How to get better essays while reducing your work and plagiarism

Contact: Dr. Cillian Ryan
University of Birmingham
C.Ryan@bham.ac.uk
Published October 2001

Several years ago while working as an external tutor on a distance-learning Masters programme I had to deal frequently with students who had an excessive reliance on textbooks and other sources while writing essays. Some, but not all, of these students did not have English as a first language. We found that even if they could be persuaded to avoid outright plagiarism, many students invariably structured their essays slavishly using the same framework and argument-structure set out in the primary reading resource. The result was a set of essays which were boringly similar, and which demonstrated little evidence that the student had actually assimilated the material let alone had moved on to the higher levels of analysis. By contrast their final exam answers, despite being written in more trying conditions, demonstrated a much higher level of independent exposition, comprehension and analysis.

In addition to the central support provided to encourage students to produce better essays I wrote a short piece which I would send to my tutees with some suggestions. In particular, I encouraged them to have confidence in their ability to write without the crutch of textbooks open in front of them. I suggested they read the source material, make notes as they felt necessary, and reflect on the topic for a time in the light of their reading. Once that process was complete they should then, and only then, attempt to write the essay, placing all the original source material in another room, and relying only on the draft outline and notes they had previously compiled. Despite my entreaties I suspect most of these distance learners were reluctant to forgo the support of the textbooks.

The more I thought about this, the more I realised that this was the way I wanted all my students to write essays. I suspect my experience mirrors that of most lecturers in that the essays by my conventional students also tend to rely excessively on the textbook and there is often a suspicion about the extent of plagiarism both between students and from outside sources. Given this, the logical thing to do was to implement an essay writing structure which mirrored the model I set out for the distance-learning students, with the difference that I could enforce compliance with the final step.

As a consequence I abandoned the conventional home-written essay. Instead students were given an essay topic to research several weeks in advance and then on a set day they had to write the essay in a lecture room. Students were allowed to bring in with them one A4 page with an essay plan and notes and this page had to be submitted with the essay. The time allowed was 90 minutes for a full essay or 50 minutes for a short problem-based tutorial essay. I am usually flexible on the time allowed for the full essay but students rarely feel they need more time.

Assessment

The result was vastly better written essays which were clearly thought through, displaying a high level of comprehension and analysis, and vastly superior to the usual regurgitation we receive. The exercise had the additional benefits that the essays were substantially shorter than their home-written counterparts, were easier to mark, and were clearly the students' own work. An independent comparison of essays on identical topics written for conventional weekly tutorial groups in two succeeding years concluded that the essays written under this method appeared to be systematically better. While students were initially very wary and nervous about the process, subsequent feedback via focus groups and questionnaires suggested that a majority of students preferred this process. In particular they felt that they spent less time messing around trying to figure out where to start and that the process forced them to assimilate the material better and to reflect upon it in a more substantial fashion. The fact that the question was identified in advance and that they were allowed to bring in notes meant that the exercise did not have the same level of pressure associated with an unseen examination. The questionnaire scores for 'usefulness of assigned work' rose from an average of 3.4 to 3.8 (out of 5) with no discernible change in variance.

Applicability

This method can obviously be used across a wide range of assessments. Variations on the theme include revealing the essay title only when students arrive to write the essay, allowing student to choose their own essay title within the topic, giving students similar quantitative problems in advance, etc. We have used it for assignments for weekly microeconomics seminars where the teaching assistants said that supervising and correcting 16 assignments (two students per tutorial group) written in one hour in the preceding week took less time than correcting 16 home- written essays. I have also used it for 3rd year major mid-module essays counting towards the final assessment. Over the last year or so we have been attempting to restructure many of our home-based assessments into variants of this sort to improve the provenance of submitted work.

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