Enhancing student learning through the assessment of outcomes: developing and demonstrating essay writing skills

Coats, Maggie (2002). Enhancing student learning through the assessment of outcomes: developing and demonstrating essay writing skills. In: Association for the Study of Evaluation in Education in Southern Africa (ASEESA) International Conference, Jul 2002, Johannesburg, South Africa.


This paper documents current developments in the UK Open University (UK/OU) with reference to the requirement in the UK that all Higher Education institutions now have to describe their programmes in terms of learning outcomes. In response to this, the UK/OU set up a three-year Learning Outcomes and Their Assessment (LOTA) Project to explore and implement an outcomes-based approach to curriculum design and delivery throughout the university. The intended learning outcomes for all courses and all programmes of study have now been documented in course and programme specifications. Currently the challenge is to ensure that assessment strategies and assessment methods support the development of the stated outcomes and enable them to be appropriately assessed.

The LOTA Project has always seen assessment as part of the learning process through both formative and summative assignments. In many OU courses academic essays are used to assess students work, both throughout a course and in the final examination. The paper goes on to describe an action research project that set out to examine the extent to which assessment through essays encouraged students to both develop and demonstrate the outcomes claimed by each course.

The aim of the project was to explore the process of essay writing and essay marking. It involved pairs of tutors who exchanged and double-marked the essays of two of their students throughout the course and met at the end of the year to compare their experiences. The assessment materials provided by the course team were examined and the progress of the students analysed through their essays.

The evidence suggests that essay writing can be used to assess learning outcomes but that present practice shows these are not explicit and that many students fail to demonstrate them. With clearer guidance to tutors and to students, both cognitive and communication skills could be developed more effectively and assessed more rigorously. The findings contribute to on-going work to find better ways of enhancing students' learning through the articulation and assessment of outcomes. The paper concludes that moving towards an outcomes-based curriculum, with appropriate assessment strategies, can enhance student learning but the process needs to be more transparent and to explicitly encourage a meta-cognitive approach.

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