How To Teach Students To Write Better Conclusions

Writing Better Conclusions

Writing better conclusions is a very specific skill that requires explicit teaching

You are reading this because you want your students to write better conclusions. I want my students to do so too. Not because they can’t write well already, but because writing conclusions for essays is a very specific skill that requires explicit instruction. The improvement in quality that I’ve seen from my own students’ essays so far has been huge. By teaching this specific skill, you will raise the attainment of your own students too. Here’s how to do it.

N.B. This has taken years of constant reflection and refinement and some of these tips might seem counterintuitive, or even go against the way that you have taught writing conclusions to your own students. They may also work better in some subjects rather than others, especially if exam board criteria specifies a preferred style of writing. So tailor these tips to your own context.

What should a conclusion include?

Conclusions should make a clear judgement

The whole point of a conclusion is to make a judgement. Your students need to make sure, therefore, that they make that judgement clearly, in their conclusion. This doesn’t mean that an extreme position has to be taken though. Obviously, there will also be times where a judgement will involve a certain degree of nuance and balance. However, the judgement should still be obvious to the reader. Using a short sentence to highlight the decision that has been reached is often a useful way to aid clarity. E.g. “Friar Lawrence was to blame for the death of Romeo”, or “The Second World War was unavoidable, after the decisions made at Versailles”. Once your student has written this short sentence, they can then unpack the reasoning for it. This structure helps the reader to identify the rationale for the decisions that have been made.

Using a short sentence to highlight the decision that has been reached is often a useful way to aid clarity.

Weigh up multiple sides

Conclusions that weigh up multiples sides to a debate show balance and a clear consideration of views. By doing so, you avoid the criticism that the conclusion is too one-sided, or lacks breadth of study. Show your students worked examples that pick out opposing views within the conclusion, before selecting one of them as being more persuasive.

Show “how far” you agree or disagree with a particular viewpoint

Conclusions should reflect the complexity of the arguments presented. If the subject matter is complex, then this should be highlighted in the reasoning given in the conclusion. A simple conclusion will naturally follow, therefore, from simpler chains of reasoning. So, make sure your students write down to what extent they agree or disagree with a particular viewpoint.

Explain why the main reason matters more than the others

Some reasons are more convincing than others. This might be because they make more logical sense, or they are supported by more empirical evidence. They may suffer from fewer or weaker criticisms, or they may just reflect specific values deeply held by the writer. Students should make sure that they show why their main reason is the most important one. Otherwise, their reason will look like it has not been thought through properly.

Explore further consequences, or even offer warnings!

Sometimes the conclusion reached could point to consequences further down the line, or even serve as a warning. Take the reader beyond the bounds of the question and show that the broader context has been considered. E.g. “The current European law on the right to privacy are not sufficient to counter the power of the free press to publish what they like. But not only that, the situation is quickly worsening, as social media allows anyone with internet access to publish what they like, in full knowledge that the authorities can do little to stop them. This will inevitably lead to the erosion of the rule of law and democracy itself.”

Take the reader beyond the bounds of the question and show that the broader context has been considered

Consider the logic of the arguments presented

Where a chain of reasoning is weak, this should be reflected in the evaluative decisions made in the conclusion. One easy way to point out logical weakness is by identifying any assumptions that the argument relies on. This could be in evidence that seems to go unchallenged, or in a particular interpretation of a word or phrase. Points such as these are often overlooked, but can be used to demonstrate close attention to fine detail.

Consider the limits of the conclusion

Sometimes there are conclusions you can draw, but with particular limitations in their scope. The criticisms that your student points out might only weaken rather than destroy an argument. They might only criticise the classical form of an argument, but not other, more modern forms. A conclusion might only be able to make comment on specific areas that cannot be extrapolated from. Warnings about the future, as mentioned earlier, might not be sustained by the reasoning presented by your students. It can be tempting to make a provocative statement in the conclusion, giving it a controversial edge. However, some exam boards penalise students when their conclusions aren’t supported by sufficient evidence.

Use evaluative language

If you want your students to come across as evaluative, then they should use language that reflects the weighing up of arguments and evidence. Using phrases like “Despite the fact that”, or “this is a devastating criticism” can be very useful in helping the reader (or examiner) to see what sorts of judgement your student is attempting to make. The use of adverbs when setting out judgements can aid students in presenting with clarity the extent of their decisions, e.g. “Dawkins’ arguments from the Selfish Gene significantly weaken the theist’s position on a designer God”.

The use of adverbs when setting out judgements can aid students in presenting with clarity the extent of their decisions

Mention specific scholars, events, quotes, theories…

The conclusion should also point out specific scholars, theories, quotes, events, etc that form a major part of the reasoning. In doing so, the evidential basis for your student’s argument will be stronger and the decision itself is more likely to be seen as well thought out.

Create a sense of closure

By the end of the conclusion, the reader shouldn’t have any questions about why that conclusion was reached. By using the words of the question in the final paragraph of the essay and by setting out the extent of the scope of their judgement, students can directly address the central issue while giving the impression that they have covered all of the necessary angles.

What should you avoid when writing a conclusion?

Summaries of previously-made points

Writing a summary of the main points in your conclusion is normally a waste of time. Essays that do this typically end up looking repetitive. Focus instead on selecting the main reason and writing why it matters more than the other arguments.

New ideas that should have their own paragraph earlier on

It’s tempting to add into your conclusion a new argument that you haven’t mentioned earlier. This is a big red flag to many examiners. The general rule is that if it is good enough to be in your conclusion, then it probably deserves a paragraph of its own earlier on, where you can deal with it in much more detail. Whatever is in your conclusion must flow from the arguments presented and should be based on those arguments.

I hope you find this useful. Teaching your students how to write better conclusions will not only make them a better writer, but, hopefully, it will consolidate and clarify their understanding too.

Let me know if you have any other tips by leaving a comment below.

You can find me on Twitter @guruteaching.

Andy

The Simplest Way To Make Teaching A Level Easier

Teaching A Level

Why are so many teachers anxious about teaching A Level?

It’s well-known that many teachers are frightened of teaching A Level students. Well, not the students themselves, but the subject. It’s true that A Level requires a much greater depth of understanding on the part of the teacher, but most of us have a degree in our subject, or could (to a large extent) teach ourselves the information we’re missing. So what is it about teaching A Level that causes so much anxiety?

In the conversations I’ve had, both online and in-person, it seems like a combination of the amount of effort required to plan lessons and an increasing depth of subject knowledge that is the major barrier for most. After all, which do you think is easier: teaching Y7 about the key features of a synagogue, or teaching Y12 about the cosmological arguments for God’s existence? For most people, the Y7 lesson would take significantly less time and use less cognitive power to plan, resource, teach and assess. Now multiply this additional effort by the number of A Level lessons you would teach in a year and you have a very powerful reason why someone would choose to teach only up to KS4.

Many teachers also fear the standard of argument and evaluation that is required for A Level teaching, especially if they have focused more on KS3 and KS4 for a number of years. Learning how to write better conclusions is one way to develop teachers’ confidence in this area.

However, I want to focus on exploring a potential solution to the most significant problem here. It isn’t “easy”, but it is simple.

What should we prioritise to improve A Level teaching?

One of the major issues facing teachers is a lack of the deep subject-knowledge required to teach at A Level (and to some degree at GCSE too). Most teachers aren’t fresh out of university and therefore haven’t recently studied the subject formally. Add into that the fact that recruitment and retention issues have led to non-specialists replacing subject-specialists and you have a perfect storm. These same teachers, however, are highly effective at teaching KS3 and KS4 classes. They have spent a lot of CPD time on generic pedagogy (metacognition, questioning, behaviour management, etc) and apply it in their practice. What they really need now is subject-specific CPD.

Subject-specific CPD is vital but has been sidelined for a number of years, partly due to the levels of funding schools have been able to spend on it. Individual teachers across the UK find it difficult to make the case that they should be allowed to go on subject-specific CPD courses, when the school could just stick everyone together in the main hall for a fraction of the cost. Headteachers have not chosen this situation, it’s the grim financial reality they’re faced with. But the impact of this, year after year, is now being felt more than ever. Teachers who, before the GCSE and A Level reforms, felt their subject knowledge was strong, now doubt that they can teach students to attain the top grades. It’s all well and good being a master of retrieval strategies, but if you just don’t know the course content, it won’t make a difference. The curriculum has to be prioritised.

But I don’t have time to study A Level topics on top of all my other teaching commitments!” I hear you cry.

I understand the sentiment here, but I think that this is the wrong way to look at it.

Studying A Level topics, or any topic you have to teach, but are unfamiliar with, should be the first thing you do, not the last. If you “know your onions”, everything else becomes easier. This is the lead-domino. The flywheel. The one thing that, if you nail it, renders everything else easy or obsolete. Struggling to create a scheme of work? Finding it difficult to design or mark an assessment? Racking your brain over what kind of activity to use in your classroom? Trying to advise students on wider reading? These can all be made significantly easier if your subject-knowledge is stronger. Investing your time in gaining knowledge will save you so much more time in the long term.

What can schools do to support subject-knowledge development?

So, CPD in schools should (at times) prioritise subject knowledge development over pedagogy. Obviously, some Senior Leaders might need to be persuaded of this view. But it shouldn’t take long. Just look at how hard it is for most schools to recruit new teachers who are capable of and prepared to teach Key Stage 5. As curriculum plans become ever more central in Ofsted-land, schools with a workforce who can be flexible about Key Stages they teach will be at a natural advantage. Again, this might take time to sink in for some. For others, they already understand and are adapting their CPD offering to staff accordingly.

Another point though, that Mary Myatt makes in her book, The Curriculum: Gallimaufry to Coherence (with more eloquence than I do) is that for many teachers, there seems to be an over-reliance on completion of tasks, rather than on the understanding of the subject content. Over-reliance on book-looks, work scrutinies, or whatever your school might call them, has created the unfortunate situation where completed tasks are taken as a proxy for an understanding of knowledge. Time-fillers are used, rather than mind-fillers, with predictable results.

Are they creating something with what they have been taught or are they consumers of worksheets?

Mary Myatt, The Curriculum: Gallimaufry to Coherence

A half-completed task, alongside a deep verbal questioning session, is far more valuable than a comprehension task that, as we all know, can be ‘gamed’ or even just plagiarised by the student. At A Level, this can have devastating consequences. Students might not truly understand how superficial their understanding of a topic is until they’re faced with a challenging question in an exam. But by then, the ship has sailed.

Deeper analysis within lessons could prevent this issue from occurring, but only if subject-knowledge development is prioritised. Schools should be standing behind teachers with encouragement and meaningful support and this could come in a number of ways. Schools could invite experts in to offer subject-specific masterclasses to staff. They could provide protected time for staff to read around their subject, or even give them the opportunity to complete a qualification, if appropriate. All of these approaches would make teaching A Level easier and they are all easy to implement. Schools just need to prioritise funding accordingly (which is another issue!).

With regards to Appraisal systems, targets could be based on staff developing their subject-knowledge, rather than basing them on more immediate attainment figures. This is difficult to “measure”, of course, at least in the short-term. But sometimes we need to stop measuring things so much and instead do what we know will make a difference when it matters most.

Teaching A Level can be a complex business, but we can simplify it. We only have a finite amount of time though. Let’s use it wisely.

Andy

If you have any top tips for teaching A Level then please leave a comment.

You can also find me on Twitter @guruteaching. Say hi!

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