Problematisation of Essays

I’m going to put this one out there and then duck for cover. I have no problem with traditional academic essays used as assessment. It is conditional on there not being too many of them, an appropriately varied assessment regime generally, and that the process of setting and marking them is conducted in as rigorous and fair manner as we are capable of.

But still, the essay mills. The cheating. 

I will never get on board with the idea of banning any form of assessment because at the heart of education is the basic idea that you have to trust those setting assessments to set assessment that is reasonably appropriate. I say reasonably because if I’m marking 80 essays, I have a range of tools such as GradeMark’s quick marks, to facilitate that. I can also do it at a steady pace over my allotted 3 weeks for grading.  I can tailor my marking to my circumstances. And ultimately I’ve probably got around 30 minutes to mark each essay and don’t have time allocated to wade through drafts, check thought processes, do face-to-face discourse on the broader points of the work, and return a grade with sufficient justification for second marking or our external examiners. I’m exhausted just writing that. So I set an essay in a 1st year module because I need students to demonstrate research, writing and formatting skills. 

Yes, some students may decide to use an essay mill to cheat. Probably more so given all the publicity about it over the last few weeks.

And you know what, I’m not sure I care that much. I certainly don’t want to jump on board the moral panic train about it all. I don’t care because the use of essay mills is a symptom of  massive problems in HE (and probably every other flavour of education): students have too little time, too much assessment, too much pressure, and they got to get shit done. Rather than banning essay mills or essays, how about fixing these fundamental flaws in our education culture? How about having fewer assessments (summative, formative – in the end the assessment regimes are practically deformative)? How about ensuring that students are guided sufficiently in their academic progress by staff that have more to give than contact time + 30 minutes per essay to provide feedback sufficient to dupe the students into decent NSS scores?  How about setting up a society where higher education isn’t postulated as the one true shot at achieving common life goals? At the moment if you don’t have a clue what you want to be at 30 when you’re 16, you’re pretty much going to enter limbo.

And I’m not about to introduce new tools in checking essays for whatever the signs of purchase are because I’m tired of casting suspicion on a whole cohort just because of the actions of some. You cheat in your degree assessments, you cheat yourself first and foremost. You miss out on some learning opportunities. You fail to develop your skill set and at some point, in some space and time, it’s going to come back and bite you on the ass. Naive? Me? Not really, karma’s a bitch.  

Yes, I know, there’s lots of inventive and innovative assessments out there that are far more useful than essays. I know this because in addition to essays I have set: magazine articles, infographics, oral presentations, posters, annotated bibliographies, lab reports, reflective diaries… and you know what? If a student turns over the assessment guidelines and sample work that I’ve provided to an expert and offers them money to do the work for them, all of those assessments could be cheated on in the same way as essays. What? Even the oral presentation? Yes. Anything that requires someone to do research to produce stuff  (e.g. an academic assignment)- prep the slides and give the student a script to read. Lab reports – provide the data obtained and the guidelines. So unless we’re heading to exam conditions for everything (and let’s not get into the memorise a ton of stuff to vomit in response to mediocre exam questions right now), we’re just going to have to work on building a culture of honesty and integrity in education, rather than the current one of attainment at all costs. There’d probably be some damn good mental health benefits all round if we dealt with the fundamental issues.

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