Teach to the essay, not the test

I have been thinking about how to teach busy students. Here is how I teach to the essay, not the test, and why.

Teaching to the essay is a phrase I use to capture the following process:

1) Divide a course into units.

2) Begin each unit by posing a question the students will have to answer.

3) Tell (and remind) them that they will have to answer the question in a short paper at the end of the unit.

4) Pause the unit as necessary to spend class time going over concepts that will be crucial to the papers’ arguments.

5) Peer-edit the papers near or on the day they are due.

Why essays?

There is rising pressure to abandon written assessment. It can come from many sources.

I stick to essays first because I fear a world in which people can’t communicate their thoughts in logically arranged sentences. That seems like a world where visual communication predominates. It is therefore a world of emotion, and that is not good for working through complex problems. The propaganda potential is high.

What is the alternative to an essay? Presentation? Still sentences — and equally challenging to arrange. TikTok video? Ditto if done well, maybe. Diorama? Not communicative unless one explains, in sentences, the message a consumer is supposed to get. (Disclosure: I have used these tools instead of essays as long as they come with sentences.)

The second reason I like essays is because the chief alternative is a test. I abandoned tests before the pandemic because students were reporting lots of test anxiety. I wanted to accommodate that. Now I don’t like tests because they privilege memorization. Mental energy seems scarce. If it can be used on either memorization or thinking, it’s probably better to pick thinking, and that’s better done in a short paper.

The third reason I like essays is that they are integrative. They force the writer (if they want a good grade) to find and explain connections among course topics. They invite the writer to riff on the syllabus.

The fourth reason is that essay-writing teaches the importance of defining terms. (An essay is hard to write otherwise.) A world in which nothing is defined is a world in which anyone can claim anything as true.

Thinking and integration in a busy world

Steps 2-5 above differ from what I experienced in most of my college classes: “write 22-25 pages on a topic related to this course.”

Students who did well with that (not me) probably kept up with the reading and had developed relationships with their professors. Every teacher hopes for this, but it’s probably not fair (inclusive) to expect. People are too busy. Some find it intimidating.

Class time is the only time many people have for school. So I try to use class time to teach to the essay, not the test.

Revisiting 2016 ‘populism’ with 2024 in mind

I have a new post on 3streams. It responds to an influential graph on the basis of some findings I published (with Joshua Dyck) in 2022.

Long-time readers will be familiar with this project. For the post, I took a second look at the ‘social’ attitudes of people we might think would appear in the top-left of the above.

Legislative implications of current anti-party reforms

Following up on yesterday’s post, here is a brief statement of the legislative reason for the repeal of the single transferable vote in US history. I have no reason think it would not apply to instant runoff as well. Both are fundamentally STV, and both are being promoted as a way to break up parties.

I have written elsewhere that STV opened the possibility of ‘vote leakage.’ Leakage usually refers to votes cast for one party but that help a different one win seats, via the transfer process.

Connecting this phenomenon to STV repeal required tracking leakage between coalitions, not among parties. New York City illustrates the logic. There, votes were expected to leak among a series of anti-Tammany parties.

Apportionment diagram of New York City’s first STV-elected council, November 1937. Source: LSE USAPP, December 2016.

In other cases, local parties were formed to keep votes away from the rumps of parties displaced by the reforms. This was a direct response to problems organizing STV-elected legislatures.

Slate mailer from Worcester, Mass., early 1950s. Source: author’s archival research.

It didn’t work in the long run. Below is my go-to image for introducing people to the problem. It gives the percentage of roll-call votes in each legislative term on which some portion of said local party (Citizens’ Plan E Association or CEA in this case) teamed up with the opposition and thus defeated its own party’s position. This is known as a majority roll when we focus on the majority coalition, which the figure does. The link between the roll rate and STV repeal is clear. Chapter 7 here gives a detailed account of this and other such episodes, linking them to vote leakage as well.

Source: chapter 7 of More Parties or No Parties.

Here’s why this is an issue for advocates. Let’s say the point of current reforms is to bring Republican moderates into coalition with Democrats. That would be analogous to the reason for the CEA above. What the graph shows is the reform failing to bind that coalition. It shows the reform eventually doing the opposite of what it was supposed to do.

This is one reason why I recommended party-list systems and maybe ‘fusion voting’ instead of STV and its derivatives. (Others have been equity and ease of implementation.)