Why improve students' essay writing performance?

Essays are one of the most commonly used methods of assessing undergraduate students in the social sciences. Potentially, they are effective and appro- priate for testing a range of academic proficiencies including library research, clarity of thought and expression, synthesis of ideas and critical judgement.

The essay writing mystique

However, essays have been criticized for the ways they are often used in higher education, particularly for the gap which commonly exists between teachers’ and students’ expectations as to what they should contain. The main obstruction to essays being a fair and beneficial assessment tool is that the criteria on which they judged are often not made explicit to the students who are expected to write them. Undergraduates, particularly in their first year, are usually unaware of exactly what is required in an essay, the importance of writing technique, or the best way to go about writing one. Traditionally, the relevant study skills have not been taught but rather the assumption is that they will be acquired simply by practice in doing the task involved. A mystique is preserved around exactly what assessors require.

Student perceptions

Before the current project was devised, the first year students who were to be involved were surveyed by questionnaire about their experiences of essay writing. At this stage most of the class had already had four or five essays assessed at university. The results suggest that while there are differences in need among students (as experience of writing essays and perceptions about competency vary dramatically), the essay writing mystique is pervasive:

  • 47 per cent of students specified particular difficulties with writing essays, the majority of which were about technique rather than con- tent. A further 39 per cent were aware that they had problems but couldn’t say exactly what these were.
  • 78 per cent said they did not have a clear idea of what essay markers are looking for at university.
  • Only 5 per cent felt they got enough feedback on essays.
  • 22 per cent said the feedback they got was not always of sufficient quality to make clear where they have done well or gone wrong, while a further 69 per cent said this varies from lecturer to lecturer.

The benefits of teaching study skills

From the students’ point of view, then, there is ample justification for helping them improve the technique as well as the content involved in writing good essays. From teachers’ perspective, too, there are a number of benefits ofstudy skills training for students:

  • It makes the criteria by which students will be assessed explicit. This means greater fairness, more focused and effective work from students, and potential savings on the time of staff. It can also help staff assessing a particular course or degree route to adopt common standards.
  • It helps to adjust for differences in experience and competence among students.
  • It encourages deep rather than surface approaches to learning  Students’ ability to focus, reflect on, and make appropriate changes to the way they study as well as what they are studying is a key element in this transition.

Ways of teaching essay writing skills

Race and Brown (1993) outline various suggestions for helping learners develop essay writing skills. The methods they describe fall into three main categories:

  • Explaining the benefits of becoming good at writing essays to learners. Giving straight advice on technique in planning, structuring and writing.
  • Helping learners understand assessment criteria. Ideally, perhaps, all three elements should be present in guidance to students on writing essays. In building training into a taught course, it was decided that the third method was likely to be most effective. The first, while clearly important, does not help elucidate how to write essays. The second is likely to be less effective than the third if students are essentially passive observers; and they will not necessarily understand assessment criteria simply by being told what they are. In addition, ‘us’ telling ‘them’ the rules conflicts with the attempt to break down the barriers between assessors and assessed. Experiential learning, or learning by doing, is one of the most effective ways of teaching skills for assessed work.

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