Ruth Pilkington

  • Supporting lecturers to improve essay assessment

    Ruth Pilkington, University of Central Lancashire

    Research seminar

    Themes: implementing and managing change and innovation, faculty development methods and/or strategies

    Assessment is regarded as central to the learning process (Ramsden, 2003). Prompted by concerns about assessment voiced generally by QAA reports, one university faculty is focussing attention on assessment practice, and is supporting an initiative to explore progression of learning within assessment. After running focus groups with lecturers, the author has been working with small groups of staff on this issue under the title ‘Focus on Assessment’.

    One theme addressed by the initiative is the assessment of essays. Hounsell (1997) in Robson et al (HEA Paper, no date) identifies students as spending up to two thirds of their time writing essays. This is significant: essay writing can be seen as a fundamental element within the academic socialisation process, the culmination of which is the dissertation. It is therefore important not only to get essay writing right initially by supporting students when developing their skills of academic essay writing. It is also important that the progression process for essay writing facilitates the development of students’ competences in terms of the challenge of the task and skills, leading to effective dissertation writing - the pinnacle of undergraduate academic research.

    Biggs, (1999) suggests essay design should reflect the same progression over levels as is expected within learning outcomes. Using Haines’ (2004) accessible guide to assessing essays, the work of ‘Assessment Plus’ and Meyer and Land (2003) on core and troublesome elements of discipline knowledge linked to progression and levels, the author is supporting staff to enhance progression in the academic essay.

    Recent research suggests lecturers need to ensure students are supported effectively by understanding and achievement when being assessed (Rust et al, 2005), but lecturers can find it difficult to balance necessary wider discussion of the criteria and requirements of the task with subject content. Race, (no date) also emphasises the importance of feedback to students as part of the process of ensuring students understand how assessment links to their learning.

    Ramsden (2003), Biggs (1999) highlight the beneficial aspects of actively engaging students in their learning but this can only be achieved if students are supported to understand the reasons for assignments and the processes with respect to them (O’Donovan et al, 2000, 2004). The same is true for lecturers. Lecturers require support because often they prepare essay questions in a position of isolation that does not encourage consideration of how the written task fits within the learning experience, nor how the associated learning relates to level and progression within a programme.

    Within the context of supporting staff, workshops are frequently used, but they tend to be most valuable as a technique for raising awareness at a general level (Kelly: 41, King: 66 in Baume and Kahn, 2003). A mixture of approaches is potentially more valuable (Baillie, ibid) but situating the development activity within the discipline is acknowledged as most effective (Jenkins, 1997, and Knight, 2002:143, cited Sharpe in Baume et al, 2004; Pilkington, 2004). This paper reports on the impact of a situated and subject-focussed approach.

    Participants will be encouraged to explore and share views on issues relating to Meyer and Land’s (2003) work and the issues of essay setting and progression. Finally, colleagues will be invited to explore whether the model proposed by O’Donovan et al (2004) might help counter some of the issues raised, and to discuss how they support subjects, students and colleagues with assessment of essays in the light of this report.


    • Baillie C (2003) ‘Development in the Disciplines’ in Kahn P & Baume D (eds)(2003) A Guide to Staff & Educational Development Kogan Page
    • Biggs, John (1999) Teaching for Quality Learning at University OUP
    • Entwistle The Experience of Learning: implications for learning and teaching in HEEdinburgh Scottish Academic Press, cited in Robson J, Becky Francis and Barbara Read (no date) Learning to Write History The HE Academy resource base
    • Haines, Catherine (2004) Assessing Students’ Written Work Routledge Falmer
    • Hounsell D (1997) ‘Contrasting conceptions of essay writing’ in F Marton, D Hounsell and N
    • Kelly D (2003) ‘Planning and Running Events’ in Kahn P & Baume D (eds)(2003) A Guide to Staff & Educational Development Kogan Page
    • Meyer Erik and Ray Land (2003) Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge: Linkages to Ways of Thinking and Practising within the Disciplines, Occasional Report 4 May 2003 ETL (
    • O’Donovan B, Price M and Rust C (2000) ‘The student experience of criterion-referenced assessment’ in Innovations in Education and Teaching International 38,1 Taylor and Francis Ltd
    • O’Donovan B, Price M and Rust C (2004) ‘Know what I mean? Enhancing Students understanding of assessment standards and criteria’ in Teaching in HE Vol 9, No 3, July 2004
    • Pilkington, R (2004) Employability: Learning through Partnerships with Employers (Chapter 4 Changing the Culture for Academic Staff) SEDA Special 17
    • Race P (no date) Using feedback to help students learn, The HE Academy occasional paper
    • Ramsden, Paul (2003) Learning to Teach in HE 2 nd Edition Routledge Falmer
    • Rust C, O’Donovan B and Price M (2005) ‘A Social constructivist assessment process model: how the research literature shows us this could be best practice’ in Assessment and Evaluation in HE Vol 30, No 3 June 2005 pp231-240 Routledge
    • Sharpe R (2004) ‘How do professionals learn and develop? Implications for staff and educational developers’ in Baume D and Kahn P (eds)(2004) Enhancing Staff and Educational Development Routledge Falmer
    • Assessment Plus Website: accessed 18/02/05