Student Learning and the Role of Essays

Retired Prof John Haslett (TCD) volunteers with Student Learning & Development at Trinity. He shares here some thoughts around essays and learning from his perspective as a learning developer.

Writing to develop academic skills?

The recent explosion of interest in ChatGPT and similar Artificial Intelligence engines (‘AI’) has prompted wide discussion in Trinity and beyond on the role of writing in the development of academic skills. At Trinity, as elsewhere, guidance has been forthcoming advocating for colleagues to update practice and policy relating to assessment. In a personal capacity, I outline here some thoughts that spring from working with perhaps 100-150 students per year in one-on-one (virtual) settings in Student Learning Development (SLD), where I have been a volunteer in retirement and where writing emerges as the central issue in about 50% of my consultations with students.

Irrespective of AI, my experience in SLD is that, for many students, it is not always clear why we value writing. Working with students in multiple disciplines at all levels from first-year undergraduate to PhD has forced me to re-articulate my own understanding of why writing matters. In fact, I begin to wonder if the arrival of generative AI is leading us all to ask ourselves what are in any case two central questions: Why are we asking students to write? And can we be sure that they share the same understanding as we do about this?

 Where I come from on this:

I am a retired TCD Professor of Statistics. Statisticians are particularly well-placed to collaborate with colleagues from different disciplines and to teach students in many more. I have of course written many papers; but, like the overwhelming majority of the college community, I am self-taught in ‘how to write for academic audiences’. And, importantly for this discussion, I have not attempted to teach – in any formal sense – the methodology of essay writing.

The essay form is not part of traditional assessment practices in my discipline. In a sense, I bring fresh – though some may think naïve – eyes to the discussion of writing. Sometimes, for example,  I can attempt to articulate, more clearly than the student, the intention of their instructor in setting this essay, drawing on my experience and insight into the challenges of ‘setting’ assignments.

And yet: the writing of a critical academic essay requires many skills. The most challenging, to my eyes, is being able to unpick the question and identify relevant points for discussion. Refining this original question ideally leads to iterative revision. Underneath this refining and iteration lie editorial skills such as: the professional use of structuring by the skilful use of sections, paragraphs and sentences; of vocabulary, spelling and grammar; synthesis of evidence, sometimes even involving statistical analysis; of argumentation itself; and also of citation. In effect writing is a process – our assessments often look at the end product, but we want students to engage in the process of writing as learning – in the same way as working through equations and calculations is engaging in the process of learning in other disciplines, perhaps closer to statistics.

Developments in IT have changed teaching and writing practices; and we have always encouraged students to use them. Now mature developments such as ‘translation engines’, and new arrivals such as ChatGPT, certainly seem likely to assist with the synopsis of (some forms of) the literature, and seem well placed to help with structuring a document, including perhaps even with the first draft of some types of essay. I suggest here that the biggest challenge we face is in supporting scholars of natural intelligence to develop their own capacity to write in all these areas alongside the development of artificial intelligence writing machines.

How can student writing help students to grow academically?

Space allows me to cite but one specific example. A mature student, in her first essay – on Romanisation – in the first year of her History degree had earned a mark that disappointed her. The feedback, although generally positive about her facility to tell a story, focussed mostly on citation details. It generated a question that most of her young colleagues would not be able to articulate: “I think I’m expected to grow academically. But how I can use this to grow?” She had not seen, and it fell to an amateur (me) to surmise, that the exercise had probably been intended to encourage her to develop critical argumentative skills, by engaging with some part of the published literature in the historiography of Romanisation.

This was most probably stated somewhere, at least implicitly, perhaps in the student handbook. And it has to be said that the School of History spells out, by comparison with many others I have met, a most extensive and explicit list of skills that students are expected to acquire. But the only part of citation in such handbooks that most students always remember is the puzzling mystery of plagiarism, clearly seen by very many of them as the central issue in academic writing. The rest has been filed and forgotten by most students; and indeed also by many of the professors, as is not unknown to anyone who has spent a career in academe.

Conclusion & Next Steps

The origins of this blog post lie in the experience of working with students who realise and acknowledge that help  – from outside of their discipline – can help them to grow academically. It has been given focus and urgency by the awareness – sudden to some of us – that AI ‘engines’ can and certainly will soon be capable of doing much more to help, and not just in grammar and citation. How can we, in this new environment, adapt our support students in the process of writing as supporting learning? The alternative, as we know, will be using of AI to take of shortcuts with help, at the cost of missing some of the important steps on the way through? More specifically, can we ourselves articulate these steps?

And for the record – I fully acknowledge the assistance of MS Office – specifically Outlook, Word and Teams –  and of some non-synthetically intelligent readers of earlier drafts in putting this text together….

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