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Blog 201

Blog 201

Breaking Apart the Research Essay: Scaffolding for Skill Development in the Humanities

By Robin Sutherland-Harris

In this blog post, I share my process in revising and updating traditional assessment practices in a second-year history course, along with relevant course materials available for adaptation and re-use.

Have you ever found yourself sitting in the middle of a pile of grading, thinking to yourself, “Surely this can’t be the whole story about what they’ve learned?” As an undergrad, grad student, and early career scholar, I accepted as a given that the research essay was the most effective and meaningful way to showcase both learning and disciplinary skills in the humanities. Sure, exams, book/article reviews, and critical responses had their uses, but they all gave pride of place to the research essay, which, as I advanced in my studies, was increasingly the dominant form of assessment. As an instructor, I supported students by scaffolding their essays, requiring draft outlines and thesis statements, annotated bibliographies and peer feedback. But after all this, there I sat next to a stack of research essays, many frustratingly flawed, asking myself, “What exactly am I measuring here?”

So, what did my research essays really evaluate students on? After some reflection, I decided that to write an A-level essay, students not only had to master core course content and engage deeply and critically with multiple types of sources, but also were expected to effectively use evidence in service of a well-structured argument, and to write and cite in accordance with specific disciplinary norms at the level of sentence, paragraph, and essay. Sounded fine, in theory – but could I really get a clear picture of all those separate aspects of student learning from one essay? And was I doing enough to teach students how to master all these components? No, and no, I thought, and set about changing my practice. Here is what I came up with instead.

I focused my assessments on building writing, critical analysis, and argumentation skills towards the research essay. I also wanted to use my assignments to find out more about students’ ability to read and analyse source material, about their ability to use evidence to construct historical arguments, and their ability to master the discipline-specific genre conventions of the historical essay.

I designed the course, a second-year survey of the high and late Middle Ages, to have three broad content-related themes that recurred throughout lectures, tutorials, and assessments: law and justice; travel; and music. I created four highly structured term assignments using worksheets, each offering some options for student choice between these themes. I could not give students a take-home final exam, so instead I made the 3-hour invigilated final a single research essay question, drawing on their work throughout the semester.

Below, I’ve provided a brief outline of each assessment as well as links to the assessment documents themselves. All the documents provided here are from a 2018 iteration of the course, and all are under a Creative Commons License. Please feel free to adapt and reuse in your own teaching, with attribution.

Assignment 1: Primary Source Analysis

  • Skills:
    • Reading and understanding primary sources of the Middle Ages in their context
    • Practice writing & citing at sentence/paragraph level
  • Documents
    • Primary Source Analysis Assignment Sheet

Assignment 2: Secondary Source Analysis

  • Skills:
    • Reading and understanding scholarly secondary sources
    • Identifying and evaluating thesis statements, evidence use, and argumentation
    • More practice writing and citing at sentence/paragraph level
  • Documents
    • Secondary Source Analysis Assignment Sheet
    • Secondary Source Analysis Worksheet

Assignment 3: Material Artefact Analysis

  • Skills:
    • “Reading” and understanding material artefacts as historical sources
    • Identifying and framing plausible and effective research questions
    • Writing complete, well-crafted paragraphs
    • More practice with citations
  • Documents:
    • Material Artefact Analysis Assignment Sheet
    • Material Artefact Analysis Worksheet

Assignment 4: Digital Resource Analysis

  • Skills:
    • Assessing the quality and scholarliness of digital history resources
    • Using digital history resources with specific research goals in mind
    • Relating digital resources to other types of historical resources
    • Selecting and responding to a research question
    • Drafting thesis statements and crafting introductory paragraphs
  • Documents:
    • Material Artefact Analysis Assignment Sheet
    • Material Artefact Analysis Worksheet

Final Exam:

  • Skills:
    • Creating appropriate and meaningful research question
    • Crafting effective thesis statement
    • Selecting and using multiple types of historical evidence effectively to support well-crafted, analytical argument
    • Knowing when & where to cite appropriately
  • Documents:
    • Final exam

In the end, I have found that by breaking apart the skills of the research essay into separately assessed assignments, I am able to get a much clearer sense of student abilities and learning. In particular, I have been heartened to see that students’ ability to understand and analyse source materials was greater than I had previously been able to discern from the research essay alone. The essays written for the final exam tend to show that students are more able to pull sources into meaningful conversation with one another, having worked on those skills over the course of the semester. I have also had students tell me that the structured approaches to source analysis I provide in the worksheets also prove useful for them in other courses as well, even in very different disciplinary contexts. And last (though certainly not least!), I have had only one relatively minor academic integrity issue when using this approach, which is adaptable from year to year by changing the course’s broad themes and the various sources provided to students.

About the Author

Robin Sutherland-Harris is a white woman of settler descent, who grew up in Treaty 7 territory in Southern Alberta, traditional lands of the Blackfoot Confederacy, the Tsúūt’ínà First Nation, and the Stoney Nakoda. She currently lives and works in the area known as Tkaronto, which has been care-taken by the Anishinabek Nation, the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, and the Huron-Wendat. As an Educational Developer at the Teaching Commons, her work bridges pedagogies of access, equity, diversity, and inclusion with support for teaching and learning in blended and eLearning environments. A historian by training, she also serves at the liaison developer for the Humanities departments in LA&PS.