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Essays are one of the most commonly used types of assessment, requiring a student to write a continuous prose piece in response to a question or prompt. The question/prompt is either provided by a teacher, or devised by the student with support. Essays are particularly used in qualitative disciplines which value evaluation, argument and comparison, and students’ ability to work with multiple sources. The essay functions as an umbrella term for a range of different tasks: evaluation, comparison, application of theories, or discussion.

Advantages of essays

  • Essays allow markers a clear view of students' higher order abilities (critical thinking, developing arguments).
  • Students' performance is less time-constrained than in an exam, and relies less on memorisation.
  • As students can consult sources (academic journal articles, monographs) as they write, essays allow for more precise engagement with sources than a closed-book exam.
  • Prose writing skills are highly transferrable. Essays require students to develop their own voice while employing formal and technical language.
  • Some of the stages in the development of an essay can be used as forms of assessment in themselves (e.g. annotated bibliographies, essay plans), to help monitor student progress.
  • Essays pose less intrinsic difficulty than essay-based exams to students with dyslexia and those students for whom English is not their first language.

Challenges of essays

  • Essays inevitably focus on a portion of the material covered by the course. This may lead to disengagement and even absenteeism in other parts of the course.
  • If exams are used for the summative assessment it can be hard for students to see any transferrable benefits from formative essays.
  • Essays may be more open to academic misconduct (ghost-writing, unauthorised collaboration or plagiarism).
  • A student's capacity to demonstrate their abilities in an essay relies on them grasping the requirements of writing in this format. This can be influenced by their prior educational experience.
  • Students with dyslexia may find essay writing and essay structuring difficult.
  • Students learning in an additional language may find long-form writing rather taxing.
  • Grading essays objectively poses problems.

How students might experience essays

Essays can be perceived as less stressful than some other assessment methods, and a more reliable measure of understanding (as they are less reliant on memorisation, and less at risk of a 'bad day') but the familiarity of the essay format is double-edged and students may over-estimate their understanding of what an essay requires. Students with multiple essays to complete may find time-management a problem. Essay feedback can be a really useful developmental tool; especially when it is delivered within a short time period and can be read alongside the originally submitted piece. Students often enjoy the opportunity to focus on an area of the course that is of particular interest, particularly if they are involved in devising their own essay title.

Reliability, validity, fairness and inclusivity of essays

Essay questions are often devised in teams and with the scrutiny of external assessors; this helps ground them and places reliability at the start of the assessment process. In writing essay titles colleagues can review possible interpretations of wording to expose ambiguity and briefly consider what a model answer for each question would include. This should help ensure that all questions give an equivalent chance to achieve and excel. If students devise their own title, it is a good idea to ensure, as far as possible, that it will allow the student to meet the marking criteria before authorising. The word count should allow the task to be completed. A very short word count can require extra work in editing for length. Consider providing exemplars to students from students from previous years (with their permission).

How to maintain and ensure rigour in essays

Essays should be marked and moderated in accordance with departmental practice. Criteria should be established in advance and shared with students. Some LSE departments have a feedback form which combines a standardised section (showing specific criteria and levels of attainment) with a free text area. Essays can provide a chance to excel in one area and underperform in others (eg. a strong original argument combined with weak use of sources) therefore a clear marking system should help keep students working in line with the expected outcomes. When setting up essay questions, it helps to discuss with colleagues what grade different combinations might obtain. Using clear, set and shared criteria can help individual markers to mark each essay on its own merits.

How to limit possible misconduct in essays

Changing essay titles annually prevents previous cohorts sharing their essays with new students. Designing essays that test for complex cognitive skills deter academic misconduct as the skills on evaluation, application and original argument are harder to demonstrate. Teachers might require students to work with highly specific sources, for example a particular academic article, news story, or an aspect of a class discussion as this reduces the chance of pre-existing material being available. Requiring a brief additional element that demonstrates the students' understanding of its content, perhaps through a justification of which sources have been used, helps maintain good academic practice as students are tasked with justifying their approach rather than simply producing answers. Asking students to show plans or annotated bibliographies ahead of the final submission (these do not need to be marked, although mistakes should be identified) can also limit misconduct. If software such as Turnitin is being used, let students know in advance (students might also use Turnitin to check their own work for unintentional poor referencing).

LSE examples

Several departments offer specific, disciplinary support for essay writing: in Philosophy & Argumentative Writing (PAW) students write abstracts for their own essays. Legal Academic Writing Skills (LAWS) and Social Policy Academic Writing (SPAW) offer one-to-one-clinics where students can discuss essays they are writing.

Further resources

Leicester guide to essay terms – may usefully support students, but also assist you in wording your essay questions.

Richardson, J.T.E. (2015) Coursework versus examinations in end-of-module assessment: a literature review, Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education Vol. 40 (3): 439-455

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