An essay - function and purpose

An essay is a piece of writing on a given topic which can stand alone as a piece of information or as a data source. Generally you will have to tackle a question that is set for you which provides you with two essential pieces of information:

  • the focus or title of the writing
  • the word limit.

In addition to this there may be instructions on items of information which must be included or topics that must be explored, subsections within the work and set texts for inclusion within the writing.

An essay is defined as:

“… a sustained argument developing or weighing the evidence about an idea or question, and creating a full and satisfying conclusion” (McLaren, 2001, P. 21).

This definition implies that the writer must demonstrate the full extent of their understanding and knowledge (without using unnecessary words to ‘pad out’ their writing) as well as an ability to put a case over using a reasoned proposition, to analyse, evaluate and make judgements, to use phraseology and suitable terminology and to utilise language in an articulate manner in drawing a conclusion based upon their opinion of the facts as they are presented.

The function of an essay is for students to demonstrate their level of understanding and competence in a given topic or issue which is then submitted to their tutor for assessment. The tutor will read and mark an essay, giving feedback about the structure of the written work as well as its content affording an insight for students as to how the piece itself and their writing can improve through constructive comments; this creates an open exchange of ideas between tutor and student which enables there to be a greater understanding of both the subject and how to master use of the written word. Although essay writing is the means through which a great deal of assessment is carried out, it should not be seen as merely another barrier over which students must jump but more as a vital part of the learning process; it is important not only in a subject area or just for the duration of a student’s studies but as a transferable skill which can be used throughout life.

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