Last time we asked why the essay has become a perennial favourite as a way of assessing students’ knowledge. Now that you know what the enemy is, the next thing to ask is what criteria you are being assessed on. This is where you go back to your module handbook and remind yourself of the learning outcomes for your course. Learning outcomes don’t make for exciting reading (believe me, they’re even more boring to write) but they are essential in showing what is expected from students taking a course. Lecturers keep them in mind when they are deciding what to teach, how to teach it, and how to assess what has been learned. If you want to impress your marker, show that you have taken this information on board.
For example, I’m teaching a course this year called The Science of Consciousness. Here are the learning outcomes for this module (stay awake at the back):
Subject-specific knowledge: Students passing this module should be able to explain the ways in which consciousness is studied scientifically, and describe models and empirical studies of consciousness in normal subjects and brain-damaged patients.
Subject-specific skills: Students passing this module should be able to locate, read and review a body of research evidence; adopt and critically evaluate different theoretical perspectives and see the relationships between them; and interpret and evaluate the significance of empirical work.
Now, these few lines of pedagogical mumbo-jumbo have just told you exactly what you have to do pass—nay, get an excellent mark on—this module. When we are marking the summative assignments (essays) for this course, my colleagues and I will be looking for evidence of the knowledge and skills described here. Your job in the essay, then, is to show this evidence.
This is not just about knowing how to please the people who are assessing you (although we like to be pleased, of course). An essay that demonstrates these kinds of knowledge and skills will be a good essay. It will be a scientific essay (explain the ways in which consciousness is studied scientifically) rather than an aimless ramble about things that have interested you. It will be based on scientific theory and findings (describe models and empirical studies of consciousness in normal subjects and brain-damaged patients) rather than just being about casual observations. It will show signs of diligent research (be able to locate, read and review a body of research evidence) as well as the ability to say whether the evidence described is any good or not (interpret and evaluate the significance of empirical work). And it will recognise that science is unfinished business—that there are different points of view which deserve fair hearings, and which will be supported by some existing, and some yet-to-be-discovered, facts (adopt and critically evaluate different theoretical perspectives and see the relationships between them).
Every course has its learning outcomes; they will not all be the same as these. (In other disciplines, they may look very different). But they are always there, and they are calling to you: Pay attention to me, and I will show you what you have to do.