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Patchwork Text: A New Essay Format

patchwork textEssay is a well-respected and time-tested form of writing, considered by many to be one of the most flexible types of academic assignments, allowing for the most creative freedom. Yet there is a growing sentiment among the professors and teachers that it doesn’t answer in full all the challenges of modern education.

An essay usually has to be written at the end of a course, when students have very little time to spare and are prone to panic. Worse yet, it is meant to cover the entire topic – as a result, a student is expected to write something comprehensive about the topic he or she has only been familiar for a few weeks, as if it were possible to ‘master’ it in such a short time. It is an all or nothing approach – this task isn’t preceded by anything similar to it, and if a student doesn’t have a pretty solid grasp of very specific writing style, the chances of success are lower still.

The result of this highly uncomfortable situation is that students often turn to what is called surface learning – trying to play the system, write what the teacher is supposed to expect, overuse quotes, do the assignment with minimal expenditure of time and energy – not necessarily due to being lazy, but, for example, out of fear of not completing the task on time. It is only logical that as a result educators turn to alternative methods of teaching students writing competencies, and the so-called patchwork text is one of them.

The main idea behind patchwork text is that students are given not one single large written assignment at the end of the course, but numerous, rather small, diversified assignments spread over the entire course. They may be of different types: book reviews, critique of an article, sets of notes with comments, recounting of personal experiences, whichever the teacher or professor deems useful in any particular case. There is no need for them to be connected among each other in any obvious way – it is one of the aspects of the method. By the end of the course the students are asked to knit these small patches together into a kind of patchwork, find connections and relations between them. As a result, these patches are not exactly separate – they comprise a cohesive whole, they are written to give the students the necessary writing competencies together with the understanding of the topic in question.

Such an approach is useful not only because it spreads the process of writing over the course of weeks, thus making the entire task much less intimidating, but also because it helps to facilitate the processes of self-questioning and self-exploration among students. They don’t work on a task given to them by the teacher – they work out the answers to question themselves, experimenting and letting their creativity work on its own. As of now patchwork texts aren’t used widely; but in cases they were used the students show results that are on average not worse, and in some cases even better than of traditional essay training.

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