Tuesday, August 06, 2013

More reasons why asking students to write essays for assessment is evil

Blooms pyramid Although this paper is about essay writing by psychology students rather than science students, the conclusions remain true. Rather than using essays to construct artful and original arguments (because they'd probably be penalized by the marking scheme for doing that), students simply imitate what they've read elsewhere. Science students turn in strings of loosely connected "facts" without significant argument, viewpoint, or synthesis. It's all a long way from the top end of Bloom's pyramid. And of course, none of this treadmill activity has anything to do with what goes on in the workplace.

So let's "ban" the essay - by which I mean ask students to write sensibly structured academic reports so that they emerge from tertiary education with a transferable skill they will need.

Academic essay writing as imitative problem solving: examples from distance learning. (2013) Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education 39(3): 1-12. doi:10.1080/02602938.2013.822846
Students in tertiary education are often faced with the prospect of writing an essay on a topic they know nothing about in advance. In distance learning institutions, essays are a common method of assessment in the UK, and specified course texts remain the main sources of information the students have. How do students use a source text to construct an essay? The present paper presents a methodology for mapping the source text on to the finished student essay. The underlying assumption is that students are using a form of imitative problem solving when faced with the complex task of writing an essay. Twenty-two essays written by Open University students in the UK, based on three different questions, were analysed on the basis of the order in which novel concepts were introduced and the extent to which this order mirrored that of the source textbook. Correlations were then carried out between the structure of the essay, the structure of the source text and the eventual grade awarded. The average correlation for all three essays and source texts was 0.8, with some individual essays having a correlation of 0.98, demonstrating that the students were closely imitating the argument structure of the source text.

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