Essay writing is regarded by many students (particularly those in the first year of a degree course) with a certain amount of trepidation. This is partly because they feel their performance might not be up to undergraduate level, but more often it is because essays are now an accepted part of evaluating a student’s final degree.
Although research has shown that students prefer course work essays to be taken into account, it has undoubtedly put extra pressure on them to perform well in each submitted piece of work. Naturally then essay-writing skills have become of primary importance not only to students in academic institutions but also to their tutors.
In the publishing world, this has been reflected by the considerable output of study manuals, all giving advice on the most effective strategies for writing essays. Advice is also given in the research literature to tutors on how to help their students. Actual research on what are the most effective strategies has been slow to follow. It can be looked at the different strategies students used in writing their essays and evaluated how effective these were. They found evidence of a mismatch between what students thought tutors were looking for and the actual tutors’ criteria in assessing essays.
It has been carried out an in depth interview study with a sample of 17 history students on how they went about their essay writing assignments. While the essay as argument was seen to be the most important conception, students were found to hold two other conceptions: the essay as viewpoint and the essay as arrangement. It could be that these results from a misunderstanding on the students’ part about what the staff see as important.
While there has been some research on the factors that affect tutor assessment there appears to be little in the recent literature as to whether the strategies advocated in study guides are effective or not. Two exceptions are specifically concerned with essay-writing in examinations. In this study an attempt was made to investigate some of the missing areas in the research on essay writing. It was specifically intended to focus closely on three main areas. What students do in preparing and writing their essays? What tutors look for in assessing essays? This was examined in an interview study. What objective measurements could be found to distinguish high scoring from low scoring essays? These were obtained from an analysis of essay scripts.
Finally, it was intended to see (through discussion) in what ways these measures were interrelated. To make the research as naturalistic as possible the questionnaires were distributed approximately two weeks after their essays had been submitted. The essay in question was a normal part of the students’ coursework and it counted towards their final mark at the end of the year. Because the questionnaire responses were to be linked later to the essay marks the students had to be asked for their names. However, great emphasis was placed upon complete confidentiality and this was assured by asking students to return their questionnaires in a sealed envelope.