An essay is a piece of structured writing on a subject which often requires references to previous publications in the area. Students are generally asked to produce a written response to a prompt or question which may be written by an academic or self-determined in conversation with an academic. Referencing is used to get a sense of whether a student has engaged appropriately with ‘expert voices’ in their discipline.
Typically used to….
- assess students' capacity to select key information and build an argument with reference to relevant literature.
- assess students' ability to link and develop lines of argumentation with relevant references to the field.
- assess students' ability to be concise and to summarise and organise your thoughts coherently (e.g. via tighter word limits).
- evaluate students' engagement with scholars/experts in your discipline.
Consider the assessment in the context of the module or programme.
- Essays are generally used within a module and may be used to assess one or more learning outcomes.
- Consider what is the purpose of the essay?
- Is an essay the most appropriate way to assess student learning outcomes in this instance?
- Carefully designed and challenging essay questions can effectively assess higher-order learning outcomes such as students’ capacity to evaluate and integrate information, and build a coherent argument with reference to relevant literature.
- The ability for students to personally select relevant source materials provides an opportunity for personalisation of the assessment, encouraging original and creative thinking and crafting of ideas.
- Essays encourage and evaluate student engagement with scholars/experts in their discipline.
Formative or Summative
Are you intending to use the essay for formative or summative assessment purposes, or both?
- Consider at what stage(s) formative assessment will be most valuable to the students and how students should be able to act on the feedback prior to the next stage of the essay.
- One useful technique is to ask students to create a mindmap of their essay ideas and an associated annotated bibliography
- If summative only, consider how your students will obtain the skill to complete the essay successfully.
Carefully consider how you will grade the essay
- What criteria will you use to assess students’ essays?
- Have you provided students with a rubric?
- Does the rubric align with the relevant learning outcomes?
- Do your teaching strategies align with this assessment?
Consider the opportunities that transformation of a standard essay using digital tools may have for you and your students
- How can you take advantage of digital tools both to enhance the assessment and transform it
- For example, would the use of audio feedback, through Blackboard, enable students understand and act on the feedback?
- Or is written feedback better?
- Should students work in a peer collaborative place, such as a discussion fora, to discuss issues concerning their essay
- Would the use of digital mindmapping and ePortfolio tools tools allow student to better display the process of the development of their essay, rather than focussing on the product? (see Dr. Wendy Garnham blog below)
- For example, if the students are asked to digitally record the process of development of the essay, along with any feedback they obtain, then they can refer to this for future essay.
- Can you use alternative formats to the written essay in order to support students with disabilities (see UDL section)
Students need a clear picture of what is required of them before they can complete the essay successfully.
- Have you provided students with clear guidelines on the format and requirements of the essay format in your discipline?
- For example, do they have a clear understanding of referencing requirements etc?
- How can you use your teaching strategies to support students understanding of what constitutes a good essay?
- For example, do you cover critical analysis of writing in your classes?
Make sure your students are aware of the submission procedure and any deadlines
- How will students submit their essay?
- For example, will you require students to submit through the VLE Assignments tool or via email? (See suggestions for relevant tools and technologies below.)
- Will you allow multiple submission attempts or one attempt only?
Before you embark on the assessment consider what challenges you may have and how to overcome them
- One of the key challenges which can often arise when using essays as part of your assessment strategy relates to ensuring and maintaining academic integrity: students may (un)intentionally plagiarise and/or use ghost writing or essay mills. To minimise threats to academic integrity consider asking students to:
- submit their work using a plagiarism checker tool such as TurnItIn—such tools can easily generate a ‘similarity report’ which may constitute a potential indicator of (accidental) misconduct.
- submit a ‘draft in progress’ at different points of the semester— this can mitigate binge writing and support learners to create their own work.
- English may be the required language of the essay, how will you support students whose first language is not English
- What consideration have you given to students with disabilities? Follow the UDL principles (see resource on main page)
Case studies - Using digital technologies with Essays
Brendan O Connell of the School of English
In this video, Brendan outlines how his school have used digital technologies to enhance the capstone project.
Nicholas Johnson of the School of Creative Arts
In this video, Nicholas outlines how he enhanced the assessment of a theatre history module using digital technologies.ssment of a theatre history module using digital technologies.
A student perspective on essays
This example of an Authentic, creative assessment: the active essay writing project was posted on the Kay Sambell and Sally Brown Covid 19: Assessment collection
This chapter by Dai Hounsell (1995) explores what is involved in marking essays accurately and reliably, and in providing students with constructive feedback in the form of written or oral comments.
This article from Duquesne University explores the strengths and dangers associated with essay questions, concluding that while they are an effective way of assessing higher-level learning, prompting questions require careful construction to maximise their effectiveness.
This journal article by Henderson (2006) examines the rationale for setting essay questions and puts forward suggestions on how those setting essay questions can improve the effectiveness of the essay in making contributions to learning.
This journal article from Morris (2018) examines the issue of contract cheating (via essay mills) in higher education, drawing on research and current debate in the field of academic integrity.
This resource from Blackboard provides instructional guidance on how to set up and administer the Assignments tool within your Blackboard module. (This tool is commonly used within the VLE for disseminating, collecting and marking essays.)