Reverse Engineering Student Essays; or, Haven’t I seen you before?

As  another round of marking comes to an end, albeit at a new university, I am overwhelmed by a feeling of déjà vu. Even as I teach new modules in a new environment, there is something all too familiar about the nature of first-year essays. It is time, perhaps, for a bit of reverse engineering.


It has been my experience that essay assessments usually come in one of three forms:

  1. Students choose an essay title from a short list of topics
  2. Students choose an essay title from a comprehensive list of topics
  3. Students create their own title from their wider reading

The benefit of the first option is that students are, essentially, on a level playing field. Some questions are more difficult to effectively answer in 2000 words than others. By limiting the number of different questions a student can choose from, the assessor is increasing the likelihood that students will have a comparable assessment experience. The main problem is also clear. After 70 essays, they all look pretty much the same and helpful feedback becomes increasingly difficult to compose.

The opposite is true for the second–at least in theory. In reality, given a list of twenty topics, most students will huddle around the three most straightforward (or well covered). Assessors are then left with the feeling that they have been denied a more varied marking experience as well as an odd sense of confusion–the questions that students feel are the easiest are quite often the most difficult.

As for the third, students tend to fall back upon very basic questions, most of which use the terms ‘discuss’ or ‘assess’. Many, I have learned from feedback sessions, are emulating questions they encountered at A-Levels or Highers, when the material they were referencing was carefully curated and universally set. Thus, every year I receive a stack of essays with titles such as:

  • Discuss the importance of the French Revolution.
  • Discuss the causes of slavery.
  • Assess King James’s Reign.

Thus, students have assigned themselves questions that are impossible to fully address in 2000 words. They have set themselves up for a lower mark than their efforts might otherwise merit, simply because they do not fully understand what a history essay, as opposed to a history quiz, is meant to do.

What is interesting about all three of these scenarios is that the basic structure of these essays will usually be the same. It does not matter if the question is carefully crafted by a historian with thirty years research and teaching experience, or a first-year student with very little direction.

It will begin with an introduction, be followed by a number of  body paragraphs and end with a conclusion. So far, so good. It looks like an airplane. But does it fly? Sadly, more often than not, it merely limps along the runway, or, on occasion, glides majestically from a cliff, but without ever really achieving powered flight. So, let us look under the bonnet (hood, my American friends) and see what is really going on here.

Student Interpretations of Essay Constructions (Based upon a Reverse Engineering of Student Writing)


This is the section where I explain what my essay will be about. I will show the lecturer that I understand the question by rephrasing it or by providing definitions of the key terms from the Oxford Dictionary. I will demonstrate that I understand historical research methods by stating that I will look at evidence, analyse it and come to a conclusion at the end.  I will explain the complexity of the debate by including a quotation that directly answers the question and then explain that this is only their opinion and that others might exist. Optionally, I will provide a thesis statement by saying whether I believe this historian is correct or not, or by rephrasing the question and explaining what we should research next.

As you can see from the emphasised phrases, many of my students genuinely believe they are fully engaging with the assessment guidelines, but have in many ways misunderstood their purpose. The purpose of the thesis statement is particularly difficult for students to grasp because of confusion regarding the purpose of the conclusion.


In this section, I come to a conclusion about the question. I will bring all my points together in one place by restating the topic sentence from each section. I will then established the validity of my conclusion by stating my answer to the question, while acknowledging that other historians may disagree. Finally, I will acknowledge possible avenues for further research by bringing in details that I was not able to include in my essay but that I found interesting or somewhat related.

This conception of a conclusion, again, engages with the assessment criteria, but does not fulfill the role we as assessors ascribe to a conclusion. Indeed, it is in many ways providing the information we look for in an introduction, including a clear statement of their ‘answer’ or thesis. When told that their answer should go into their introduction, they often resist because they cannot conceive of a  purpose for the conclusion if the answer has already been stated in the introduction. This confusion is further aggravated when we state that their conclusion should not simply restate their introduction. If they answer the question, or conclude, at the start of the essay, why have a conclusion at all? Are we setting them an impossible task?

This, in large part, appears to be the result of a misguided piece of advice: You can gain an understanding of the topic through the writing process. As experienced wordsmiths, most historians understand that this refers to the drafting process.  As you progress from notes, to conference papers, to articles, to weighty tomes, your ideas solidify and your expression of them is refined. Each draft of the same work improves your communication of the subtleties that you many have always sensed, but had not been fully able to express. This is not, however, how students seem to interpret this idea.

Instead, students begin with a question, arm themselves with a large stack of ‘relevant’ notes from the secondary literature, and then try to work out the answer through the process of writing their essay. This is reflected in the body text. Although the results are much the same, there are two ways most bodies are composed: thematically, often structured around their reading, and chronologically, often structured around their lecture notes.

The Body (Thematic):

This is the section in which I explore different historical interpretations of my topic by providing summaries of the books and articles I have read. I provide a sub-argument to support my overall thesis by explaining one aspect of the period by quoting or paraphrasing the conclusion of a book or article I have read. I provide evidence of my arguments by citing other historians who agree with this historian. I consider counter-evidence by quoting a historian who disagrees with the first historian. Finally, I critically analyse the evidence by stating which I think is more believable.

The Body (Chronological):

This is the section in which I explore different historical interpretations, of my topic by talking about several different events that occurred during this period. I provide a sub-argument to support my overall thesis by focusing on a particular event that demonstrates my opinion is correct. I provide evidence of my arguments through a recitation of key events or statistics. I consider counter-evidence by listing those events that indicate my opinion is not correct. Finally, I critically analyse the evidence by stating which I think is more believable.

Both of these essay structures can easily be divided into separate paragraphs, either by event or by the standard triptych of ‘economic, social and political’. They also allow students to provide specific pieces of evidence that they can analyse. However, they are ultimately standard forms that derive their structure from the passage of time or an arbitrary division of historical themes rather than from the argument they are making. They are in effect modular and could be rearranged, or omitted, with no substantial harm to the flow or nature of the argument. Their purpose, in both cases, is to derive a tally of ‘rights’ and ‘wrongs’ that lead naturally, students would argue, to a summing up their argument in the conclusion.

All this has lead me to the conclusion that students do not need help reading for content or reading for argument, at least not as much help as we tend to offer. They are actually quite adept at pulling out details and summary statements. What they do not understand is what to do with that information once it is obtained, and what we are ‘assessing’ in their essays. We only have ourselves to blame.

My students (for whatever reasons) are often very blunt with me about their feedback. They complain endlessly that they feedback they received (from all their tutors) is useless because it focused on the details of their essay–that they failed to include a certain author or date–rather than how to write better essays. We may, at the end of the essay, note that it  lacked structure, but have offered no concrete way to rectify this in the future.

Next week, I will provide a lecturer interpretation of essay construction and I hope this will help us explain to our students the true meaning of these criteria and start to untangle the knot of conflicting advice we seem to be giving them.

Please do pass along your thoughts; the more data collected, the sounder our conclusions.

**Image courtesy of  jurvetson

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