'There will be a prize of half a crown for the longest essay irrespective of any possible merit'
Paul Pennyfeather in Evelyn Waugh's Decline and Fall
Consider these four questions about higher education. Click on each question to reveal a possible answer.
What do you want your students to do?
Write essays / reports
How will students be able to show you that they can do these things?
By writing essays / reports
How can you help your students to do what you want them to do?
Get them to write essays / reports
How do the above questions apply over the years of the degree? How do the answers change?
They write longer / harder essays and reports
The questions and answers represent - albeit stereotypically - the way many of us in HE think about writing, and show that perhaps we need to think again. We do often over-rely on the essay (in the Humanities and Social Sciences) and the report (in the Sciences) as forms that can satisfy both the learning process and the need for an assessed outcome. This is not to say that these forms do not have real disciplinary and intellectual value, but rather to observe that their ‘default’ status in learning, teaching and assessment can mask a need to think afresh about the kinds of questions raised on this page and the range of answers that are possible.
Go to next page for a brief discussion of the issue of writing = assessment?.
To think more about the essay as a form of assessment, download Peter Womack's article, 'What are essays for?'