Assessment Design: types of assessment task


What is it?

An essay is a piece of structured writing which is used to develop an argument or opinion in a logical way. Essays are probably the most commonly used form of academic assessment for both coursework and examinations. They are usually presented to students in the form of a one or two sentence brief; such briefs need to be carefully constructed to ensure that what is expected of the student is clear and so that it is possible to mark the essays objectively.

Recommended levels:

3 – 7

Suitable for groups?


Things to think about

Essays can be used to encourage students to focus on a topic in more depth than was possible in lectures, to construct an argument in the discipline, to synthesise the breadth of the material covered in the course in application to one problem, to form a hypothesis on using what was learned in the course or some combination of the above.

Essays are often set using a one or two sentence brief. Consider how open-ended you want this brief to be, particularly at lower levels. If you use the one sentence approach, you might qualify it with more detailed instructions, such as ‘which of the approaches is more likely to result in success’ or ‘evaluate the impact of this statement on recent development in the profession’ to make it clearer what you are looking for. At lower levels, you could provide more clues about what you are expecting by asking for a structured essay, with broad headings about what should be included.

Consider whether this must be a written piece, or whether you could consider a choice of written, audio, video, photographic, or drawn submissions. Alternatives may make this more accessible for students with mild to moderate specific learning disabilities and result in a richer range of submissions.

You also need to decide whether you want to offer students a choice of essay title, to allow them to focus on a topic or approach which suits their learning style. You need to be confident that the titles and submission types are comparable in difficulty and that you can mark them using the same criteria.

Assignment length

It is reasonable for students to expect assignments with the same name to have similar length, but there is considerable difference between disciplines – science subjects which set essays often expect more concise pieces than the equivalent in humanities. Custom and practice will be a powerful guide, so look around at what is done in other institutions as well as your own, but don’t be afraid to deconstruct tradition and set your own . Ask existing students how long they spend on the traditional length essays to give you some idea about workload. Generally, you can set longer essays at higher levels.

Group work

Essays are not suitable for group work, as they are intended to allow students to develop and present a personal perspective and opinion.

Plagiarism issues

The use of Turnitin is recommended strongly for this kind of assignment, as essays are so commonly used and in certain core disciplinary areas there is a limit to the number of original topics one can create. This is a powerful incentive for sites who sell essays. You can reduce the plagiarism potential by relating the essay title to topical issues, asking for essay plans at various stages in the term and discussing the content of the essay in seminars. See website for more ideas.


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