Essays are so ingrained in student life that few of us stop to wonder just why it is that we write essays as a way of evaluating student knowledge. It isn’t the most obvious way of testing students. In ancient times down to the nineteenth century, for example, students were primarily judged on oral examinations in which they had to explain concepts in a speech and answer questions about them. But today, the essay is the gold standard for evaluating student learning. How did this come to be, and is it the right way to judge learning moving forward?
Let’s consider a little bit about the origins of the essay as an evaluation of learning.
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The Origins of the Essay
In ancient times through the nineteenth century, paper was expensive and hard to come by, so most education was done orally. Teachers asked questions and students answered them, often in front of their peers. Relatively few examples of written essays by students exist from this period. We know some students did do writing assignments, since there are a few examples. A Roman student’s homework writing out a complete set of Roman myths still exists, but this is far from what would identify as an essay today. Instead, it is in keeping with the older idea of education as rote memorization.
The modern essay has its roots in the work of the great essayists like Montaigne. Eventually, the idea of writing about a topic—typically called a theme—trickled down to the university and even high school education as schools sought to imitate the literary style of intellectual and social elites. By the twentieth century, the essay became a regular fixture in scholastic life, but was still primarily a way of judging what students had learned (rote learning) rather than demonstrating analytical power.
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The Triumph of the Essay
By the end of the twentieth century, the essay had grown from being a mere theme to primarily be research papers in which students needed to demonstrate their ability to use research sources to construct an argument in support of a thesis. This type of essay spread quickly from elite universities to other schools, including middle and high schools. The thinking ran that this type of assignment went beyond simple memorization and therefore allowed students to apply what they learned, thus cementing it in their minds. However, this type of essay was also significantly more difficult.
Soon enough, students were turning to friends, tutors, and even online essay writing services like WriteMyPaperHub.com in order to find professional help. Students would call a company any say “I want to pay someone to write my papers for me,” and an entire online industry arose to tell students like you that their writers would do your writing for you. As it turned out, analytical research papers weren’t easy and weren’t natural, and only a minority of students came to college with the skills necessary to complete these papers. Indeed, a majority of students are required to complete remedial academic writing courses simply for the purpose of producing more essays.
The Universal Essay
Three major factors have recently transformed the essay from a staple of college life to its most important aspect. The first is the push to make campuses more inclusive. Courses must accommodate students with a variety of learning styles, differing abilities, and challenges. When an instructor chooses an atypical assignment or project, the instructor must make options available for students who are not able to complete an assignment for accessibility reasons. As a result, assigning anything other than an essay can make enormous amounts of extra work for instructors. Instructors are incentivized to assign essays because they are generally recognized as accessible.’
The second factor in the triumph of the essay is the push for rubric grading. Many schools are fearful of student complaints about grading and so have instituted rubric-based grading. Essays are the easiest assignments to grade by rubric because they allow instructors to evaluate an assignment based on the content of the assignment, its style, its research, and its mechanics. This provides the illusion of fair, objective grading that can help insulate instructors from student complaints. Assigning mostly essays means that instructors don’t have to write new rubrics for each assignment as they would for creative projects.
The third factor is the current pandemic, which has moved so much college learning online. With the move to largely online courses—and the likelihood that at least some learning will continue online even when in-person lectures resume—the essay became the default and de facto way of measuring student learning. They are easy to submit online because the file size is typically small compared to, say, a video assignment. They are accessible to students no matter the technology they use, and they can be graded by rubric with minimal instructor effort.
Of course, the benefits of writing essays for instructors are also the reasons that students hate them. Too many essays can cause students to lose interest in learning, and no one wants to be on the short end of a deadline at midterms when a student might have three or four major essays all due on the same day. Some students might write twelve or fifteen major essays each term while taking a full course load.
Nevertheless, the essay has proved itself the most adaptable and resilient way to measure student learning and isn’t going away anytime soon.