Apparent randomness and chaotic non-linearity: change over time in the essays of a cohort of philosophy undergraduates
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For most degree programmes in third-level education, the primary form of assessment is by written work submitted by the student to an assessor, either through formal, time-limited examinations or take-home essays. This research examines a sample of the take-home essays from a selection of students in a single cohort within a degree programme in Mary Immaculate College, Limerick. This research focuses on philosophy modules taken by the students, and in particular a set of essays written for a single assessor. These essays form a corpus of 94 texts submitted at six different points over the course of a degree programme. By looking at the use and distribution of linguistic items, this research shows that change in the writing of the students displays an apparent randomness and is not linear. Each text within the corpus is unique and each individual writer responds to the influences of genre, task and audience in unique ways. This unique response is because the essay texts are composed through a set of instantial decisions by the writers. It is argued that this uniqueness, apparent randomness and non-linear change is best understood by viewing the change in writing over the course of the degree as a dynamical system that closely approximates that advocated by chaos theory.