In the Department of Biological Sciences, instructors choked over the quality of essays they were reading in the exam, and introduced a solution – essays assignments! But importantly, reviewed scripts were returned to students to learn from.
I eventually took a step further after taking over LSM1103 in 2007 by removing three essay questions from the exam and distributing those into the semester. Students had 48-hours to pen the first two essay assignments which TAs scrutinised in great detail. We issued TAs a red pen with which to profusely mark up papers with corrections and suggestions.
The TA’s marked papers are scrutinised to ensure every TA is equally intense. You see, subtle suggestions are lost on the average student so we have to be overt with a flourish! And students always say (later) that they were grateful to their strict TAs. And the exercise is not punitive as the assessment weightage is a mere 2.5% per essay.
The bloodied scripts are returned to students during a practical and they are subjected to a general briefing by myself, and a one on one feedback session with their dedicated TA – that scene of TAs reviewing the essays with their individual students in great detail and care is an inspiring sight indeed!
But the stick is not completely abandoned – the third essay is a hefty 10% of their grade and is marked by a single person, to be fair. Each cohort contributed 250-350 essays per semester, and the joy of marking all that is mine in semester 1 and Ngan Kee’s in semester 2! While that takes care of standardisation, the process does still hurt a little and only relieved by the delight of obvious improvement in their writing.
In fact we found that the more severe we were with the first two essays, the greater the improvement in the final essay. Being demanding of the students helps them.
This exercise of three essays is introduced in Lecture 1 as a “Writing Workshop” embedded within the first year module, LSM1103 Biodiversity. It is critical to explain the reasons for the effort on our part, and the suffering we inflict on the cohort with the three 48-hours essays. They understand the need to hone their writing skills and do respond to the coaching.
In 2011, to great joy, the NUS Provost reflected about the writing abilities of our students and our need to respond to it in specific and integrated ways.
We are hoping the introduction of compulsory writing modules will mean relief for our intense efforts with these large classes. With some of the fundamentals addressed, we can review those and focus on scientific writing, synthesis, and the nuances of sources.
With that he’d start in first year, higher-level modules can press their students to acquire advanced skill sets.