Differences between Writing in Second-and Third-level Education

Part 2: The Learning Being Assessed

Comments from students transitioning from second- to third-level writing assignments usually focus on their emotional response to the grades and feedback they get on their first written assignments, usually one of shock or disbelief—“What did I do wrong?” would be the question that might emerge in response.

Early career third-level students often rely on strategies that they learned in secondary education, and many of these strategies will stand them well when writing for the Junior or Leaving Cycle exams. For instance, students report that a strategy they get from their secondary education teachers is ‘point, quote, explain’ (PQE). That is a very useful strategy in higher education as well. Naturally, students who plop a quote into the paper without forecasting it or without explaining its significance—how it demonstrates a point or supports the writer’s assertions—are not going to do as well in third-level assessment as those who give the quote some context in terms of the points that are being made and the argument those points support. Other strategies such as the five-paragraph essay or the use of lots of adjectives to impress the reader with their descriptive abilities, to name just a few, may work in a leaving certification exam, but are not conducive to good grades in third-level performance. And students that rely on these strategies in third-level education are often left bewildered by the response from assessors. If these strategies are not working, what strategies will work here in this new context for writing?

What changes in Third Level

It is difficult to blame a student transitioning from second- to third-level education for relying on what worked in secondary school. After all, the goal of both educational institutions is to assess student learning and assign grades based on performance, so what is the difference? Here, in part two of a four-part series on what to expect when writing in third level, I am going to talk about the learning that is being assessed and how that is different than in second level education. In three other parts of this series, I will also speak about differences between second and third level in terms of the responsibility students have for their own learning, the contextualised nature of academic discourse at third level, and the attitude assumed in third-level scholarly discourse.

What you know versus how you know

One major difference between the writing done in preparation for leaving cycle written exams and for third-level assessment is around the type of learning being measured: What you know versus how you know and how you think. Students are no longer simply showing that they recalled all of the important information that is in the assigned readings and the lectures, but they are engaging with the materials as scholars, synthesising information and taking a critical stance on the opinions or findings from experts in the field. Synthesising information means that the positions taken by various scholars are scrutinised by students and broken down, categorically, in order to identify points on which they agree or disagree. Instead of organising the discussion around what each scholar believes, the discussion is organised around those categorical points in a comparison/contrast structure. Being critical means being sceptical, not taking others’ opinions or conclusions at face value, but always questioning the veracity of claims. Successful third-level student writers perform an assessment of the methods by which information is gathered and analysed and on the evidence put forth by scholars before accepting the validity or soundness of those findings or the conclusions reliant upon that evidence.

What is being assessed?

Assessed is the scholarly manner by which a student argues a case: defining terms, explaining concepts, applying knowledge, synthesising information, and evaluating it for its veracity. Successful researchers and writers at third level are being measured for how they defended their stance on a debatable point or how they went about understanding something that the field is currently struggling to understand. Are they using sound methods for gathering information, and will that information help them to answer their question or solve their problem or defend their position or affirm or negate their hypotheses? Students at third level are also evaluated on their ability to distinguish between the conclusions that can be supported by their findings and current knowledge and the conclusions not supported by evidence or sound reasoning. Choosing to challenge accepted wisdom is welcomed in third level as long as the student concedes if the challenge is not successful. Being wrong is rewarded if the effort was pursued through sound methods and the findings were interpreted through a cold, unbiased eye. You might compare it to a negative proof in mathematics. It is not about being right or wrong but about understanding the nature of things, our physical world and realities. That is the job of a third-level scholar.

Lawrence Cleary
Director, Regional Writing Centre
University of Limerick