Coursework essays have traditionally been one of the most important methods used to evaluate students’ understanding of their subject area. Although there has recently been an upsurge in innovative methods of assessment, essay writing is still used in many contexts. Both coursework and examination essays appear to be more likely to promote deep approaches to learning when compared with fact-oriented multiple choice tests. Writing essays ideally requires students to engage actively with material, to examine ideas in depth, to integrate and critically evaluate what they read, and to state their understanding clearly – which often means that they develop their understanding further. Learning to write essays for a particular discipline can also be seen as a way in which students gain access to the academic discourse of that discipline. Recent research, however, suggests that essay-writing tasks can sometimes be seen less constructively by students, for example, as requiring them simply to lift information from books. It can be found that essay writing had distinctive meanings for students which took qualitatively different forms.
These are called different forms conceptions of essay writing. Among the psychology students in his study, it was found two overall conceptions of essay writing – ‘relevance’ and ‘cogency’. The relevance conception involved characterizing essays as an ordered discussion of relevant material. The students’ own thoughts about the topic were not central to their essay writing and they did not focus on establishing meaning. The students treated the components of the essay as discrete, and the conclusion as an after thought or a formal requirement rather than as something integral to the finished work. In the ‘cogency’ conception, by contrast, students’ own interpretations were dominant in the essay. Students evolved a coherent view on the topic from their reading, which determined their use of evidence and the organization of their essay. They were focused on making meaning, and developing an individual view of the topic based on a firm empirical foundation. Although the ‘cogency’ conception seems closer to what most teachers of psychology would want from their students, the ‘relevance’ conception was still present for some of these second year students despite their having had guidance on what was required.
A similar lack of congruence between students’ conceptions of essay writing and what was expected in their disciplines has been identified in research with first-year psychology students, first and third year education students, first-year sociology students, and first, second and third-year biology students. One reason why students may remain wedded to inappropriate conceptions is that their existing conceptions influence their interpretation of any advice they are given. There is evidence that students’ conceptions of essay writing may include misinterpretations, or simplifications, of assessment criteria suggests that tutors and students must share an understanding of the assumptions underlying the advice given before it can be effective.
Yet, discussion on these issues cannot easily be made clear and precise, and it may not occur at all. It is pointed out that is rare in higher education for cultural understandings about the use of language to be discussed between staff and students.