What can briefing / policy papers assess?
Whilst these are designed for different purposes they have enough commonality to treat as one is this short resource as they all enable students to engage with contemporary, real-world issues. They require students to:
- select and use empirical evidence
- apply conceptual and theoretical knowledge
- carry out research
- identify options
- evaluate choices
- report succinctly
- writing for a specific audience.
Students can work on these both individually and in groups so encompassing both cognitive, skill and employability learning outcomes. If employability is a key driver then it will also be important to re-create authentic conditions of production, which might be a collaborative task, or one that integrates the use of AI. The report can be written or given as an oral presentation, an oral presentation has the advantage of permitting questioning, which can further support academic integrity.
Herman (2013) suggests that a well-written policy paper should:
- define the problem or issue
- analyse - not merely present - the data
- summarise findings or state recommendations
- if recommendations are given, develop a theory of change, and analyse the options and trade-offs and assess feasibility
- address - and when appropriate rebut - counterarguments, caveats, alternative interpretations, and reservations to findings or recommendations
- suggest next steps and the implications of the findings or recommendations
- distil the conclusions succinctly in a concluding section and remind the decision-maker of the big picture, the overall goal, the necessity of the investigation, or of the urgency for action.
Typically, briefing papers are expected to be short and the audience is less likely to be a subject specialists. Both types of papers could have audiences who are non-academics: policymakers, analysts, practitioners and others who formulate, influence or implement policy. It is important, as part of the assessment brief to identity the expected audience and length of the paper, in addition to discussion of the assessment criteria that should be clear about the focus of the measurement: process, product or both. It is worth noting here that AI is very adept at writing for specific contexts/audiences, so if communication with an intended/specific audience is an intended learning outcome an additional activity (perhaps a reflective element) to show students' understanding of the hows and whys of that communication may be valuable. Similarly, how heavily this is weighted within the assessment criteria may need some consideration or adjustment.
Given that the product should be sufficiently detailed to allow the recipient to decide an action, peer assessment could be used to give feedback on this.
Diversity & inclusion
The range of possible topics [home and international] and appropriate choice of time frames for completion of the task [particular needs] will help make the task more inclusive.
The contemporary nature of these assignments should help to reduce year-to-year plagiarism. Requiring evidence over time - perhaps using the Herman list to structure stages - would further reduce opportunity for academic misconduct. (Click here for further guidance on academic integrity in assessment.)
Student and staff experience
The contemporary and authentic nature of this task may increase students' interest leading to positive engagement.
Ensuring that students are clear about the expectations - we have called this section essay variants and students need to be clear that this is not just an essay and understand fully the required format and expectations.
Depending on how this sort of assessment is integrated into the module assessment strategy i.e. weighting, and the focus of the intended learning outcomes, we might need to check that students do overly focus on the style or the presentation of a policy report to the detriment of other work/learning/assessments.
Multiple titles can add to the setting, specifying and marking load for staff. If it is possible to get external ‘experts’ to assist in the grading will reduce this and add to the interest for the students.