What are we marking for anyway? (2) Essays

(And we’re back. Being sick threw my blogging schedule out the window.)

What’s the point of marking essays?

So often in humanities we make essay-writing the examinable element of a course, and the more I both read up on this, and reflect on this, the more problematic it seems.

Student A comes into my course, and they’re an average writer, they score credits (65% ish) usually. The work hard, do pretty well on course content, write a final essay, and they get a Credit. Why? Because that’s their benchmark ability in essay-writing.

What does this actually tell us about their mastery of course content and syllabus outcomes? Nothing. It tells me they write Credit essays. Maybe they work a little harder, get a Distinction (75%ish). Maybe they have a bad semester, only manage a Pass. But I’m marking their essay, and so really I’m marking their essay-writing ability, not their (insert course X here) ability and learning.

Isn’t this problematic, unless your course actually is a Composition class on Essay writing?

By all means, I can mark their essays, I can give feedback and work hard to help them improve as essay-writers, and master this particular genre of academic discourse, and be better essay-writers for future humanities courses. But this doesn’t get away from the fact that I’m marking their ability to write essays, a general skill that isn’t going to move that much over a semester, not truly their engagement and mastery of whatever course I happen to be teaching. And, given that essays are usually “hand in, get some feedback and a mark, move on”, they are unlikely to review or workshop that essay in a way that improves it anyway. The moment of marking is too late for most students to become about editing and improving.

I don’t really have a solution to this, but I do know that something is broken.

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