University of Strathclyde



A 1-hour essay exercise on a previously announced topic written under exam conditions. Individual written feedback was given on each paper, but not a formal mark which would contribute to their final grade. In a follow up tutorial, strengths and weaknesses of essay writing and exam preparation were explored, with time for individuals to discuss their personal performance afterwards. Having explained these points, an essay enhancement tool was provided which enables students to critically self-evaluate their own attempts at essay writing and thereby improve their performance. The tool enables them to do this independently, or with peers in small study groups if that is their preference. This innovation has been tried in both final year and second year students.


Institute of Pharmacy and Biomedical Science

Faculty of Science

Contact Details

Dr. John G. Connolly




The main study skills this initiative focusses on are correct approaches to revision and then how to use the assimilated knowledge to create well organised and clear essay-style answers. These two skills are inseparable.

The initiative was chosen because personal marking experience indicated that even in final year, some students did not really understand all the factors that would help them produce a good quality, longer-style essay answer. I know students will have attended sessions at school and during lower years at University to improve essay writing skills, but problems still persist through to final year and they can adversely affect performance in final degree exams.

Part of the reason for weak essay skills may be due to changes in the ways students are assessed in both school and University. There are now more MCQ and short-answer style exams in assessments. This lack of essay practice may have compromised the ability of some students to organise a comprehensive set of facts into a coherent, flowing discussion or argument that reaches a balanced, critical conclusion.

Although such writing is less often required in day to day working, I feel this is a valuable employment skill for all our students. Anecdotally, several of my contemporaries in industry find they are increasingly being asked to compile policy reports as there is a shortage of that skill amongst recent graduates. If Strathclyde graduates gain a reputation for above average literacy, digital and numerical skills it will help their employment prospects for all types of work and also help them gain promotion if they can create influential reports. 

A secondary problem was that some students thought they were studying properly but were not. They were coming to exams without having a comprehensive set of facts about their topic or a deep understanding of its theoretical and technical aspects. Discussion with some students revealed they had a very poor approach to revision, (question spotting, caffeine-fuelled sessions the night before tests and a very superficial approach to conceptual understanding). However they did not all realise that their revision approach was poor and so a discussion of some recent research findings in the area of revision and study (e.g. sleep, interspersed active recall vs re-reading etc) was introduced.

To address this problem, I therefore decided to have a dedicated session aimed at explaining essay and revision skills, pointing out common errors, and created a tool (attached) with which students could use independently to critically evaluate and improve their own work.

They could also form small study groups of their own and peer-review each other’s work using this tool if they so chose.


Over the time since I have introduced these sessions, average class marks have increased and external examiners have commented favourably upon the increased quotation of ideas from current research papers in final year essays.

“The feedback session on our class test was extremly useful to see where I went wrong and gave me chance to improve on them not just for Drugs and Disease 2 but all my classes.”

Lessons Learnt

Some students are really annoyed that you don’t give them a mark. However I feel (perhaps wrongly) that as soon as they get the mark they will abandon the effort to self-evaluate their own essay using the tool. I will experiment next year with assigning a mark or perhaps a general grade but withholding it until the students have provided a self-assessed grade of their own. Then we can see how the grades match. And discuss any mismatches.

Although this is more work, it might be of interest to do this over two sessions, the first to focus on essay skills and personal mark evaluation, then they return to class to compare their mark to the one the tutor feels is good, before going on in the second class to look at research underlying good revision practice.

Some students expressed a desire for this particular kind of session to be given very early in the course.


The work is labour intensive for academic staff, but worthwhile as the outcome for some students is transformational in terms of the degree class they finally achieve.


There were 30 in this particular class. We have used the approach also with larger classes (180). However with larger classes, you need to involve multiple academic staff. The challenge then is to gain consistency over the emphasis and extent of detail in the feedback from a group of academic staff. Clear descriptions of marking criteria appropriate for the particular question help to achieve such consistency.

Suggestions for Transferability

Although this exercise was mainly aimed at Pharmacology classes, it is readily transferable to other Bioscience classes. However writing good essays is a skill which is applicable to nearly all subjects, so many of the general points about organising a good essay and a proper approach to revision are transferable to a wide range of topics.


Generic Essay Feedback advice.ppt

Pharmacology Essay Enhancement Tool (PEET sheet).docx