Posts Tagged focus

Essays for generals (Part I) – essays, arguments, and answering the question


Strategy guides many important endeavours

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:

  1. Answer the question!
  2. 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?

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Essays of the worst kind – know your enemy

You have a question, pen, paper, and a set amount of time to turn in an A+ essay. Then multiply that by 2, 3, or even 4 depending on how nice your teacher/examiner/lecturer is.

How do you do it?

Well it starts right now.  For the Southern Hemisphere, Term 4 has started and exams are just around the corner for both high school and university. Kill Facebook, tear yourself away from House, Glee, the view out the window, and whatever else you have found that is so much better than study, and let’s hit the books.

Unlike other examination methods, it can be hard to know where to start when it comes to studying for an exam essay. One of the reasons essays are set in exams is because it is one of the best ways for a marker to assess whether you understand what you have been learning the over the year or semester. The reason they don’t just give you another assignment essay is because, as my Management lecture says, it is harder to cheat in an exam. Don’t take that as an invitation to try and prove him wrong!

Anyway we now have a purpose, demonstrate our understanding of the subject. In order to do this, you must first know what you need to know. Sounds simple but you hear it every year, “I didn’t know that was going to be in exam…” So find out. Most lecturers give away hints, tips, and the rough topics that their essays questions will cover. After all, they would rather read hundreds of beautifully structured persuasive essays at 4am in the morning, than sorry attempts that try and bluff their way through a question (and subject) the writer didn’t understand.

Sometimes however, you don’t have a nice Management lecturer who pretty much tells the class what the essay questions will be. Most courses have learning outcomes, so find them, read them, know them, understand them. Use these learning outcomes to break the subject into topics that you could be asked to write an essay on. If it is an English essay, then you will be looking at the themes and characters of the work you are studying.

One other thing that can aid you in focusing your study is looking at past paper questions, but be very careful about making too many assumptions based on what topics were used in previous exams. Christabel was an unfortunate surprise for many of us in the IGSCE English exam!

What you have done is taken the large overall topic and broken it down into areas of focus. This may remove topics that you don’t need to know for the exam, which is great – you don’t want to do any more work than is necessary! Use these topics to plan your study. Instead of saying, tomorrow I will spend 45 minutes studying English, plan that you will spend 45 minutes on the character Bosola from The Duchess of Malfi (only ever read this play if you have to!).  This leads us nicely onto next week’s post – now we know what we need to know, how do we study it?

How do you find and work out what you should study for your exams?

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