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Assessing assignments: essays, papers, and other works

A hamburger on a piece of paper with a B+ grade

Every year at about this time, I start drawing up syllabi for new classes. (It sounds early, I know, but because our textbook orders are due in mid-July, it’s more efficient for planning.) And each year, I’m seduced by the possibility of what we can call the non-traditional assessment — something like the diorama approach, but more open-ended. While I do change the balance of weight on individual assignments every year, I usually end up with a mixture of two types of assessment: the ‘factual’ (multiple-choice, cloze, matching, etc.) exam, and the ‘interpretive’ essay – a long-form written answer to one of a set of preassigned questions (students are also able to propose their own, but this tends to be a more onerous task — more on this below). Although I offer choices in terms of what questions students answer, including on exams, they must complete all of the assignments to excel in the course.

But the importance of variety of assessment is one that’s been drawing more attention recently, and there’s been some interesting research on the interplay between assignment type and learning. I tend to offer a combination of pre-set options — sort of like a prix-fixe menu. Students choose between topics the way a diner can choose between the chicken, fish, or beef main. They can’t choose to omit a category of assessment, which would be like trying to convince the restaurant to give you two main dishes instead of dessert.

A new study from an Ontario think tank suggests that this might not be the most effective way to assess learning. Their study looked at advanced psychology students who were offered a choice between a “standard” set of exams and the ability to choose their evaluation. Students in the latter group typically chose an independent project, which they said involved more work — but also made them feel more confident in their knowledge and less stressed than an exam.

The result was most marked among underperforming students, who are hard to reach even in professionally-oriented classes. In other words, it’s not only in the much-maligned humanities fields that students struggle to locate points of interest, confidence, and achievement. But unlike in STEM or many social sciences, humanists often have no lab work, human subjects, or way to create a meaningful project that is directly tied to class goals. This gap was one of the many needs that digital humanities was supposed to address. If achievement in digital humanities is not a major learning outcome for your class, though — and if written achievement is — this is not a workable solution.

My goals for my students are about writing, not websites. This is not to denigrate either the internet or my students, but to stress that I am more competent in many respects to help them with the former, and that written skills are still both important and desired in the modern workplace. And this brings me, finally, back to the essay.

I tend to call these long-form written assignments ‘papers’ — response papers, research papers, and close readings are three very different ways of scrutinizing a text (in the broadest sense of that term). My students, on the other hand, almost without fail call them ‘essays’. I find this semantic distinction curious, but it was not something I considered very deeply until I read this assignment on the “unessay”. The introductory material here reminded me of the rigidity of the ‘essay hamburger’ that weaker students in particular seem to cling to, as well as the personal nature of Montaigne’s essais.

In some ways, this unessay seems to me (a casual observer) the most essai-ish of essays. It is extremely personal, connected intimately with what the writer wants to say rather than what the reader wishes to know, and is completely freeform. This is not the typical ‘essay’ you write in high school (if there is a typical high school essay ), except in units on personal experience. Instead, it is more closely related to the essays of non-fiction writers and memoirists.

Perhaps this is liberating to some students. But I can imagine the students who love their essay hamburger becoming very stressed by the prospect of such an open-ended assignment. I have students who want to know how many footnotes they should have on each page (it doesn’t matter), whether I will deduct marks for incorrect citation style (not if it’s consistent), and whether it matters if they omit a cover page (please do). What liberates some people terrifies others. And this is where I think the study on differentiated assessment becomes so useful.

By all means, give students the option of a completely open assignment if you want to. Let those who are comfortable with risk — not always the strongest nor the weakest students — give it a try. But also have an option for the more timid. There is a middle ground between no structure and a hamburger. Let them rest there.

About the Author: Jaclyn Neel is a visiting Assistant Professor in Ancient History at York University in Toronto, Ontario.

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