Letting students know what we expect in essays

At a recent student-staff committee meeting, a first year student rep noted that it was difficult to know what sort of things markers would be looking for in an essay (especially since many people had no cause to write essays at all during their A level science courses).

I was able to point him to the generic guidance we offer in the Undergraduate Handbook, issues to all new students. However, I also wondered whether we ought really to give more information (particularly when we likely give *markers* of the work quite a thorough checklist). So this year I’ve decided to send an email overtly pointing out the kind of things that gain or lose marks (see below). Critics might argue either that (a) this is undue spoon-feeding or (b) that it will make it harder for us to find criteria on which to comment. I would counter this by saying that ironing out of some of these issue should make it clearer for us to actually get into the *content* of the essay we are assessing and not end up so focused on the *production and process* that we barely get into discussion of the substance of the essay proper.

Anyhow, we’ll see how it goes.

Criteria markers may be judging:

  • Has the essay got the correct title (not some vague approximation to it)?
  • Does the essay have a proper introduction and conclusion?
  • Are references cited in the text (using the Harvard system)? Is there a well-organised reference list at the end?
  • Does the essay answer the question posed in the title?
  • Is there a logical flow to what has been written (or is a random collection of points, albeit valid points)?
  • Is the sentence construction good? Are there issues with paragraphing? Is the story “well told”?
  • Has selective or partial coverage of the topic, inevitable in short essays, been justified in any way?
  • Have other instructions been followed e.g. is the essay double-spaced? page numbers? word limit?
  • Are there diagrams? Do they have: Figure number? Title? Legend (if applicable)? Are they referred to in the text? Are they neat and fit for purpose? If “imported” from a source are they cited?
  • Is the title and/or legend “widowed” (on a different page) from the image?
  • Is there inappropriate use of quotes?
  • Is the essay clearly too long (or too short)?

Threshold concepts and Friendfeed – a window into troublesome knowledge?

On January 24th 2011 we were treated to a very thought-provoking seminar on “Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge:  A Transformational Approach to Learning” as part of the University of Leicester’s Intrepid Researcher series. I won’t make extensive notes on the content of the presentation here because a very similar set of slides can be accessed here (Sept 2010, PowerPoint) and an older version here ( December 2008, pdf). A repository of resources related to the notion of Threshold Concepts is also available at this UCL site. I will reserve discussion here to a few of the main things that hit me.

Firstly, there is the notion that troublesome knowledge is really the key to maturing within a discipline – experiencing a certain amount of anxiety is a necessary part of moving on to deeper understanding. The concepts that trigger this experience within the majority of students may therefore be fundamental in their mastery of the topic. University education is analogous to gym membership (where work is required to reap the benefits) and not a stay at a luxury hotel.

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