Saturday, 29 September 2012

Vague Essays (in SD329)

I'm doing a level 3 (3rd year) science course with the Open University (SD329, if you're interested). As part of the assignments, this course includes some essays; not a big deal, I've done a course with 2-3 thousand word essays in it before. But this is the first one where the essay questions were rather vague.

There was a lot of talk on the course website/The Facebooks about this. Humanities students might be used to these sorts of essay questions, but it seemed to really phase some students when they did their assignments. I was a little put off at first, but then when talking to my tutor about what they were looking for, it became quite clear that, at least in OU science courses:
If you're given a vague essay question, it's for a good reason.
This is generally because either:
  • You've only covered so much material on that topic, and writing an essay about it all in the word count would be easy (even if you include some extra research) or, more likely,
  • They're deliberately giving you scope to waffle on about whatever you want, so long as you keep to the general topic.
Once I realised this, it became more easy to think of them as "open-ended" essays as opposed to vague ones; the people who set the assignment don't have some secret, hidden question they "really" want answered, they just want you to talk about anything on the topic.

This whole thing may seem obvious to you; but it's the sort of implied knowledge nobody has told me (and at least a few others on my course) about. Science students generally like to know exactly what's required when doing an assignment, so being given free reign over a topic can be a little uncomfortable/unnatural at first - but realizing that it's expected makes writing these sorts of essays much easier.

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