Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Essay submission day

I usually get a chorus of cheers at the start of the first semester from my Grade 12 biology students when I announce that there will be just one major homework assignment for the whole semester. Strangely these cheers soon change to groans when I tell them that the assignment is a 1500 word fully cited and referenced academic essay!

The rationale

I am aware that there is a continuing debate going on around whether teachers should be setting homework at all, and a few of the opposing viewpoints are summarised nicely here. Some research suggests that whilst homework may not have much effect on achievement for younger students, for high school students it can have beneficial effects on achievement. I will return to homework in a future blog post - for now I will focus on these essays & why I assign them. The rationale for this activity is that my students will shortly be going to university, and many of them will need to use academic writing skills, whatever degree subject they choose to pursue. They will also need to carry out independent research and find relevant articles and background information for themselves. Thus this essay task gives them an opportunity to gain some experience in these areas. This is not an easy task for my students since they are Thai and therefore learning (and writing) in their second language. 

The work

Before setting the essay itself, I assign three very short pre-essay tasks to give my students the opportunity to practice three important skills: paraphrasing, summarising, and the correct use of in-text citations. These tasks are awarded a simple completion grade; the main purpose is to get learners familiar with these skills. 

For the essay itself, there are some important points to note. Firstly, although it is first and foremost a biology essay, students have complete freedom to choose any topic with a biological focus. Many students choose to do a 'pure' biology essay. Other students, who may be less interested in biology, are able to choose a different approach, for example bioengineering or biochemistry. Another popular choice is to take a psychology-oriented approach, for example I have previously received essays about the psychology of sleep, and one about how the teenage brain affects teen behaviours. I think it is important for students to have this level of choice since this is a major piece of work which they will need to spend some time with - hopefully if they choose to write about something they are already interested in it will increase their engagement with the task. From my point of view it also makes the task of grading the essays far more enjoyable by having a set of completely different essays, rather than the same topic appearing repeatedly. 

The second point to note is that I give my students a time frame of three months to write the essay. They are free to submit their essay at any point during these three months, although they are informed that it will not be graded until everyone has submitted their work. This is an attempt by me to minimise deadline bottlenecks for my students at the end of the semester. Of course, being teenagers, I generally get fewer than ten percent of the essays submitted earlier than the deadline!

Thirdly, I make it very clear to students that plagiarism will not be tolerated. Very occasionally I have had to return work to students ungraded, and ask them to re-submit an essay that has not been extensively copied and pasted. I even had a student submit work that came from a website that claimed it wasn't a cheat site, but a collaborative one, when it clearly was simply in the business of selling complete essays. Fortunately these cases are rare, and the vast majority of students do a good job and are careful to fully cite and reference their work. 

Some examples

Each year I look forward to seeing the diversity of topics chosen by my students. The range of diversity can be seen in some of this year's list of essay titles, which, in no particular order, are: 

  • Life in the underwater world
  • Why do we die?
  • Bird migration
  • Infectious disease
  • Stem cells
  • The fatal Ebola
  • Viruses
  • Biodegradable plastics
  • The digestive system
  • Biological weapons
  • DNA profiling
  • Cancer treatment
  • The meaning of animal behaviour
  • Plant diversity and evolution
  • The classification and evolution of dinosaurs
  • Coronary surgery
  • How does Golden Rice help vitamin A deficiency?


As already mentioned, my students are Thai and therefore a task such as this is particularly challenging for them. However, it is clear from the generally high standard of essays that I receive from my students that they put a lot of time and effort into these essays, and I am frequently pleasantly surprised at the insights and thoughtfulness displayed in some of their work. Although there is some (generally!) good-natured grumbling about the task, I think in the end my students can see the benefits of doing this work.