24 January 2013

Punter’s Guide to Essay Writing

Filed in Teaching and Learning

Over the last few years I’ve learned a great deal as an observer of the complex process of teaching students to write essays so that they gain maximum credit in examinations.  Working with the English Department through a series of exam marking scandals and supporting…

Punter’s Guide to Essay Writing

Over the last few years I’ve learned a great deal as an observer of the complex process of teaching students to write essays so that they gain maximum credit in examinations.  Working with the English Department through a series of exam marking scandals and supporting our History Department, which I line-manage, I’ve picked up a sense of the subtlety involved.  There are three separate processes at play:  learning about the subject in general terms; learning to write discursive essays about the subject in order to deepen understanding and, finally, learning to write essays that satisfy the exam board criteria.  You’d imagine that the second two points would be the same, but they are not.

Recently, I heard that our History A Level exam board has altered its internal positioning in relation to the style of coursework they prefer – unbeknownst to the teachers or students.  This was explained to me in such a way that led me to think of a model I could understand, independent of the subject.  Having bounced this around with colleagues, I feel that this could be good way to understand essay structure and to make sense of the requirements of exam boards.

Football Studies:  A comparative study of Manchester City and Manchester United.

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For the purposes of the analogy, the teams represent any two sets of ideas that are being contrasted.  It could be two political ideologies; two economic policies; two poems; two interpretations of a historical event.  Each team represents an overarching concept – or the poem as a whole; the players represent component parts.  I’ll leave it to readers to make the analogous connections to a specific subject from here on.

The analysis of the team involves considering a number of axes or themes:

  • Overall results; patterns of results over time; the history of trophies won.
  • The style of play; the work ethic of the team; the ability to win after going behind
  • Goal scoring and the effectiveness of the key strikers
  • Defensive record and the effectiveness of defensive tactics
  • The influence of key players within the group relative to the team as whole
  • The role of the manager in securing success.

There are a number of sources of information on which to base our assessment:

  • Source material: recordings of the matches themselves – giving direct visual information
  • Statistical data – on the team and the performance of individual players
  • Personal view point – which will have a degree of subjective bias.
  • The views of commentators, journalists, ‘expert pundits’ or Gary Lineker, each of whom will have their own track record an bias.

Which sources are more relevant in considering the different axes? Can we make a judgement on ‘quality of play’ or ‘style’?  Can we measure performance objectively?  We need to consider the process by which a judgement can be made before we make it, taking into account the accepted protocols in the discipline.

Screen shot 2013-01-23 at 23.09.22With these ideas, we could go about constructing a comparative analysis of the two teams.  But there is one more hurdle to consider first, before we go off on a tangent: What is the specific question? We are never simply asked to write in general terms about a topic, partly to make us think about specific aspects but also, to allow us to write a coherent, assessment-friendly essay that can be written within the time limit of an exam.

In football studies, the questions could be:

  • Manchester City won the Premiership title in 2012; Does that mean they are a better team?
  • Is it fair to say that Manchester City has better players but Manchester United is a better team?
  • “Manchester United has made better use of its high-profile signings that Manchester City” Do you agree?
  • Does the contribution of a few key midfield players determine the relative success of each team?

So, as we set about planning our essays, we need to consider how the sources and the themes that we have studied will help to answer the specific question in hand.  That great quote from Alan Hansen might be ‘cool’ but it might not fit the question;  all that work we did on defensive tactics.. well, we’ll have to leave it aside if it isn’t relevant.  And I support Man Utd, I have a strong personal bias,  but that can’t come into it if we’re being objective; only if the question (or the assessment criteria) requires personal reflection or opinion, could that be admissible.

So here we go,… essay plan.

First of all, let’s go straight in with an overview:  Answer the whole question in one sentence, stating your view.. and then suggesting that the body of the essay will demonstrate how you came to that view.  This tees it up nicely.  However, don’t waste time stating facts.  We know Van Persie is the striker for Man Utd; we know Mancini comes from Italy; we know Wayne Rooney plays for England.  We’re going to avoid any statements that might answer a ‘What’ question; the examiner knows this stuff already.  We’re going to make sure everything we say is the answer to a ‘Why’ or a ‘How’ question.  For example, we are not going to describe the Man Utd formation; we are going to use that to explain why the team functions the way it does.

However, before we proceed, we need to know what the exam board is expecting. There will be a preferred style, like it or not. Teachers need to make sure students understand this: Do we address the question by analysing the internal workings of each team first? Here we discuss the interplay of the defense, midfield and attack for Man City, then repeat the process for Man Utd, considering the strengths and weaknesses of one team, before doing the same for the other.

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OR, do we compare each aspect one at a time, Defence: City vs Utd; Midfield: City vs Utd: Attack City vs Utd and so on?

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But, as we know from the (History) exam board, this atomised approach runs the risk of losing the big picture.  The midfield doesn’t have a role in its own right; the midfield’s qualities only have meaning in that they contribute to the overarching idea – the performance of the whole team, in the context of the question. So, which ever route we have taken so far… we need to return to the big picture in order to draw our conclusions:

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And what about the question and the sentence level work?  Each statement we make needs to be making a judgement that is supported by evidence – from one of the sources – that enables us to draw a conclusion.  There will be competing evidence which is good because then we can say weigh up the relative value of each piece of evidence… in answering the specific question… before arguing that one piece perhaps has more or less value than the other, in this context.

It is useful to cite other view points.  Lee Dixon made a great point about Tevez on Match of the Day.  But who is Lee Dixon?  Why is his opinion relevant or valid?   We need to make sure these opinions add to the answer.  What about evidence? If we assert that the Man Utd strike rate has improved since Scholes returned to the team – is that based on evidence? If so what is it?  If we assert that City are a ‘flair team’.. it is clearly a more ephemeral, subjective concept… how are we going to back that up?

Finally, wrapping things up – we need to go back to that question and the opening one-sentence answer? Have we demonstrated what we said we’d be demonstrating? Can we sum up..taking account of our analysis of the relevant axes of comparison; the  evidence that supports different view points and our determination of the overall balance of that evidence in relation to the specific question?

That’s it.  Essay done.

Man Utd 2, Man City 1.

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