I was constructing something earlier today for a few of my students,
and those notes became this blog posting – aimed at a much wider audience.
My initial concern was that I notice many students were mixing
description with analysis with critique right at the beginning of their essay –
making evaluative and critical comments and opinion before they have so much as
described their area of enquiry or ‘laid out their stall’. I advise that such rich critical points are reserved
for later discussion where comparisons can be drawn between theory and practice. An introduction should concentrate on describing
the area of interest including context, theoretical models, expert
contributions (literature) and policy (government?).
What is a ‘good’ structure?
What you are aiming for is a nicely ordered journey, from
description and background to evaluation and critical analysis. Here’s a general outline that should be
suitable for most requirements:
should be very descriptive and objective, with the exception of your hypothesis
– avoid comparisons or opinion. Perhaps
state what the essay is about, clarify what you intend to cover. Things to include are contemporary incidents
that are raising the subject's profile at the moment (if any) and any current
debate or policy around the issues. You
can state others opinions (that MUST be referenced), but reserve yours until the
discussion or critique later in the piece where you will have opportunity to
bring in your own experience and how that compares to the expert literature /
sets the scene and allows you to evidence that you are au-fait with both
contemporary and historical debates and literature around the subject. You could also include what steps you took to
find out about the topic and, perhaps of more importance, any limitations your
approach or your context may have on your essay. Perhaps there is a lack of
literature in your area, and stating how you tried to find material would
inform the reader.
Discussion (aka critique,
where you should offer a synthesis of a variety of perspectives): This is where the ‘real’ marks are – where students
can move from a ‘pass’ on a typical marking grid through to distinction. At this point in the essay (and you can sub-title
this section discussion or even ‘Critical Analysis’) - you should be drawing
together the variety of perspectives presented earlier – some may be mutually
supportive, some may be contradictory. Here
are some points I suggest you think about that may prompt your critical discussion:
- Evaluate the relative
merits of existing literature and/or policy. What are the authors’ viewpoints? What bias
might be present? Was any evidence presented; how reliable is the evidence? Perhaps no evidence was presented – was the
literature just people opinions / belief / thoughts / rhetoric / dogma? Where
is the material published – is it a reliable source? What was driving (funding?) the
- Are there any perspectives
that compare or contrast radically with your experience – why might they
- Offer an interpretation of
the existing literature/policy that is a synthesis of a number of
perspectives. It may be valuable to
add your own experience at this point.
This is where you can make your perspective, your synthesis of a
variety of viewpoints, clear – and if bringing in your own context and experience
it seems relevant, perhaps ‘authentic’ to begin your thoughts with ‘I
suggest ...’ or ‘I consider ...’.
Re-iterating synthesis: In the discussion you need to
demonstrate to the reader that you have understood a variety of perspectives
and at this point begin to offer a synthesis of opinions that is your
own unique perspective on the subject.
recommendations): Perhaps allowing
you to re-contextualise the discussion to your area of practice?
Further support and advice
Students at my university can book a 1-2-1 session with
academic advisors that can offer general essay writing advice, help and
guidance – I strongly advise you to see if this service is available to you,
and USE IT if you have read this far in my blog post!
Final word: An ‘easy
hit’ to impress the examiner is good referencing. Here’s an excellent guide to Harvard
Referencing that I strongly recommend (it's the one I use and understand!?).
Comments on the above are welcomed – anything you want to
add – just comment. I especially would
like to invite comments pointing to resources that may have helped you in your
essay writing – and if I get enough comments I’ll make another posting summarising
Kindest regards to all