Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Do essays promote surface learning?

I was reading an article this morning which referred to the book 'Academic Discourse'. The book investigates the importance of language in learning. I think everyone will recognise that language, and in particular the jargon and linked body of concepts in a discipline, are a key part of learning. To engage effectively with a subject, it is important that one is familiar with important constructs and the way they are expressed and referred to. And so it is only logical that an important part of our teaching, and assessment, focuses on those key constructs.

In Higher Education, essays are often the medium of choice to evaluate learning. The wisdom handed down through the ages dictates that essays are suitable to assess higher order skills and understanding. But is that really the case? Of course the freedom to construct your own answer, or perhaps even choose which questions to answer, gives the student maximum freedom in expressing his or her understanding. But that freedom is also very easy to abuse.

Because we must realise that students aren't always looking to express what they learned. They might be looking to meet the expectations that will lead to the desired result, usually a grade. And when pursuing this quest, students often find that writing a good essay is a problem that can be solved with some linguistically skills, and doesn't necessarily require the attainment of any new understanding. And so in this light, perhaps we should investigate the value of very open and unfocused assignments. Because, while in a very different way then for instance multiple choice exams, they too can promote surface learning strategies when not designed with due care.

Furthermore, it also questions the value of computer marked essays. Most of these systems are designed largely around linguistic criteria, and so only exaggerate this problem. This is especially true if we consider the consequences of students understanding how their essays will be marked by such a system.