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.