In an age where most statements are kept within a neat 140 character limit, essay writing can appear excessive and useless. Bullet points and multiple choice answers, not essays, are what students think of when they hear the word ‘test’.
Yet, according to Soren Jordan, assistant professor of political science, essays are as much a measure of learning as tests are because they require the writer to teach the topic to a reader. This reinforces the writer’s knowledge by helping them to internalize the information in a way that is coherent and their own.
“It forces you to be much more logical and articulate in an argumentative style than a test might, where I’m just sort of throwing darts at a wall and just seeing [what you know],” Jordan said. “As you might imagine, tests literally are just sort of a knowledge check.”
Jordan assigns papers as a way to evaluate not only topic comprehension, but communication skills.
“Writing skills and communication skills more broadly are, without a doubt, the most important set of skills that an employer is looking for,” Jordan said.
Resumes and applications are the first impressions a job candidate makes on a potential employer, so they are significant, Jordan said. It is crucial to develop the ability to effectively communicate information.
According to Kelly Jolley, professor of philosophy, the purpose of essay writing changes depending on the situation. He said he uses essays primarily as an evaluation of students’ grasp of class material.
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In his upper-level classes, Jolley said he only assigns writing to test if students can give form to the material.
Rather than having students memorizing a collection of facts and claims, Jolley said he uses essays to challenge students to think about the relationships between variables and elements.
He said they are then required to assemble these pieces in a logical structure.
“You’re proving that you can, so to speak, wrap your mind around the material and bring it to a certain kind of intelligible shape or form,” Jolley said.
Jolley said he encourages students to view their education not as just receiving information, but as acquiring, comprehending and integrating a body of knowledge.
“If you understand that what you’re actually being required to do ... then writing an essay is going to look like a necessary feature of this because it is required to get you to perform the integration,” Jolley said.
Essay writing is the tool he said he uses to make students synthesize and understand the information.
“At the end on the day, what I want them to be able to do is make arguments — good arguments and be able to evaluate other people arguments as good or bad,” Jolley said.
Jolley translates this view across departments, especially biology. Experiments are, according to Jolley, taking facts or things and putting them into relationships with other things to test how they fit together. Experiments work similarly to essays, acting as formal devices to find the proper relationships between variables, he said.
Having information is important, Jolley said, but there has to be a purpose. Bare content cannot give the information significance.
There must be something more, he said.
“What you can bring to bear on the world are these sort of interconnected claims,” Jolley said. “Students and faculty sometimes forget this because it becomes a lot easier to picture education as a matter of something like factoid retrieval or factoid dispersal.”
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