So, after all the chaos, Michaelmas formative season drew to a close in December! While it came and went so fast, I have to say that in my 3+ years of being at LSE, that was the most intense formative season. I think one main reason for this is because I am doing a master’s now and not an undergraduate degree (duh!).
So there are different (yet not huge) exceptions when it comes to writing. If you’re reading this as a Master’s student, hopefully you can smile, nod and relate as you read this blog (or you can disagree – feel free to leave comments!). If you’re reading this as an undergraduate student hoping to do a master’s at LSE, hopefully after reading this you feel prepared or at least have a rough idea of what to expect! Or if you’re not a student at LSE and are simply interested in what writing formative essays at the LSE is like, this blog is for you! (Formative essays refer to ungraded essays)
Shorter word counts!
In my undergraduate experience, particularly in my second and third years, I was used to submitting 1000-2000 word essays as formatives. Yet, as a master’s student, I’ve written an 800 word formative! This to me was shocking. On one hand, this can be explained by the fact that I take half-units and so formative assessments are reflective of the type of unit I take. However, I initially assumed that because I am taking a master’s, I’d be expected to write more in formative essays. I also understand that at a master’s, students are juggling between a few courses and other commitments, so shorter formative assessments can be helpful to managing time.
Sidenote: Summative essays have higher word counts. I have essays that have word counts of 5000. While that’s slightly scary, I see formatives as preparing me to write these longer essays in the future (trying to be optimistic).
Shorter word counts for formatives may also be linked to how master’s students are expected to engage with academic literature in our essays. For example, I submitted a formative in which I could only focus on two academic texts. In another course, I could only focus on one academic text. For me, this suggests that at a master’s level, how you read texts, how you interpret text and how you use texts to shape your arguments are all important factors. In my experience so far, there’s been a lot of emphasis placed on deeply reading texts and looking at texts in relation to one another. I think the point of this is to encourage us to think critically about what we read.
I think from first to third year of undergraduate studies, it is expected that you show critical analysis skills in your essays, but sometimes you don’t exactly know how and what that looks like all the time. At a master’s level, I don’t think it is expected that a masters student should always know how to critically engage with text. However, how you read (e.g looking at the structure of academic papers and seeing how authors support their main argument) and the ways you implement academic texts in your formatives (and summatives essays) is important.
Another key difference is the extent to which you bring your ideas and voice in the formatives. I think in your first year of undergrad, formative essays are about consolidating your understanding of academic texts. As you move into the second and especially the third year, there’s a little more emphasis on finding your academic voice and situating your ideas to wider academic debates. I think at a master’s, the readings and formative you’ve completed in your undergrad have maybe influenced how you think about a topic. So in my formatives, rather than regurgitating or summarizing academic texts, I use academic literature to convey my own arguments. For example, I use concepts, findings and analyses in academic papers to support my own ideas. Demonstrating what I think and how I do this seems to be a key difference between my undergraduate studies and master’s.
I think this idea also extends to seminars too. In seminars, you have a range of people with varying academic and professional backgrounds. People in classes draw from their academic and professional experiences to form arguments or articulate what they think about topics!
This is not to say that during your undergraduate studies there are no students with diverse academic and professional backgrounds. Nor am I saying that you are not expected to carve out your academic voice in formative essays, as an undergraduate. I think the main difference here is how you do these things.
So, the three things I think are different when writing formatives as an undergraduate vs master’s student are: shorter word counts, the depth at which you read and write and how you use your academic voice! Maybe my thoughts on this will change as we go into Lent term, we will see!