With just two weeks left of the semester, students from all schools are facing the daunting task of completing their final pieces of coursework or exam preparation. However, many students on humanities courses may only just be starting their first summative assessment for a module.
There are an increasing number of modules that are now only being marked by one single piece of coursework at the end of the term. Before all exam crammers throw their hands up in disbelief, this isn’t necessarily a blessing to all humanities students. There are many aspects of this method that may have adverse effects on the higher education of these students.
Coursework-only modules have become increasingly popular for humanities-based courses across the UK, meaning less of a focus on memorising information and more of a focus on analysing concepts and applying theories. This is a beneficial method for these courses, but when participation in a module is marked on only one assessment, there could be a negative impact for students of all years.
Should students’ knowledge of 12 weeks of content be assessed by an essay or report pertaining to a single topic covered in just one or two weeks of lectures? The stress of such a major piece of work alongside other modules’ coursework in the same time frame can be too much for some students. Second-year history student Joe Rutter considers this as “too much pressure to put on students who haven’t had any graded practice with the taught content, especially when the lack of assignments has probably left everyone too unmotivated to put much thought into the module”.
This idea of self-motivation that is a further consequence of being given a simple choice of essay prompts that would only require a few weeks of participation. Of course, it is an expectation to have enough interest in one’s subject to feel obligated to study independently, but are module organisers leaving too much to the students’ own will.
Especially for first years, motivating youself to do work is a slow-moving development, so attendance in lectures and seminars for 100% coursework modules is expected to be lower. Second-year society, culture, and media student Joanne Sursas recalls her first-year experience, saying “There [were] only about three to four people that would turn up to my seminars. This made discussions forced and lacking in variety of viewpoints, so I felt I didn’t get a lot out of these sessions”. Therefore, it seems that this absence of an incentive to work hard has ultimately led to a loss in enthusiasm in those particular subjects.
Even if a student is attending all lectures and seminars, the process of getting feedback on graded work is still regarded as one of the most effective ways of improving at university. All of the 100% coursework modules will include chances to turn in formative work to receive feedback, but this may not be enough. Some seminar leaders will not always focus on every single aspect of a formative piece of work as they would with a summative. For first years, simple skills such as citing and formatting may be left too late if not addressed in these formative feedback sessions. As first-year media studies student Emily Jacks explains: “It has been challenging to get the hang of the university writing style and I feel I need lots of opportunities to learn from mistakes on assignments. If I was being marked by one piece of coursework, I think there would be many errors that I could have prevented”.
Ultimately, it seems that a lot of the issues with this method come down to the individual student; there is a need to self-motivate to attend lectures, study the material, and seek out extra help. However, it is left to be questioned what this means for humanities courses beyond the mark. While some may be happy with a minimal effort module, it could also be seen as undermining the importance of these areas of study. Many feel as though their course isn’t of any great importance compared to those in the sciences or social sciences just because some modules are not challenging throughout the whole term.
It is important for students to feel confident with their subject and to gain as many skills possible for a future career, but when modules choose one assignment to mark, it will usually be an essay or research report. This takes away from many other skills that could be developed throughout the term such as presenting, debating, or group work.
Having only considered the effects of this kind of module, it has yet to be taken into account why certain modules are organised like this in the first place. In some cases, the only summative assignment is a final extensive piece of work that, along with formative work, is supposed to be a process throughout the whole term, similar to a dissertation. In other situations, it may be due to a large amount of diversely themed weeks that are more easily marked by one set of prompts to choose from (and in doing so, also avoiding the dreaded Hub).
It can therefore be seen that there is logical reasoning behind the choice, but for some students it just isn’t working. Many feel that with one assignment they are not motivated or getting enough out of the module, furthering the debate on how much of a disciplinary or motivational role university educators should be playing in our studies. Maybe our problems with the low-contact approach in humanities are in fact due to our own weaknesses in being able to independently put in the effort, or perhaps UEA needs to consider these issues before increasing the implementation of 100% marked coursework.