What’s the point of writing essays? Engaging students in higher education

I surely remember some long nights spent writing papers for my Master’s as if it were yesterday. Okay, yes, it was only a couple of years ago – but still. ‘What’s the point in writing this anyway?’, I would ask myself, as I frantically browsed through endless lists of references. Following a brief search on the web, I realise many students struggle with writing essays. Rightfully, then, you may ask why papers are such a widespread method of assessing students at UK universities. Many essays and two degrees later – now teaching in higher education myself – I think I might have figured it out.

As brilliantly summed up by Graham Gibbs in one of his 53 Powerful Ideas All Teachers Should Know About (specifically, number 5), most of what we learn we also forget. As discomforting as this may sound, there is a reason behind forgetting, as well as ways to remember things more easily. You may be surprised, but writing essays can actually help you remember what you’ve learnt. Now let’s see why.

Why we forget

Sometimes, it may be that you can’t quite remember what a lecturer said because your mind wandered off right after they began speaking. I’m sure we’ve all been there. In that case, information never really made its way into the brain in the first place.

Other times, it may be that the information was only memorised rather than truly understood. Think of when you have tons of theories to remember for an exam. You may opt for what Gibbs calls a ‘surface approach’, and try to memorise as much information as you can – for example, by learning definitions by heart. Even if you successfully pass that one test, it is highly likely that you will forget everything you memorised shortly afterwards.

How to remember

Instead, the kind of learning which helps you remember things in the long run only occurs by taking a ‘deep approach’. This entails making sense and understanding information, by trying to relate ideas together and exercising critical thinking. Of course, this requires effort – more so than memorising. However, it is this type of thinking which ultimately leaves a mark in memory.

Having said this, what follows shouldn’t be surprising. A longitudinal study by the Open University found that a group of Cognitive Psychology students couldn’t remember much of their classes a few years after graduation. Not only that, but exam scores did not correlate with how much they remembered either. Rather, how well they scored in coursework was a much better predictor for long term recall of concepts.

Engaging students in higher education

All in all, universities shouldn’t be places where students are spoon-fed information to regurgitate during exams. Higher education – and education at any level, really – is about learning how to formulate your own point of view by acknowledging other people’s ideas. Coursework (and essay writing, as such) is hence a powerful tool for both teachers and students. Not only does it ensure critical engagement with course materials, but it also stimulates long term recall of information.