The Short Essay

Recently I gave my students their first test of the semester. Lots of e-mails were exchanged the day prior. “How do I study?” “What should I know?” “Is there anything I should specifically focus on?” Their nervousness was, I think, unfounded. However, I appreciate the e-mails because it demonstrates that they cared enough to prepare and inquire. While most of the test was multiple choice there was one section at the end that was a short essay. I like writing portions for a variety of reasons and today re-proved my use of them in a testing environment.

The class is not overly large (like some previous classes I’ve taught) but it sits comfortably near one hundred students. Discussion is simply difficult. Not everyone participates because not everyone can: there simply isn’t enough time during the period. What this means in the most practical sense is that many individual voices get lost or drowned out in the course of any period. The eager students certainly chime in but many great thoughts are lost to the impracticality of the class size and the necessity for the instuctor to also present content to the students. Enter the short essay.

My short essay question didn’t ask anything I taught them. It asked them to give me their original opinion based on things they had experienced in their own unique lives. At first glance it might seem ridiculous to award points for answering a question they can’t get wrong. However, these responses were filled with bright ideas and wonderful thoughts that never made it into the in-class discussion and will (due to the question being asked) make it into future lectures this semester. I just gauged the collective mind of the whole class and can now better serve them as an instructor. I can incorporate ideas and questions they have — as well as address their interests better. The large course is custom tailored by one short essay question.

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