Why I’m advising that people stop assigning essays, and it’s not just because of AI

I’m closing in on 20 sessions I’ve done in the last year that were, in some way, related to the issue of generative AI. Actually, it’s probably more than 20. They have moved from ‘omg, there’s this thing that just came out’ to ‘yeah, we really do need to sit down and have a long chat about what we’re trying to get done in higher education’. And, sometimes, that conversation is a really positive one. A humane one. We’re going to follow that tone here.

I don’t hate essays

I cut my teeth in higher education classrooms teaching academic writing. I taught the sandwich model, I did practice five paragraph essays, process writing – all the classics. I loved the challenge of getting students exciting about the writing process, teaching them to support a position, and giving them the tools they’d need to conquer the big essays that they were going to face in the rest of their university careers. When students walked into my classroom on the first day, they were confronted with this picture on the projector screen.

My position was that I had never seen a student remain neutral about the question – “Is this art?” This was the first activity in the first class.

Note: Turns out, Duchamp may not have made this. Thanks to Prof Rebecca Furguson for pointing that one out.

We have to learn to write essays because we have to learn to write essays

In the last couple of years, however, my belief in the essay has been taking some hits. I started using it as an example of an assignment type that was tethered to the system. K12 system teachers would tell me that students needed to learn to write essays so they could write essays in university. Undergrads are told they need to learn to write essays so they can write them when they are in grad school etc… I mean, what percentage of the people who learn to write an essay ever reach the point where they, actually, need to write them for some useful purpose? I mean… I did. But I’m probably the only person I grew up with who ever wrote an essay because they wanted to.

It seems like a lot of training to develop a skill that very few people are ever going to use.

But essays teach all these other skills!

So here’s the part that’s been coming up since the GenAI conversation. I’ve been using this Chronicle article to discuss how students are using GenAI to help them write essays. The author, a student, worries that students are going to lose the ability to do critical thinking because the AI is going to be doing it for them. All the student needs to do to write an essay amounts to a little grunt work.

So what are the skills that essays are meant to teach, and, if they ever worked to teach those skills, do they still in this era? I grabbed a random list from a random website

  • Analytical Skills. (GenAI is going to cover that)
  • Critical Thinking. (And this one)
  • Creativity. (And this one – I’m not saying that GAI is creative, but rather that because the choices get made the student doesn’t need to be creative to write an essay. I still think students desperately need to develop their creativity)
  • Ability to Structure Knowledge. (I mean, maybe we’re still doing this?)
  • Keen Eye for Details. (Grammarly has this one covered)
  • Informed Opinions. (Does it?)
  • Information Search Skills. (See below)
  • General Verbal Intelligence. (GenAI, Grammarly)

A quick look at this list, at least, suggests that the tools we have available are going to do a fair amount of the work that we think the essay is doing. And this doesn’t even count the fact that for somewhere between $10 and $50 a page you can just hire someone to write your paper for you. John Warner has been talking about this for years, see this post and his book.

We need all those skills, or at least most of them, but I don’t think that the essay is doing that for us anymore. I want to teach creativity, I just don’t think the essay supports that like it used to.

Search is the key. It’s all about search.

But this has been the realization for me. Essays have not been doing the thing that I actually thought they were doing since we started having effective online search tools. I used to assign essays for the same reason I used to assign writing reflections for academic papers. I want students to engage with the material. I want them to learn how to identify valid and credible information and learn how to apply it to problems they are facing. I want them to engage in the history of knowledge. With other thinkers in the field that we’re studying.

Here’s the thing. I’m starting to think it really hasn’t been happening for 20 years.

In teaching the SIFT method to my students this term, we ended up in a bunch of conversation about how we go about finding information. I heard one student say ‘i found a quote to support my argument’ and it hit me. I ask them how they’d learned to search/research, and it went something like this. Have an argument, usually given by the instructor, do a search for a quote that supports that position, pop the paper into Zotero to get the citation right, pop it into the paper. No reading for context. No real idea what the paper was even about. Search on google/library website, control +F in the paper, pop it in the essay.

Compare this, if you will, to my undergraduate experience in the library. Go to the card catalogue, write down a bunch of possible articles/books on a piece of paper, go around the library and find said resources, settle in at a table to go through them. I had to read them. I’m not saying I wanted to, there was no other option. I had to engage with the material in order to find something that I could base my paper on.

That experience is gone.

The essay, i’m arguing here, no longer forces students to learn how to research. I’m not saying a few students don’t do it, i’m saying they don’t have to. As a graduate student in one of our Humanizing Digital Learning course said to the rest of the class “You’d have to give me a reason not to CTRL F, ’cause I don’t see it”.

Teach Search

And, because of this, I now teach search. I teach students how to write good search strings to get varied responses. We explore how different searches work over different systems. We talk about bias the researchers have, about how to find facts, but also how to find advice when you don’t know what you’re doing. We talk about the humility necessary to use Internet search to learn. If you don’t have the skills to evaluate something, you’re going to struggle to get wisdom you can use from the web, or from ChatGPT or wherever you going to find it.

I’m increasingly starting to think that we need to re-evaluate what the basic epistemic skills are that we think people need to make meaning with all this abundance and all the GenAI out there. I think everyone, in every field, might want to devote some serious class time to how we can find valid and credible information when it comes to facts, but, maybe more importantly, when it comes to things that aren’t about ‘right and wrong’.

Every one of these students is going to be a voter.

I don’t think that the essay is teaching these research skills anymore, and, if anything we need them more than ever.

Further reading

I’m never Assigning an Essay Again – John Warner

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