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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.

Whilst essays have many advantages:

  • they test the higher order cognitive skills (synthesis, critical evaluation)
  • composing an essay is a valuable skill in itself (marshalling, structuring and validating evidence in support of an argument or belief)
  • are good to differentiate achievement and understanding

and if not under examination conditions

  • moves the measure away from memorisation to homing academic skills of research, selection, summarising, reporting
  • are more inclusive for those with particular needs and those working in a second language.

However, we are also aware of the disadvantages:

  • marking objectively, despite detailed assessment criteria is problematic
  • academic integrity / plagiarism / academic misconduct - call it what you will - cheating intentionally or not
  • they asses only one (or maybe two) aspects of the course, narrowing the curriculum, and this can lead to ….
  • …. the strategic (or lazy) students only selecting the classes that cover ‘their chosen topic’
  • assumes - or requires development of - essay writing skills

and if used under examination conditions

  • disadvantaging students with particular needs, even if extra time is given
  • values 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
  • concept maps
  • briefing papers / policy papers
  • research proposal
  • articles and reviews
  • essay plans.

There are sections on the first two in the list within this resource and, 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.