Essays remain a powerful learning tool, if they are handled carefully.
A lot has changed about education in the last hundred years or so. The rise of modern psychology gave birth to the whole field of instructional design as educators the world over searched for ways to apply our new understanding of human memory to the learning process. We now understand why cramming is ineffective, why information retention requires active processing, and why rich learning resources that include multimedia sources and social dynamics create a more lasting impression than plain text or lectures.
However, among all these new educational techniques, the essay remains one of the most consistent learning assignments—and for good reason. There are few learning assignments that require more active learning, demonstrate a learner’s knowledge, and lead to long-term mastery of subject matter than the essay. And, like presentations, the ability to formulate a clear report is a transferrable skill in its own right.
When it comes to online learning, essays are perhaps the easiest assignment to transfer from traditional teaching to the new digital format. In fact, the absence of a hard copy makes it easier for educators to check submitted content for plagiarism. But setting the assignment is not the same as ensuring learners benefit from it. Here are a few tips to help your learners get the most out of writing essays.
1. Remember that learners need to learn the process as well as the material.
For the most part, essay writing follows a predictable structure: there’s an introduction, several supporting paragraphs, and a conclusion. It’s a simple formula, but it would be wrong to assume every student knows or remembers how this works. Even when they do know the formula in theory, developing the skills necessary to write a good essay takes time and practice.
Think of the essay as not only an assignment to help learners master the subject matter, but as practice in learning how to gather, process, and communicate information clearly.
2. Treat the essay premise and outline as preliminary assignments.
Learners can quickly go wrong in writing an essay if they don’t make careful choices at the start of the project. There is nothing more frustrating than a vague request to “write a 3-page report on X subject.” Instead, help your learners think of subjects in terms of questions that need answering.
On that note, questions that are more open-ended tend to be more challenging, because they require more critical thinking. These may include phrases such as “to what extent…,” “what factors contributed to…” or “why?” Fact-based questions (especially “who,” “what,” and “when”) are more about memorization, and would be better suited for quiz material.
A good way to help a learner know if their premise is meaty enough to support a full essay is to ask them to submit an outline before they begin writing. As a student, I used to argue against this practice, but that had more to do with my tendency to procrastinate. Submitting an essay outline forces learners to do enough research in advance to recognize the work required to get the full assignment written. It can also give you a chance to review the material they plan to cover and spot any potential holes early on.
3. Consider assigning different types of essays.
Despite having a clear structure, essays do have different forms and purposes. They can be critical or persuasive, descriptive or explanatory, they can compare and contrast or they can examine cause and effect. Changing the style of the essay not only makes it more interesting for the learner, but also helps them build skills related to each style. It also tends to be more interesting for the instructor, as it leads to more compelling essays.
4. Offer guidelines for conducting research and finding credible sources.
One of the hardest skills for learners to gain lies in finding reliable sources for their essays. Being able to discern trustworthy sources of information from inadequately sourced, overly biased, or intentionally misleading documents is a critical life skill, however, and it becomes even more important the further a learner strays from commonly held information.
An online course makes these guidelines even more necessary, as most of your learners will be gathering information from online source by necessity, if not by design. it’s one thing to teach learners how to find information on the Internet. Teaching learners how to follow information back to a source—and then how to assess the origin as reliable or not—will help them well after they’re done with your course.
5. Use automation as much as possible to aid learners and lighten the workload.
Our final tip is more of an administrative one. Like any assignment, automating reminders will go a long way toward easing your burden as a teacher. But with essays, you can take this a step further. You can automate assignment reminders themselves, like when the essay premise is due, but you can also automate check-ins with learners who haven’t hit certain milestones on their assignment. If a learner doesn’t sign in during the week that they’re supposed to turn in an outline, then you could send them an email with a link to schedule a digital meeting during your “office hours.”
You can also email study and research tips to help guide them through the assignment. This might include tips for choosing an essay premise, reminders about writing good introduction and conclusion paragraphs, or research advice that goes beyond “Wikipedia is not an acceptable source.” In doing so, you offer your learners support while also making it clear how to contact you for help.
Essays are labor-intensive for both learners and instructors. That’s part of what makes them so effective.
I will admit to being biased in favor of essays. I’m a writer. I can’t help it. I also find it difficult to ignore my personal experience of writing essays. I have taken many classes where the only information I can definitely recall came from the term paper I wrote.
This has nothing to do with “learning styles,” which are a myth anyway. It has everything to do with the high level of engagement required of a learner to complete the assignment. Writing challenges learners to find important information, understand that information, and then reformulate it in a way that makes sense to others. That’s the whole learning process, right there.
You don’t need to be a writing teacher to assign an essay. And your students don’t need to have perfect grammar to write them. What they do need are the skills to think critically and creatively about the subject matter you are teaching, and an essay is one of the best tools you could give them to do so.