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

How To Improve Literacy With Live Modelling

How to improve literacy

Why We Should Focus On Improving Literacy

Knowing how to improve literacy is crucial if we are to improve the life chances of our students.

The attainment gap between highly literate students and their less literate peers is stark. Add to that the complexity of examination questions and the texts that often accompany them and you have a perfect storm.

Students who are well-read and who have grown up in vocabulary-rich environments tend, on average, to achieve much higher examination marks. They then have more opportunities available to them and once they have children of their own, the cycle continues.

Those who have not grown up in a vocabulary-rich environment achieve lower scores in examinations and consequently have fewer opportunities to them. The next generation’s children inherit an even more challenging education system and the problem becomes ever more acute.

The National Literacy Trust has conducted extensive research on the effects of literacy on people’s lives and how to raise literacy levels. You can read their work here.

Improving literacy not only raises the life chances of today’s generation, but it also improves the chances of future generations. So narrowing today’s attainment gap, in my opinion, requires a bold and well thought out literacy strategy.

Here, I explain one way in which you can improve literacy with your students, with an immediate impact: Live Modelling.

Improving Literacy With Live Modelling

I read a tweet recently by @positivteacha highlighting a huge literacy issue, that I’d also noticed in my own students.

“Showing kids a pre-prepared model answer and asking them to write a paragraph off the back of it is no different to showing them a picture of Duck l’Orange and sending ’em to the kitchen to knock one up.”

Mr Pink @positivteacha

As teachers, we’ve created a problem. In our attempts to produce resources to support students’ learning, we often think to ourselves “they could do with seeing a model answer of how it should look”. A huge proportion of students see this perfect answer on a pre-prepared PowerPoint slide and think to themselves “I can’t possibly do that. What if I make a mistake? What if someone notices? I’m not good enough.”

We didn’t mean to create this problem. In fact, this attitude is held by some students, regardless of our input. However, we DO make it worse by only showing students the “end-product”, rather than showing them how to get there. We want them to adopt a more positive attitude so that those who are reluctant to make an attempt gain the courage to do so. We have to show them the journey, not just the destination.

A method I’ve been particularly keen to try out “properly” for a while is “Live Modelling”. The idea is that teachers should move away from their pre-prepared slides, especially where it shows exemplar answers. By removing these carefully scripted responses, teachers are forced to model the writing of these responses by hand, LIVE in front of the class.

Scary, you might think! Well, that’s the point entirely.

Live Modelling demonstrates in a very explicit way how the writing process really works, in all of its ugly beauty. When I write on the board in front of my class, they see a teacher who sometimes struggles to phrase ideas the way they would like. They also see a little of themselves when they watch me writing, redrafting and making mistakes. Ultimately, they see that its okay to be less than perfect.

“We have to show them the journey, not just the destination.”

Writing is a messy process and it is okay to make mistakes along the way as your thought process develops.

In his TES article, Laurence Holmes explains his methods to effectively model the formation of answers for students. You can read it here.

 

What I’ve Observed So Far…

Since trialling Live Modelling consistently for a couple of weeks, I’ve noticed a growing confidence among many of my less-literate students. They are now less reluctant to ‘have a go’ when they are unsure of how to proceed with a sentence, a description or an explanation. Consequently, they have made much more progress over time than the times where I hadn’t used Live Modelling. Now obviously, it could just be a coincidence that those students have made particularly good progress at the time where I used Live Modelling. However, the more classes I use it with, the surer I am that it is having a greater effect than just showing those pre-prepared model answers I used in the (recent) past.

Additionally, as my students become more resilient learners, they have become less afraid to use new and more complex terminology. The increased variety of the sentences they can now use will hopefully lead to better quality explanations and arguments in the future. Consequently, their performance across all subjects will hopefully improve.

I use the word “hopefully” on purpose. I don’t yet know how well this will work. If I’m the only person using this method, then it will have only a limited effect and on only a small proportion of the students in my school. But if used as part of a whole-school focus on literacy then it really does have the power, not only to improve answers but ultimately to change lives.

Thanks go to @positivteacha for his inspirational tweet!

Hopefully, you’ll be inspired to have a go too. Please leave a comment and share your experiences too!

Andy

Encouraging College Students to Read

Encouraging college students to read

Why is encouraging college students to read so hard?

[This post contains affiliate links]

Students don’t read books anymore. Instead, they “waste” their time on social media, binge on box-sets, play video games and go out with friends. Personally, I think that sounds brilliant. They are living the dream, aren’t they? (I can’t remember the last time I did all four of those things in one week!) The forms of entertainment they pursue, though, do have one thing in common. They offer instant feedback and gratification. Books can do that too when chosen wisely. However, many college students don’t know which books will offer that short-term “buzz” which other media seems to offer so effortlessly. Encouraging college students to read is a challenge, but hopefully, a much easier one, once you’ve read the rest of this post!

I want to share with you something I’ve shared with my students over the years: I have a very limited attention span for reading books. I always have, but the key for me was not to just give up reading, it’s to read something else. When your students visit a bookshop or an online store like Amazon, they don’t know where to begin. This post is my attempt to shorten the list, to help students to choose a book, that is appropriate for their reading level, but that will stimulate their minds too.

Why should students read at all?

Of all the different forms of media, books offer students the highest quality. The best books are written by authors who have had polished their writing style to make it easily accessible. Their texts have been edited and re-edited to enhance the reading experience. When written well, they offer complete escapism. Books expand students’ experiences. Above all else, the quality control measures put in place by publishers ensure that only the best books get published. They are then reviewed and only when something is of high enough quality will it gain the attention of the masses. Oh, and books make you smarter, so encouraging the reading of books can only end well.

The same cannot always be said about some other popular forms of media. Video clips, blog posts (I include myself here) and the pseudo-journalism that seems to have invaded social media are all flawed in many senses. The result is, that if students only get their information about the world from unvetted and unedited sources, then they limit their experiences. But even worse, their idea of how the world is, or should be, can become warped. News intertwines with fake news. Celebrity endorsements take priority over rational thought. This can’t turn out well!

What books should my students read?

My students don’t read very much. In fairness, neither did I when I was their age. My reason was that I’d outgrown the children’s books I’d been reading but I had no idea where to look for books with a bit more grit. I’ve heard the same story from many students I teach. In the end, I usually recommend to them the same books year after year. This is my list. I hope you see some value in it. I won’t pretend that it’s “a list to end all lists”, in fact, it’s largely swayed by my own personal beliefs, political leanings and what I find interesting. It isn’t balanced and certainly isn’t complete!

I included a variety of fiction and non-fiction texts, but both serve the same purpose. They both teach us about ourselves and they both teach us the importance of contributing to the world. When you see the titles, this will be obvious in some cases, but perhaps not so much in others. My solution would be to read the book to find out why it made the list.

I’ve categorised these books so that if students want to read more about a particular topic, they can be directed straight to a relevant book. Some of these books are very accessible to pre-college students, but most students would need to be at least 16 years old to gain the most value from them.

 

Fiction books for college students:

The Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling

The Hunger Games Series by Suzanne Collins

Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaardner

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

Nineteen-Eighty-Four by George Orwell

A Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Lord of the Flies by William Golding

To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult

The Martian by Andy Weir

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Non-fiction books for college students:

Positive Mindset and Success:

Tools of Titans by Tim Ferriss

Understanding People:

Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari

 Leadership:

Winners by Alistair Campbell

Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg

Understanding Truth:

Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

Bad Science by Ben Goldacre

Law and Politics:

The Secret Barrister: Stories Of The Law And How It’s Broken by The Secret Barrister

Chavs by Owen Jones

The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli

Entrepreneurship:

Will It Fly? by Pat Flynn

Anything You Want by Derek Sivers

 

Finally…

Encouraging college students to read is a long game, so keep at it. Reading is one of the best ways to help students improve their understanding of themselves and of the world.

By the way, you might want to check out my post on 19 Books That Make You A Better Teacher Today.

Also, if you think I’ve left out something brilliant and that should be read by students, then you’re probably right. There’s a good chance that I haven’t read it, or I forgot to add it to the list. Just leave a reply at the end to let me know!

 

You can follow me on Twitter and now on Pinterest too. 

And don’t forget to share!

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