How to make essays about learning not performance

Are essays about learning or performance?  About a year ago, I listened to a teacher at another school explaining how her students tended to believe the latter.  I knew without having to return to my school to conduct any focus groups, that my pupils would also think that way.  Since then, I have had conversations with several of my classes about this issue, hoping that I could get them to think differently.  I have not entirely succeeded but this is a hard one.  Essays by their very nature are the product of a lot of research, planning and thought (ideally, at least).  Their success hinges on choices made by their author: what reasons to discuss, what evidence to include, and what arguments to make.  How these arguments are justified is obviously crucial too.  All this makes an essay very personal and their author more likely to be sensitive to criticism made of it.

This sensitivity can make students less willing to take risks when writing essays, which hinders their intellectual development.  A bigger problem with seeing essays as performance pieces, though, is that students treat the comments made on them (or about them, if the feedback is verbal) as summative, rather than formative.  They might briefly take note of them but they will as quickly forget them.  How can we get students to engage more with the feedback we provide?

  • Require students to redraft work.  This has obvious benefits but it is not always practical.  Sometimes we need classes to move on more quickly than this will allow, particularly at GCSE and A Level.  I prefer pre-emptive versions of redrafting, such as compelling students to discuss a detailed essay plan with me before setting pen to paper and/or making them write and discuss one section of an essay with me before embarking on the rest of the task.
  • Unless students are preparing for public exams and need a clear idea of what level they are working at, avoid giving grades.  I have not found this to be transformative, sometimes students still don’t engage with the comments, even when required to write them out themselves, but it certainly helps.
  • Tell our pupils that we are not so much marking their essay as editing it.  They should think of what we write on (or say about) their work as pieces of advice, rather than a series of judgements.  The purpose of the advice being, of course, to broaden and deepen their thinking on the issue at hand.
  • Phrase our advice as questions, not comments.  Students tend to feel that if they have read a comment, it’s job done.  When confronted with a question, they understand that it is their job to respond to it – making the changes, corrections or additions it demands.
  • Set tasks not targets.  The latter can seem a bit nebulous – things to aspire to, at some vague point in the future.  The former are concrete.
  • Finally, make it a requirement that your pupils demonstrate that they have answered the questions you have asked.  Unless there is a fundamental problem with the original piece of work, students can simply provide these answers by making additional notes on the original piece of work.