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Essay variants: essays only with more focus

Using essay variants to assess learning

We are all aware of the value of assessing learning using the various formats of the standard essay. Haines (2004) lists these with examples and guidance as: speculative, quotation, assertion, write about, describe or explain, evaluate, compare and contrast, discuss, evaluate, design, problem-based.

Advantages of essays
  • they test the higher order cognitive skills (synthesis, critical evaluation)
  • composing an essay can lead to learning and component elements of essay writing e.g. marshalling, structuring and validating evidence in support of an argument or belief are intrinsically useful skills
  • able to differentiate achievement and understanding
  • move the measure away from memorisation to homing academic skills of research, selection, summarising, reporting (not applicable to essays under exam conditions)
  • are more inclusive for those with particular needs and those working in a second language (less applicable to essays under exam conditions).
Disadvantages of essays
  • marking objectively, despite detailed assessment criteria is problematic
  • can raise issues of academic integrity / plagiarism / academic misconduct - gaining credit for work which is not your own, including the vulnerability of any text-based assessment to use of AI (largely undetectable and may dilute ability make visible some intended learning outcomes)
  • they sometimes assess only one (or maybe two) aspects of the course and have a narrowing effect on the curriculum, and this can lead to ….
    • …. strategic students only selecting the classes that cover ‘their chosen topic’
    • assumes - or requires development of - essay writing skills, and flattens assessment of ideas/critical thinking/mastery of material into assessment of writing prowess
  • they might disadvantaging students with particular needs, even if extra time is given
  • under exam conditions can prioritise memorisation above research, analysis and synthesis.

This section consider ways that we can reap some of the benefits of the essay approach whilst attempting to diminish some of the down-sides.

  • annotated bibliography
  • briefing papers / policy papers
  • research proposal
  • articles and reviews
  • essay plans.

Any written assessment method which is not taken in internet-free exam conditions is equally vulnerable to or able to benefit from (depending on your intended learning outcomes and educational aims) AI. It is important to therefore consider how the assessment method is integrated into the assessment strategy, and the teaching and learning strategy, and the perimeters and expectations that you set, and the assessment criteria against which you evaluate student performance. As with all methods of assessment, some of the others may or may not suit your discipline. We will consider each briefly using a similar format used for other methods.