How I teach students to add detail to essays
My students are generally very good at recalling the points that they are supposed to make when writing their essays. However, where they often lose marks, at least at the beginning of the course, is where they add detail to their points. For years I found that this was a challenge to teach. I teach two different essay-based subjects. I’ve also examined at GCSE and A Level for two different exam boards, so the topics I’ve covered are extremely varied. Over the years I’ve come up with a few different essay structures and even paragraph structures for students to follow. I have found that essays which gain the highest marks, regardless of the subject, share a number of striking similarities. These similarities can not only be applied to my own subjects but can be effective in very different subjects such as Science and Technology too. Hopefully, though, with a little tweaking, you should be able to take these tactics and apply them to any subject you teach.
The top 10 ways to add detail to an essay
Over a period of ten years, I’ve taught Religious Studies, Law and even dabbled in Critical Thinking. This year I’ve also taken on the Extended Project Qualification. They are all assessed on different criteria. But despite this, I have found that the essays which gain the highest marks share a number of striking similarities. These similarities can not only be applied to my own subjects but can be effective in subjects such as Science and Technology too. What we all know though is that when students add detail, they achieve higher marks.
It is often very important to write an introduction, but not always. Whenever I read a good introduction, it is always focused directly on the question the student must tackle. It isn’t always necessary to “rephrase” the question, but for some students, this can be a good way for them to focus their mind on the way they would like to answer the question. Beware, though, if the student rephrases the question in a way that moves away from the central topic criteria, then it can sabotage the rest of the essay.
In some cases, an introduction is not needed and the student is better off just diving straight into giving their first argument or setting out the first part of a theory that they will go on to explain.
In evaluative essays, the introduction should be planned well in advance, so that the student can set out what they intend to prove. If this isn’t planned in advance, the student may be caught out and actually have to admit in their conclusion that their original position is not supported by the evidence they gave in the body of the essay. Planning is key!
2. Defining ‘terms’
Key terms related to the central aspects of the question should be defined and analysed. Often a key term can be interpreted in a number of ways. This might change the outcome of the essay’s conclusion, so it is useful for the student to set out what they interpret from the outset. That way, the internal logic of the argument is likely to be far more resistant to criticism.
3. Defining ‘style’
It isn’t always necessary in the essay to write about the style of the essay the student is writing, but in some subjects it is. For example, are they writing to explain or to argue? If they are arguing, are they basing the argument on deductive reasoning or inductive reasoning? Are they relying on empirical evidence to prove their point, or will logic suffice?
It is also crucial for the student to know whether they are simply trying to demonstrate how a theory works, or whether they are evaluating its effectiveness. In many exam questions, this difference is signposted by the ‘trigger words’ in the question. If it says ‘analyse’ or ‘explain’ then it is asking for the student to show mastery of a theory. If it says ‘assess how far’ or ‘evaluate’ then the student will need to weigh up evidence for and against, then arrive at a conclusion.
4. PEE paragraphs
PEE stands for Point, Explain, Evidence and is a popular structure for students to ensure that they add detail to their essays. The advantage of this style of writing is that it is clear and easy for students to remember. It is also easy for the examiner to quickly pick out the points they are looking for, so long as the PEE style is followed consistently. A disadvantage, though, is that when used consistently, without adding any extra elements, the essay can lack flair. Students may, therefore, miss crucial areas that the examiner would like better answers to show, e.g. hypothetical alternatives (see below).
5. IDEA paragraphs
IDEA stands for Identify, Define, Explain, Apply. I teach this structure to my students who are answering a scenario-based question. In Law, this could mean that they must identify the offence committed, define the rules governing this offence, explain how the rules are applied in theory and in previous cases and then apply those rules to the facts of the scenario. I find it works a lot better than the PEE paragraphs because it adds detail by including a further level of depth. Also, you can teach students specifically how to structure each of the constituent parts of IDEA. Then you just tailor them to whatever subject you want to across the curriculum.
When writing an argument, there are two things that excellent answers tend to show: passion and clear reasoning. Arguments that jump out at the reader will often be worded strongly. By simply changing “Aristotle’s objection is strong because…” to “Aristotle’s objection is particularly strong because”, it adds an extra element: judgement. This shows to the examiner that the student has weighed up the different objections and decided that this one is more notable than the others. Higher marks for evaluation will usually follow.
7. Scholars and Authorities
Adding detail in the form of scholar’s views, case studies from the media or quotes from texts is an excellent way to support your arguments. The key here, though, is to cite the authority and then analyse the different ways that it could both show support for your point but also any drawbacks that authority has. For example, you could use a court case to illustrate how a law is applied in reality, but then point out how slight differences in the case may have changed how useful the case is in supporting your argument. Differences in interpretation of a scholar’s view are the best way to demonstrate a breadth of study, clarity of thought and depth of evaluation.
Sometimes there isn’t an example from real life that a student can draw from to illustrate their point. In this case, encourage the student to create their own hypothetical scenario that would show illustrate their point. This highlights to the examiner that the student is aware of how to apply their argument to reality. A good tip is to keep the hypothetical scenario as simple as possible so that there is less chance that the student will confuse themselves or the reader. Any extra complexity in the scenario, however, would give the student a great opportunity to examine a range of issues that might not surface if the scenario was simpler.
This component is sometimes overlooked, especially as it may not be specified by an exam board as a marking criterion. By ‘audience’ I’m referring to the intended recipient of an argument. For example, my Religious Studies students often evaluate the strength of an argument regarding belief in God. It might be assumed that the intended audience for an argument proving of God’s existence is non-believers, in order to change their beliefs. However, this may not be the case at all. The argument’s intended audience may instead be people who already believe in God. The strength of the argument, therefore, does not depend on successful conversions. When this element is added by the students, it demonstrates a much broader view of the role of arguments in general, a much more sophisticated view.
My students often struggle with this one. They often just make a simple statement, either agreeing or disagreeing with the point they made in their introduction. As an examiner, I would want to know why they chose this conclusion, as opposed to an alternative one. Teach your students to explain why they were persuaded this way and which reasons were the most significant and why. If they want to add some unexpected ‘twist’, then this can be of benefit, as it can show creative thought. However, I try to dissuade my students from doing this. This is because, if their ‘twist’ is good enough to be mentioned, then it should appear earlier in the essay and be analysed in depth, just like the other reasons they gave.
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