Policy papers

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This method of assessment involves students individually or in groups addressing a contemporary policy issue and then preparing it for presentation in written and/or oral form. The length of the written policy paper and/or oral presentation may vary. Policy papers usually present a range of alternatives to the current policy accompanied by a set of evidence-based recommendations as to which alternative might be preferable in the given context. The policy paper should include sufficient evidence to enable the decision-maker to reach a decision on the ensuing course of action.

Advantages of policy papers

  • Enables students to engage with real world issues.

  • Supports students to develop skills in selecting and using empirical evidence to underpin a proposal.

  • Encourages students to apply conceptual and theoretical knowledge to contemporary policy questions, to carry out some research, identify and weigh up possible options.

  • Enables teachers to test both lower and higher cognitive levels.

  • Can give students the opportunity to work on a real-world issue that is of interest to them and at times also in conjunction with policy makers in government or international organisations.

  • May be undertaken as a group or individual assessment. Working on a policy paper project supports the development of a range of valuable employability skills for students.

Challenges of policy papers

  • Differences between a policy paper and an academic essay/research paper need to be clearly explained to the students.

  • Tends to assess the application of knowledge in a particular area rather than the breadth of the curriculum.

  • Teachers need to think about how to design the assessment to enable students to work together effectively. 

  • Depending on the nature of the project can be rather all-encompassing.

  • Students may need some guidance as to how to balance the work on the policy paper against other assessments they have to complete.

How students might experience policy papers

When students get the opportunity to work on a subject that they are interested in and get the time and support to do so, they often become very excited and engaged in the project. The opportunity to work on a real-world challenge and to come up with potential solutions is an authentic form of learning: particularly if the students have the opportunity to present their work to actual policy-makers. As such it is usually something that students enjoy especially those who are not intending to pursue further academic studies. There is of course always a risk that this might crowd out other areas of their studies. Students may not be used to this form of assessment so they will need clear guidance as to what is expected; a clear explanation of marking criteria, and also an introduction to different forms of research and writing. This is particularly important given that our students are likely to be more used to academic forms of writing. One useful accompanying activity might be to ask students to take an academic blog and transform it into a policy blog.

Reliability, validity, fairness and inclusivity of policy papers

It is important that the person designing and setting the policy paper assessment is clear about exactly what it being assessed - the intended learning outcomes of the course. Consideration should also be given to how the policy paper fits with other methods of assessment on the course/programme. Likewise, it is useful for teachers to think about how the students will be prepared formatively for working on a policy paper and which additional structured activities might be designed into the course/programme as part of this process. It is also critical for students to recognise that working on a policy paper is not a less a demanding form of learning and assessment but simply different. Students are likely to need guidance in the following areas: the length of the policy paper; areas of content and formatting; approaches to writing, and presentation of policy paper work. This needs to be clearly communicated and reiterated to the students throughout the course of study as do the marking criteria and ideally the marking scheme - what proportion of marks will be allocated to format and presentation.

How to maintain and ensure rigour in policy papers

It is important to establish clear marking criteria for students and teachers alike. Marking and moderation of policy papers should be conducted following standard departmental practice. Individual markers should take steps to avoid the problems which affect batch marking, including such as the 'halo' effect where one or two positive characteristics of a student overly influence the marker.

How to limit possible misconduct in policy papers

The best way to limit possibilities for misconduct is through a staged process. This may start with a negotiation with the student or group of students over the issue to be addressed in the policy paper. It may include the presentation of a contextual paper or an outline or other tasks in written and/or oral form as an integral part of the learning process as well as a final presentation with questions from the teachers and peers. Giving students the opportunity to negotiate and refine the chosen topic is clearly supportive of an inclusive approach to learning and may also help students develop work that is specific rather than draw on general information that is easily accessible. The policy paper can, of course, be passed through Turnitin to ensure that the work is original.

LSE examples

Further resources

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