Posts Tagged Education
Last week we expanded on the purpose of examples – to give evidence to the judge: your marker. Now it’s time for some judgement of your own.
To communicate your examples, you have two main choices: use quotations or citations. Quotations are when you use the exact words of the person or article that you’re referring to – it’s often called a direct quotation because you’re taking the words directly from the source. Citations, on the other hand, are where you express the example in your own words. You paraphrase it. Note that you’re still communicating the same idea – you don’t change the concept; just the words used to describe it. So when should you quote and when should you cite an example from another source?
You’ve got to use the best form of evidence at the time. Think about the situation and what applies. What do the markers want to see? For a high school English course, like Cambridge (CIE) English Literature, markers want to see you tie your analysis very closely to the text. English Literature markers measure this requirement by looking for lots of direct quotations.
University markers usually don’t. They want to see that you can think for yourself. (That’s the whole point of higher education). This means university markers usually prefer citations because if you can express an idea well in your own words, it proves that you’ve understood the concept. They can always tell if you’re on topic anyway. So, when at university, I’d probably paraphrase where possible. Anyone can be a parrot.
See how the markers want to see the same underlying skills: good analysis of a question, identifying relevant information in the text (and other literature), explaining and linking the evidence coherently and persuasively – yet they also view quotations quite differently. Another example of how being able to think in a sophisticated nuanced way is valuable – you can adjust to different assessment styles.
So both university and high school English markers want you to achieve the same thing: a close analysis of the text that proves you can think for yourself. The skills required are the same, but they lead to very different signs of success. Now you can use your judgement about whether to quote or cite ideas, depending on the emphasis of your course. If in doubt, check with your teacher or lecturer. Prove to the judges that you can analyse; and prove that you can be original and think for yourself.
All the best!
Photo Credit: Image by Ed7 via Flickr
When is simple good?
Now we’ve covered ways you can decide what goes in each individual paragraph. This post will go over ways you can order the paragraphs. Knowing what makes a good order of paragraphs will also help you plan the essay in the first place.
Each mini-argument that becomes a paragraph should fit in with the rest of the mini-arguments. The main thing is that you’ve got to lead your reader through your arguments. Make it flow. If it’s a nice easy journey, they’re more likely to like you and your arguments.
There are ways of achieving this gentle persuasiveness. Here’s one strategy that I use.
This is when you write your first paragraph about the first part of the text, or the first part of a model, or the first historical development in your topic. You then write about the second part of the text etc. until you have finished analysing the text and sum up your argument in your conclusion. This is simple to do, so it is probably the best one to practice on. It is also usually clear for the reader and is particularly well-suited to character development and plot-driven questions. If you’re writing an English Literature essay, choosing a chronological ordering for your paragraphs may speed up your analysis as well, because you can simply go through the text in order. So besides being easy to write, chronologically ordered essays can be simple for the reader to understand too, if the question, text, and your overall argument serendipitously complement each other using this method.
To answer the question posed at the beginning of this post, simple chronological ordering of paragraphs is good where you want to write a solid essay quickly – like when you’re in an exam. However, what other ways of ordering paragraphs can you think of? And when is simple bad?
So now you understand the “macro-level strategy” to prepare an essay (analysing the question and planning your essay’s overall argument). It’s time to move on to the next layer of detail: organising your answer into paragraphs.
A good analysis of the question + solid knowledge of the topic = opportunity to write unique and persuasive arguments.
However, these elements only give you the opportunity to write a compelling essay; you must express your ideas well. The first step for doing this is to form your paragraphs.
Paragraphs are the largest building blocks of your essay, and they have two important functions:
- they separate your overall essay into digestible pieces
- they make your points clearer as you build your argument
Imagine reading screeds and screeds of text running continuously for almost a whole page with no break. Not fun. No marker (or other normal human being) wants to face that. I suggest you avoid arousing unnecessary resentment.
Since this post is about conveying important ideas succinctly and giving your reader a break, I’m going to stop this post here.
I know I’m not perfect; I often need to be reminded of this too, but “be concise!”
Answering questions well is the first and most critical part of a high-scoring essay. But there’s more to getting the “macro-level strategy” of your essay right than just analysing the question. Without this, it’s like you have really precise intelligence informing you of what to target, and state-of-the-art radar revealing where it is, but you don’t have any ammo to take the target out.
Tip: it’s really useful to have some background understanding on the topic before you write an essay on it. Some of you probably realised this when you implemented the advice in the last post. The need for research is especially high at university, but it’s a good skill to develop at high school because even this mindset alone empowers you to write stronger and richer essays.
Research is your friend
So when you get a question, do some research. You may have good notes from classes/lectures, but most subject teachers expect you to go into more detail than that. There are two ways to do this:
- introduce some unique thoughts of your own
- integrate thoughts of respected academics.
Researching existing opinions will help you form your own arguments anyway. So do some research – know the basics of the main schools of thought on the topic. This is like knowing the battle field – if you have an understanding of the terrain, you have an advantage. (Sorry to keep using war metaphors, but I’m not accustomed to writing about flowers and fairies and unicorns, so I’ll stick with this analogy for now). Anyway…
Planning – and what follows it
Once you have your basic understanding, you can begin to write a plan for your essay based on argument. In doing this, you may realise that you need more information on specific points. Pros, cons, alternative suggestions, and developments of the basic/original arguments etc. It’s fine if you go back to research at various stages of the writing process. It’s good even, because there’s a feedback loop between what you’re doing, what you can improve, and the resources that raise these questions and make the improvements possible. However, for this process to end well, you need to start early. (We can all improve on that point, I’m sure). So keep researching, and keep adding to your argument brainstorm and planning pages. The writing process is a dynamic process. These are living documents; they evolve as your ideas grow.
To summarise, here’s the process I follow:
- Analyse the question
- Research to understand the basics on the topic (the ‘battle field terrain’)
- Plan the essay’s argument structure
- Research to fill the gaps – make the plan complete
Every essay is different and every essay writer is different, so you may use a modified version of the process. It’s okay to use a different process to get to a stunning result. The main thing is that you adapt aptly, edit repeatedly, stay flexible – and allow enough time!
Let me know what you do to prepare for an essay assignment; I’d love to hear from you.
Following on from my previous post (Exam warfare (Part II): generals’ briefing), let’s begin looking at how to organise your ‘essay army’ in more detail. To start off with, let’s look at the big picture, the “macro level” of your whole essay.
There are two key things to remember when deploying your overall essay:
- Answer the question!
- Argue your case persuasively (but don’t sound like a used-car salesman; it’s an academic work).
Answer the question!
The most important thing is answering the essay question. If you don’t, you don’t get any marks! The question is powerful: this pivotal sentence (or two) directs the multitude of sentences in your essay. If you think of yourself as the general in charge of the army, the question is your directive from the sovereign. You must achieve that military objective. If you achieve this mission, you will be handsomely rewarded. If you fail, you die! So answer the question! NCEA is particularly strict on this point.
Argue your case persuasively
When you’ve written many essays, you eventually realise that essays are all about arguments – an essay defends one point of view and knocks down other points of view (but in a respectful way) – some students actually enjoy writing essays for this reason! So think about how persuasive your argument is overall.
Importantly, you should recognise opposing arguments in your essay, then show why you agree or disagree with them. This makes your essay more persuasive, because if you address opposing arguments (or ‘shoot them down’ as we like to say), then they’re no longer a threat to your own argument. But if they’re ignored, you imply that you’re either ignorant or unable to answer these challenges.
Plan the thrust of your argument before you begin writing. Launching straight into writing is like impulsively charging into a mêlée with no prior thought. Begin by analysing the question. Here are some ideas to get you started:
- Ask yourself “what are the extreme opposite of the key words in the question?” Expand on both extremes of each key word.
- Consider synonyms of words, analogous concepts and other definitions/perspectives.
- Consider words that are explicitly stated in the question, as well as words that are ‘missing’ which define sub-parts of the broader topic.
There are plenty of other ways to analyse essay questions and generate ‘mini-argument’ concepts. What do you like to do?
So we know that preparation is important if you want your essays to win. We discussed how sitting an exam is a battle to win marks by persuading your marker. You’re the General – that’s your job.
So if you’re the General, what’s the essay? Your essay is your army. The war metaphor is one that I find useful because it provides an analogy for different levels of functionality within your essay. Here’s the extended metaphor (great for those of you studying English Literature):
- The whole essay is your army. If the essay is pointed in the right direction, answers the question, and the sub-parts work together well, then that is what will win the war for the marks.
- Paragraphs are regiments of troops. Each deployed regiment has a specific aim – they provide developed ‘mini-arguments’ and evidence to back up the overall thrust of the essay.
- Each word is a warrior and sentences are ranks of “word-troops”. There are different types of warriors, with different advantages and disadvantages. You want to use them in a combination that allows each to them to combine their strengths and minimise any weaknesses. We’ll go into diction, syntax, and other aspects of expression in future posts.
How do you organise your ideas to get the most marks out of them? We’ll go into more specific strategies at various levels in the army in future posts, but here’s one broad one to get you started:
Set your troops in formations based on concepts that you are discussing. Know what piece of “intellectual ground” the words and sentences have to hold – enable them to capture the key ideas and express them compellingly on paper. This clever manoeuvring and structuring will surpass the effectiveness of the individual words themselves.
There are different types of ideas/concepts/components that you should structure your essay around to get maximum marks, but for that you have to understand SEX (the sequel is here). To discover another simple trick that can dramatically improve your essays, go to “Cooking up the perfect essay”.
Now you’re thinking more like a General, you’ll be able to make the strategic decisions that earn more marks.
“Onwards and upwards!”
Here’s another way to make you a black belt in writing essays in exams: hone your technical analysis skills.
Why is this important?
Technical analysis ability is obviously important for Literature essays where you are given an unfamiliar text in the exam. However, it’s a valuable skill for all essay-writers, including those who write on other subjects besides English Literature.
As every essay ninja knows, if you “give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; if you teach a man to fish…”. Similarly, if you “give a student a pre-prepared essay, you help them scrounge a mark; but give a student technical analysis skills and they can adapt, write on anything, and thrive.” Using memorised and regurgitated essays in exams results in insubstantial pieces of writing that don’t fit well with what the question asks. It’s a risky one-hit-wonder approach – you’ve got to pray that you’ll get the right question on the right text (or theory or topic in other subjects). It also takes ages to memorise the content. Using technical analysis skills saves time – which can then be used for other things!
Please note: knowing which questions are likely for the given texts is a very good thing, but it’s only the beginning. It’s an aide to focus your study on the most critical material. However, your study should aim to develop the skills to write well, not recall second-hand ideas well. Examiners what to know whether you can think, not just what you think.
How do you develop this valuable skill?
- Have a list of techniques that you have memorised and understand comfortably. Can you explain each technique and think of an example for each one?
- Give yourself a quick injection of Analysis practice using short texts: tear poems apart (not literally – although it’s tempting at times).
- Master the art of scribbling bullet-point essay plans in the margins around a poem:
- these should be quick to do, so that you have plenty of time to write the actual essay
- they should be detailed enough to guide your whole essay
- use short hand and key words
- You also need to be able to read them!
- Check your progress by asking yourself “Am I able to write a compelling essay based on the notes I’ve made?”
As always, do use this study method under pressure. Is there enough pressure on you to do that yet?
Keep studying hard – it’ll all be over soon. 🙂
“You can’t study for English exams”. I’ve heard this supposed axiom uttered many times. Well, actually, yes you can study for English, although I agree that the strategies are quite different to those for other subjects. Here’s a quick overview of some that I’ve used, they can be adapted to suit other essay-based subjects too. We’ll go into more detail on these in future, but here are some pointers to start off with.
1) Know the themes of the set texts
2) Know the important techniques used in the texts
3) Memorise some quotations
4) Hone your technical analysis skills
5) Practice writing under pressure!
On that last point: there is absolutely no substitute for this! You will be examined by having to write an essay under time pressure; so practice writing an essay under time pressure. Exams come with deadly deadlines, so your study strategies should address the critical issue of TIME PRESSURE. For all other study tasks, spend only the smallest amount of time necessary to get to this all-important practice stage. You will not be asked to carefully craft beautiful study notes in the exam! To ease the burden slightly, I suggest you start this phase of your study by writing practice paragraphs and then doing a few full essays closer to the exam.
Yes, I know writing academic essays under pressure can be painful initially, but once you get into it, it really isn’t that bad. All you think about is what you’re writing and the time that’s left; you don’t have room in your mind to mull over how repulsive the exercise first seemed. Besides, this is one of the most effective ways to study, so you don’t need to spend so much time studying overall to get the same result. Thus, it will actually free up your time to do other things. That’s what I like – “work hard, play hard”.
All the best for you studies!