Why Essays are the Pinnacle of Collegiate Assessment

One of the beauties of education is that it gradually becomes more customizable. Even at a liberal arts school like Kenyon, where students take classes in various disciplines, we usually narrow down our courses to those in our major area(s) by junior year. For me, this is thrilling. I came to Kenyon to take advantage of the English department, and now that I’ve completed my diversification requirements, I’m taking English and Art History courses from here on out.

 

One of the changes that comes with this shift is in assessment. Gone are the days of cumulative exams on the last day of class, the continuous study guides, and the rote memorization. The Humanities department prefers to assess students’ understanding of the material in a way that also allows us to demonstrate our communication abilities: essays.

 

Let the record state that I don’t hate tests. To a certain degree, it feels great to sit down spill out everything you’ve had to memorize onto a Scantron. Usually, after taking a test over the last 14 years of my education, I feel relieved (with a little bit of dread). What I don’t love, though, is preparing for tests.

I like to start with the big picture when an assessment is coming up. That’s why it feels so much better to me to grab a huge piece of paper from the library and create an outline for a paper than it does to streamline all of my studying down to one moment. After I have an outline, I can fill in details and identify examples from my research. With tests, though, you’ve got to have everything on the exam ready in your mind—and the human brain can only hold so much at a time!

 

With papers, too, you can be in control of the way you present information. This leaves room for a writer’s creative side to come out, even within the confines of an academic paper. Although English majors usually write to a prompt, it’s often broad enough to allow some creativity in how we illustrate concepts. Never once have I taken a comprehension test in an English class at Kenyon, and it feels good to know that my professors and their department trust me to know the material and to infuse some of my original thoughts and interpretations.

 

The process of writing an essay is, in my opinion, 1,000% less anxiety-inducing than that of studying for a test. You as a writer are totally in control of your timeline, so you can tackle different sections in manageable pieces. With exams, I often end up so overwhelmed by the material that I know some parts quite well, but I’m left to guess at others. Kenyon offers so many great resources for writing, too, so places like your professor’s office hours or the Writing Center can support you through each step of the process.

Maybe this is just the research enthusiast in me talking, but I can’t imagine any assessment better than an essay prompt, JSTOR, and a stack of notes. In a way, it seems like leaving tests in the past is like the driver’s license of a Humanities major: we’ve earned the department’s trust, and we’re free to do what we do best with the material.

Image credit: Feature, 1, 2