Alternative Essays

It's time we found an alternative to the student essay. For tutors across the country, it's marking time again and, reading essays, we realise that many of our students have yet again taken refuge in "surface learning". Failing to assimilate the significance of our courses into their understandings they produce instead what they think the tutor wants; a despairing and deceptive ritual, a superficial imitation of the outward form of learning, rather than the real thing.

The problems with the conventional essay are as follows.

First, it has to be undertaken at the end of the course, when only a few weeks remain before the assignment deadline. This time pressure makes it difficult for students not only to create their own sense of the relationships between a variety of new ideas, but to embody this new understanding in a written text. So, lacking sufficient time, they panic.

Second, given this postponement of the writing task, teaching staff only become aware of students who are having difficulties when time is short - a problem frequently made worse because such students often keep a low profile and hope for the best.

Third, in order to maximise the time available to do the essay, students focus on earlier topics in the course and attendance at later sessions drops off precisely when the overall structure of course content may start to become clearer.

Fourth, the essay requires a specific style of writing, and, for many students, this style is difficult and alien, especially those returning to formal learning after a substantial break and those who are first-generation participants in higher education. The essay thus disenfranchises students who may be quite capable of embodying their understanding of ideas in other genres and styles, but are not given the opportunity of doing so.

Finally, the essay requires the student to adopt the (essentially unrealistic) stance of one who has now, after just a few weeks' teaching, "mastered" a new topic. The essay presents learning as an authoritative "product", rather than the gradual process by which new learning is assimilated, through reading, discussion and personal reflection.

The essay is the source of the problem - but what would real learning look like?

A group of staff based at Anglia Polytechnic University and including colleagues at Nottingham Trent, the Open University and Cambridge, have just completed a research project in which we substituted a "patchwork text" assignment format for the conventional academic essay.

The key feature of the patch work text assignment is that it consists of a carefully structured series of short pieces of writing, carried out at regular intervals throughout the course - typically over a term or semester.

These small-scale writing tasks are varied in style and genre. They may include, for example, a critique of an article, a set of notes on a lecture together with a commentary, detailed and analytical accounts of personal experiences (a visit, field trip, interview, classroom activity), a poster representation of the relationship between key ideas, a project proposal and even (with some topics) a poem or a fictional story.

Each piece of writing is shared with other students in small working groups of four or five, as the tutor circulates between the groups, noting the discussions.

When the teaching sessions are completed, students submit an overall assignment consisting of their collection of short pieces (edited and perhaps amended) together with a final retrospective commentary. In this they review the relationship between the separate pieces and describe where they feel they now stand in relation to the ideas of the course. In this way they "stitch the patches together". Each of these features of the patchwork text explicitly addresses the problems of the academic essay noted above. And the experience of our research project is that almost all students who have undertaken this assignment format experienced very high morale, and a satisfying (and often unprecedented) sense of ownership of their learning.

Moreover, in one detailed comparison of two cohorts of students, using intellectual criteria derived from the essay format, students writing patchwork texts scored better than students writing essays, according to some criteria, and no worse according to any of them. There were fewer failures and fewer marginal passes.

And although the best students did well in all the varied writing tasks, the weaker students did better in some than others, suggesting the patchwork text has a genuine potential for widening access to higher education success.

Things are not quite so simple, of course, but this feels like a start.

· Richard Winter is professor of education at Anglia Polytechnic University. Patchwork Text special issue of the SEDA journal Innovations in Education and Teaching International is available on 01256 813002. A few places on the Patchwork Text national conference are still available (June 20, New Hall, Cambridge): contact j.h.petrie@apu.ac.uk

(Part un of a deux-part series. Go to part deux.)

Using shorter writing exercises to assess learning

One of the most common ways of measuring student learning in the humanities and social sciences is the essay. Most of the faculty members working today will remember writing many term papers in their undergraduate and graduate courses, and it is still not uncommon to see colleagues with a pile of papers under their arms or on their desks (and a pained look of dread on their faces).

There are many reasons to avoid assigning term papers, however. Richard Winter, writing in The Guardian, outlines a few of them. Term papers come too late in the term; students are under pressure and can’t produce a well thought-out essay, and if they have difficulties with the genre or writing generally, it’s too late to help them. Assigning essays supposes that students who are new to a topic can demonstrate a mastery of material or concepts that may simply be unrealistic; instead of deep learning, surface learning is more likely to, er, surface.

I would add one or two reasons more to forego the term paper. I really wonder how well long, academic essays help students consolidate course learning. They work best for developing long and complex arguments about particular topics, but one of the few professions I know of that requires thickly-argued essays is our own, and I don’t expect many students in the general education classes I teach will go down the career path of university teaching. Finally I have to question if it’s a good use of an instructor’s time to read and grade long essays. Could the instructor’s time and expertise be put to more effective use for student learning?

Replacing the term paper might be especially useful if an instructor is using the essay as a summative exercise to measure overall learning. If a demonstration of comprehensive understanding is the goal, activities such as poster presentations or concept maps might prove more valuable to the student. These activities can have more of hands-on feel that still requires the student to distill the term’s learning, but without the burden of putting that learning into a form that may seem very alien or off-putting.

If you’re like me, though, and you want students to have as many opportunities as possible to improve their writing, shorter writing assignments might be the way to go. These won’t be summative of an entire course, though they can be used to consolidate understanding of particular concepts or portions of the course. Shorter writing assignments have some real advantages: students can be expected to do a number of them, giving them an opportunity to put instructor feedback into action; the shorter length encourages the development of succinct and precise argumentation; in practical terms, the shorter length might fit more realistically into student – and instructor – schedules. Perhaps one of the greatest things about shorter essays is their flexibility: they can be used in a variety of situations and meet a variety of learning needs. (To get an idea of the diverse world of short writing assignments, have a look at the “Writing to Learn” section of Pedagogy Unbound, a website “for college teachers to share practical strategies for today's classrooms.”)

In the Winter article referenced above, the author gives an example of what he calls a patchwork text assignment. In the past I’ve used laddered or scaffolded writing assignments in which students do parts of a longer essay over the course of the term, and submit them to me for review and comment. That has been helpful to the students, and has allowed me to intervene earlier if problems rear their ugly heads. The patchwork text assignment adopts this iterative approach, but is much more inventive:

These small-scale writing tasks are varied in style and genre. They may include, for example, a critique of an article, a set of notes on a lecture together with a commentary, detailed and analytical accounts of personal experiences (a visit, field trip, interview, classroom activity), a poster representation of the relationship between key ideas, a project proposal and even (with some topics) a poem or a fictional story.

What I like is the diversity. Over the course of the term the students might well assemble a portfolio of texts that summarizes their learning, but the variety of texts and genres lets them put different forms of written summaries to the test. I think this would be a very engaging approach that allows students to be creative while at the same introducing them to forms of writing that they might enjoy.

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