Is an essay really the best way to assess a student's knowledge?
Methods of examination are a continuous debate amongst student and academics; one only has to look at how much the education system has changed over the last decade to see this. Courses are constantly being tailored and adapted, though sometimes the reasoning for this is questionable. Changes can be good in ensuring that students can get the most out of their learning, seeming as they only have a restricted time span to do so. However, a lot of alterations are made to increase the difficulty of examinations, perhaps as a result of the rising number of students in this country.
The essay is one of the most common assessment methods, typically used in two ways; an essay written in a student's own time, or an essay that is written in exam conditions within a specific time limit. I have done my fair share of both types in my time at school and university, so much so that whilst writing this, I've already thought of how I would construct this debate in essay form. Be warned, this is what taking a Joint Honours degree in two essay-based subjects does to you (it's great, I promise). Anyway, let's start with the first of these types.
THE DO-IT-AT-HOME ESSAY
Personally, I really enjoy writing essays as they allow me to explore my thoughts and create a unique interpretation. Before university, I don't think I ever really understood the process behind an essay, which probably had something to do with my lack of planning (I apologise to my former English teachers, I just couldn't do it). Now, I spend more time gathering research and constructing my ideas than I do actually writing the main body of the essay. I love the intimacy with the text, and the depth of ideas that you can get from engaging with a piece (yes, I'm a nerd).
Yet, this doesn't stop me from recognising the classic faults. Normally if there is no time limit on an essay, there will be a word limit. Otherwise, it's just too easy. I spend an inordinate amount of time editing my essays, often going 800 words or so over my word limit in my first draft. It is almost impossible to be able to judge whether you have expanded your points enough whilst staying within the word count specified. I have found from my course at university that these amounts can vary from 500, 1000, 2500, and 3000. I know, 500 words is ridiculous - what are you even supposed to say? So, does the word count actually defeat the point? In order to judge this, you have to look at what an essay is supposed to prove, and in most cases examiners will look for clarity and coherence. A word count can be very useful for this, as it teaches you how to condense your ideas in a way that makes them presentable and easy to understand to others. However, it can be a cap on your creativity. I have had to remove ideas from my essays purely because I don't have room to explore them sufficiently enough for credit. Though, this again is a lesson in choosing which of your ideas are worth mentioning. If there were no word count, then you would end up with a 10 page list of your points, which I can guarantee the examiner will stop reading halfway through. So, my verdict is that this type of essay does have its uses. In my personal opinion, I think it is much more fulfilling when a student has to tackle this challenge single-handedly, such as at university or in the IB, as I know that other courses such as A levels offer far too much help and influence. If an essay is a way to prove your knowledge and creative flow, it is only an effective method of assessment when coming from the student alone.
THE TIMED ESSAY
Five out of six of my exams this summer are timed essays. This type of essay tends to be more undesired by students, as a whole subject is essentially condensed into a 2 hour paper. It can be a good way of testing your ability on the spot in terms of what you have learned throughout the year, as well as giving you a chance to show off if you have ventured beyond the textbooks (yes, there is always more information to find). Yet the pressure and immediacy of the situation can make it incredibly hard to think straight, and I can't count the amount of times I've got halfway through my exam and thought of a good point, only to have to randomly chuck it in somewhere (this is partly my fault for not planning - but often there's hardly enough time for that!). Also, a paper will only question you on a small part of your subject, meaning that you learned and revised everything else for nothing. Once again, this is a limit on your creativity, and the exam situation can cause problems in itself, such as anxiety and panic. Whilst I can see the benefits of using this type of essay to assess students, I don't think it is an accurate representation of their learning.
It is very hard to find a method of examination that is appropriate for everyone and that is efficient in testing knowledge. But, I propose the concept of oral exams. Some assessments, especially at university, are conducted through the use of presentations, yet public speaking is an issue for a lot of people. The oral exam I envision would be more like an interview situation, with a student alone in a room with the assessors, who would then engage in a conversation regarding the topics of learning. This then presents the student with an opportunity to cover a variety of content and prove their knowledge in a more relaxed atmosphere. Social skills can then simultaneously be developed, and students can adjust to this more realistic situation - I'm sure most people are more likely to discuss their knowledge in person in the future, rather than sit at a desk and spew out ideas on a piece of paper. Furthermore, it could combat problems such as poor handwriting and dyslexia that make examinations such as essays unfair to other students. Grammar, punctuation and other forms of presentation often overshadow the knowledge portrayed in an essay, but this is not an issue in spoken conversation.
Of course, no method is perfect, and not everyone would be content with being assessed in this way, especially those who do not like public speaking or suffer from anxiety. However, it would be impossible to find a method that would be ideal for everyone - the same method of assessment can even vary between courses or institutions, for example IB and A level students both submit essays for coursework, but IB students get minimal help compared to A level students.
All I am saying is that I believe institutions such as schools should give their students the chance to get the best out of their learning, whilst also preparing them for later life; oral exams could be the way to do this. It would present students with a fairer chance to showcase their knowledge, and reduce some of the unnecessary pressure that written exams create.
In terms of essays being an effective method of assessment, I am not sure I can come to a definite conclusion. From experience, writing essays has taught me how to look for details that do not appear on the surface, and more importantly, it has encouraged me to extend my boundaries and think outside the box. However, I disagree with the concept of essays within a restricted time limit - it is not fair to base a potentially life changing grade on a paper that shows a tiny portion of the student's potential knowledge.
Maybe if we loosen the reigns a little, we'll be surprised by what our students have learned.