‘technology’ if you will – see what I did there?) for educational assessment and try and determine whether it’s still up-to-date, or as obsolete as a 5-inch floppy disk. Or a 28.8K modem. Or leaving your goddam twitter account alone for five minutes and giving someone your undivided attention during a social interaction. You get the idea.

So, the essay* as a literary format is a curious one. Canonically it has its origins in the 1580s with Michel de Montaigne; probably the first person to describe themselves as an ‘essayist’, although he was apparently inspired by Plutarch. Interestingly, a similar format existed in the Japanese literary tradition since its very early period. It first became formalised as a standard way of assessing students in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

So, why did it become the standard mode of assessment in higher education? What is the point of getting students to write 1000-2000 word pieces of prose on a proscribed topic? Contrary to what students may believe, it’s not to generate any startling new insights, or to assist the lecturer in staying informed on the topic. The point of essays is for students to learn something. How does this happen? The process of writing an essay is the important aspect, not the final outcome. To write a good essay, the student has to read a lot of different sources, select the ones they want to use, read those ones again in more depth, think about the topic, plan their arguments and finally write a piece of mellifluous prose which puts forward their arguments in a logical and connected way, with appropriate citations and references to the source material. The upshot of all this is that students actually end up with some knowledge of the topic – the actual written piece of work is solely there to provide a convenient means of assessing how much they’ve learned. A good essay will demonstrate that the student has taken the time to do the background reading, and put in the work required, and this inevitably means that they will have retained some of the information. It is about the process not the outcome. Of course, some consideration must be given to presentation, writing style and sophistication of expression, but this is secondary, and writing essays at University serves to facilitate the development of these things as well.

This is why students who wilfully plagiarise their essays by copying from Wikipedia or some other source, or (even worse) by getting something ghost-written for them by an online essay-mill, deserve the absolute strongest censures. Such students are totally subverting the point of the assessment process by discarding the ‘process’ and focussing entirely on producing an end-product. Unfortunately, plagiarism is becoming a massive, massive problem, which most colleges seem unwilling or unable to appropriately tackle, although a quick search of Google Scholar reveals that there are at least a few academics tackling the issue, although there are quite a lot of hand-wringing apologists as well. Traditional approaches have been mostly punitive, and these have been insufficient to tackle the tidal wave of offences which has come along in recent years. Another more proactive approach that some departments have used is to spend time and effort educating students about plagiarism, and this has been somewhat successful. However, these approaches seem like treating symptoms rather than causes – maybe it’s the assessment that’s not fit-for-purpose in the modern online world? Maybe the essay itself, as a concept, is obsolete?

This naturally begs the question, what do we replace it with? What is a more appropriate way of assessing students who can just barely remember a world without the internet? The answer is not clear, although there are several alternatives which may prove to be viable. One option is a portfolio-based assessment procedure – a good report on the implementation of such a system is available here (PDF) from the University of Dundee Medical School. Another option is the PeerWise system, described here (PDF). This involve getting students to create their own banks of multiple choice questions, which are then used by their peers to learn material. The main PeerWise website is here.

Personally, I’m not convinced that any alternative so far invented can provide the depth and breadth of the learning experience which is implicit in crafting a good essay, so for now at least, we may be stuck with this 19th century assessment, struggling to exist in a connected, online 21st century world.

Any thoughts in the comments would be much appreciated…


*I’m going to stick with the UK terminology, rather than ‘paper’ because a) I’m British, b) it serves to distinguish student writing from real ‘papers’, i.e. published journal articles, and c) despite the relentless, creeping adoption of American English in the UK, I’m pigheaded enough to still hold out a faint hope that it might be resisted for a while longer.


About Matt Wall

I do brains. BRAINZZZZ.

Posted on August 13, 2011, in Study Skills and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Thanks so much for linking to my post! I’m glad it gave you some things to think about.

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