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Essay Writing Skills at AS Level


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#1 Carole Faithorn

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Posted 07 May 2003 - 12:23 AM

Essay Writing at AS Level

September. There they are. Your bright-eyed, bushy-tailed new AS Level set. Raring to go on their new course. Successful at GCSE, they have all the self-belief of the young. Within weeks they face their first ‘proper’ essay and with it the first big hurdle of their course. You give the work back. The disappointment in their faces as they read their grade and your comments is very real.

If this strikes a chord with you, then I hope you will join in this discussion and contribute to a pooling of ideas and strategies for helping the AS candidate to learn how to write “a good essay”. It is not my intention to lay down a definite guide to the subject. I have no particular expertise and I certainly don’t feel that I have all the answers. Nor, intentionally, is this a complete 'view from the classroom' for I hope that many others will contribute their ideas and experience to this discussion.

What is it exactly that the new AS student finds so difficult? For many it is understanding the demands of different types of questions. What exactly is meant by “Assess the reasons for …..”, “Consider the view that ….”, “What best explains ….”?

What do we mean precisely when we demand that a student should be “more analytical”? Learning how to “focus sharply on the question” is possibly an even bigger hurdle. Others, particularly the weaker ones, find it incredibly difficult to structure an essay logically. Of course the traditional A Level candidate faced all these problems too, but there was then a longer period of time to build the art of writing a good essay. An AS candidate may well be facing the first Unit’s exam after only four months’ teaching and so it becomes imperative that the problems are addressed early in the course.

As with the development of all the skills of the historian, the real solution to this problem is to begin developing essay writing skills during KS3. Essay writing frames, making ‘big points’ supported by ‘little points’, the use of the ‘beefburger’ analogy and so on all help to build the skills slowly. But what if your AS candidates have not experienced this gradual development of skills?

It helps to have a variety of strategies aimed at different learning styles. Card sorting activities which involve putting reasons into an order of importance (or ‘Significance Stairway’) help students to visualise relative importance and is effective in helping students to see how to structure an essay effectively. Similarly activities which involve sorting factual information according to given criteria seems to help those who find it hard to decide what support they can provide for their generalised assertions.

For those who find it hard to understand what is meant by “focusing sharply on the question” and who still fail to relate what they write directly to the question being addressed I have found it useful to provide both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ examples and to get them to highlight those sentences which link the point being made directly to the question. The absence of highlighting in the ‘bad’ essay seems to drive the point home and the ‘good’ example demonstrates how “sharp focus” can be achieved.

Many of us will be very familiar with the “A good essay is like a good beefburger” analogy. Whilst I think my own students probably think I am mildly mad to pursue the idea with sophisticated 16 and 17 year olds, it definitely works! If anything, it helps to drive home the importance of a good introduction and the need for an overall conclusion if the ‘burger’ is not to fall apart. Encouraging them to think of each paragraph of their essay as a ‘mini-burger’ which opens with a point linked directly to the question and ends with a concluding link has also proved effective.

A similar idea involves the idea of P.E.E.L.-ing each paragraph where P means ‘make your Point’, then ‘Explain’ and back it up with ‘Evidence’. Finally ‘Link’ your paragraph so that it flows logically on to the next one.

Where understanding the demands of particular types of questions are concerned I have found it helpful to use different coloured pens on the whiteboard to distinguish between the ‘instruction’ and the ‘topic’ of the question. ‘Unpacking the question’ so that they learn to identify the sub-questions which need to be addressed in their answer also proves helpful, though there are some who never really seem to grasp this. When using a particular question wording for the first time (eg “Assess the reasons for …”) I found it helps to discuss this in the context of a more familiar situation first. Mine is an all boys school, mad about rugby, so that “Assess the reasons for the first XV’s victory/defeat last Saturday” is something they all can relate to. From there it is easier for many of them to see how to tackle the History question.

I would stress again that I have no particular expertise in this field and I certainly don’t feel I ‘have all the answers’. Indeed I am very much aware that I don’t! What I should like to encourage is contributions from others with hands-on experience teaching AS Level students.

What problems do your students face when writing essays? How do you address their difficulties? What strategies have you found particularly helpful?

Over to you ……

#2 Andrew Field

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Posted 07 May 2003 - 11:38 PM

Some excellent points and ideas. Thank you. I know for certain that when you first meet your year 12 class it is very difficult to remember that they are only a month or two more experienced that when they did their GCSE exams. It is extremely easy to assume they arrive on the AS course with some new found essay experience, or indeed learning perspectives.

I think Carole has focused on exactly the right point about finding a hook for students to develop on from. Much of the KS3 strategy is all about getting and keeping students' focus, and good practice is good practice whether with Year 7 or Year 12. The skills required to be successful in AS history are much more developed than with GCSE history. An essential grounding in effective essay techniques will help all Year 12s immensely.

I like the suggestions about PEEL-ing paragraphs. I must confess that most of my students have been PEE-ing their paragraphs, which always leaves me slightly uncomfortable. Your additional point about being able to understand the question is something I was working on today with my Year 12 class as they prepare for the exam. They know the information, but more than half the skill is in exam and essay 'literacy', understanding how to break the question down and structure an effective argument.


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#3 John Simkin

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Posted 08 May 2003 - 09:11 AM

One of the major problems concerning essay writing is that students answer the question they want to be asked rather than the one they have been asked. This is not uncommon feature of everyday life. Politicians, for example, also have a tendency to do this.

This is a basic psychological response to a stressful situation and is a particular problem during examinations. When revising the student prepares for certain questions. When those questions are not there they convince themselves that they are.

This is also a problem when essays have to be produced in non-exam conditions. When questions are difficult the student tends to redraft the question to a form that he/she can answer.

When I was at university one of my tutors at university accused me of doing this and gave me some good advice that I have always passed on to my students. That is, reread the question every five minutes and ask yourself if you are really answering the question.

I have always encouraged my students to produce an outline of what they intend to say before starting the question. This helps them to produce a more structured answer. In exams it is advisable to do this before tackling any of the questions. In this way they can see if they have enough information to tackle the question. When a student discovers this while they are actually answering the question, they are rarely willing to abandon it and start on another one. This is usually the point when they start answering the question that they hoped they would be set.

I took this approach when preparing them for their exams. At the end of each topic I would get them to provide outline answers of questions from past papers. We would then discuss the question as a group and they would add information to their original outline. By the time of the examination they would have a large collection of outline answers to questions from past papers. This, rather than the textbook or my printed notes, was what they tended to use when revising for the exam.

In the classroom I always set questions that appeared in previous examination papers. Then you can then give them photocopies of the mark-scheme and the chief examiners report on the question. This gives them a good insight into the mind of the chief examiner and gives the student a good idea of what is expected of them.

#4 Paul Smith

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Posted 08 May 2003 - 09:59 AM

Just some initial thoughts ...

Love the beefburger idea


I have found a key factor is students being unable to understand what can be regarded, by us, as basic vocab. Fond memories of an old A level question of about 6 years ago which referred to Napoleon as the "bogey" of the English....

My lists of key terms and concepts for the start of yr 12 seems to be getting more "basic" every year.

I haven't taught GCSE for a number of years (5) but my perception is that the requirement for extended writing, in the exam essay context, is less - I am more than happy to be corrected on this.

The issue of essay writing skills is a major topic in HE for two reasons -

1. They, too, feel that the standard has fallen - perception or reality?

2. The increased size of groups makes them look at other means of assessment.



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#5 Dan Lyndon

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Posted 08 May 2003 - 02:09 PM

One of the major problems concerning essay writing is that students answer the question they want to be asked rather than the one they have been asked.

The Mary Whitehouse experience a few years ago carried a sketch along these lines with an A level student sitting at his desk starting to write his answer 'If Macbeth had been Hamlet he would have .....'

Although I have not taught AS Level (but did teach A Level History and Politics for 7 years) it seems that the issue of essay writing has not particularly been helped by the changes introduced, as Carole suggests. I do feel however, that there is a responsibility on us to teach extended writing skills throughout secondary school and would not accept that essay writing at GCSE History has declined significantly as Paul wondered. Indeed History and English seem to be the only subjects at GCSE that still demand essay writing.

In terms of writing techniques the most effective strategies that I used at A Level were based around the mark schemes that are currently used at GCSE - giving the students the skills to move from simple statements, to developed statements to developed analysis to sustained analysis. One of the key areas for wrtiting a successful essay was highlighted by Caroles PEEL suggestion, particularly the final element Linking your points / paragraph to the question.

I was recently helping a student with some AS work on a topic that I knew very little about (I shall use the classic Historian's get out - it was not my period!) and yet I was able to give him a structure for his answer. Clearly we need to equip our students to be able to do the same. To a certain extent there are generic approaches to esay writing - make sure that your introduction addresses the key elements of the question and sets out how you are going to answer the question- each paragraph should focus on one clear element of the argument and be well supported by evidence. The final part / sentence should link back to the question - Students should write a BALANCED answer showing an understanding of both sides of the debate - the conclusion is an opportunity for a judgement to be made (however this is an area where there is some contention) and you tie up / summarise the main points of the debate.
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#6 Paul Smith

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Posted 08 May 2003 - 04:02 PM

Thanks Dan for the comment on essay writing at GCSE - it would be too easy to accept the generalisation after an absence of years from GCSE teaching. It was no use having a son who completed GCSE History last year - he refused any assistance insisting on doing it his way. Seems to have more sense than I credited him with!

I have been reflecting on the theme and am increasingly of the opinion that we cannot develop essay writing skills in isolation. The movement towards a more sophisticated approach in written work is interlinked with the growth of reading skills.

Issues of differentiation now raise themselves - as we become more inclusive at AS - strategies need to be developed to support the "borderline" candidate - I have candidates for whom the "Access to History" series is too difficult (at A2)

For those of us working exclusively in the Sixth Form sector it is easy to become divorced from the work being done in 11 - 16 schools to promote and develop read/writing skills.

Forum such as these are excellent but I wonder how many exclusively post 16 establishments have brought in 11 -16 specialists to work with us on issues such as this transition area? We haven't - I'm off to see the PD coordinator immediately after I've done this!

I would hope that the increasing emphasis on a 14 -19 perspective may contribute positively to this area. (How long before we have two types of school - one covering KS1 - KS3 and one KS4 and 5)


Further thoughts?


Paul
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#7 A Finemess

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Posted 08 May 2003 - 04:12 PM

From a Scottish perspective the issue is complicated by the fact that Standard Grade (=GCSE) is a leisurely dawdle over two years and answers are mostly 4 - 5 mark short answers. Then the poor little beggars find themselves thrown into Higher Grade in one year and expected to deliver 25 mark essays!

The answer is to develop extended writing skills in S1 - S4 and we often set extensions of such a nature to our standard tests. This also puts out the subtle message that History develops more demanding and rewarding skills!

Some of the techniques we use are ...

Writing frames / essay plans; clear mark schemes; chopping up an essay and getting the pupils to fit it together in the correct order; giving them three essays of varying quality (top, middle, bottom) and getting them to work out the grade and why.

At the start of a Higher course, I've also been known to get pupils to simply write anything at all for 40 minutes non stop. This makes the point of how little they can actually write under exam conditions and therefore the need to have good K&U and a structure already thought out in their head for most commonly set types of essays.

I always point out that essay writing is a skill. The more they do, the better they become. As with all skills, it is useful to look at other people's errors also and learn from them. Therefore I often return essays to the "wrong" students and encourage them to read each others' essays. "The only time you are on your own is when the exam starts next May. Until then, its US against the Scottish Qualification Authority." (Cue 3 Musketeers theme!!!)
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#8 Richard Drew

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Posted 08 May 2003 - 06:26 PM

My experience is Politics, not history, but the rules for essay writing appear very similar in the 2 disciplines, so I will throw in my views.


My pupils, like all good teenagers love to argue rather than discuss. So they always seem to perform far better on argumentative essays that on more descriptive ones.

After reading an article by one of the chief examiners I was presented with a brilliant solution to this problem; turn a descrpitive essay into an argumentative essay;

For example:

When describing the key reasons why/key events etc

Idenfity one key reason and present a 2 sided essay, illustrating the importance of this issue in comparison to the others you describe in the other half of your essay.


I was concerned that this sounded far to like the old 'pupils answer what they want to answer' syndrome. However once my students employed this in their essays it clearly had an impact: vastly improving their attainment. Their powers of description were significantly imporved by the need to concentrate their minds on arguing and justifying.

Combined with hamburgers, PEEing (indeed PEEEing on Unit 6) and the constant message drummed into them "at the end of each paragraph you should be closer to the answer to the question" my pupils' essays have come on leaps and bounds this year.
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#9 Paul Smith

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Posted 10 May 2003 - 01:32 PM

3 books I have found of use

"The Student's Guide to Writing - grammar, punctuation and spelling" - Peck and Coyle, Palgreve Study Guides

"How to write beter essays" - Greetham, Palgreve Study Guides


both the above useful, although the essay book needs diluting!(bit theoretical)


"Study Writing" Hamp-Lyons and Heasley, Cambridge University Press

this was recommended on an inservice training day. The book is aimed at students who have English as a second language but are using it for "academic writing". Lots of ideas and exercises to use or cannibalise.


Love feedback from anybody who has used them

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#10 jo norton

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Posted 10 May 2003 - 05:01 PM

Thank you for lots of ideas - my AS class will be pleased :woo:
I've tried a couple of things with them - a self evaluation grid given out at the SHP conference a couple of years ago. This grid sets out a checklist for the essay as a whole, and for each section. e.g have you answered the question, is the point explained in this paragraph, is the evidence present, link etc. I use this at the start of year 12 and gradually remove the structure as the year progresses. Pupils have said they appreciate the guidance but the grid deliberately leaves out the content. Secondly the human essay format as a variety of the beefburger plan is popular and forces them to justify their decisions as well as providing a plan.

Email essays are another way of working - the question is divided up into sections and each pupil writes a paragraph they then email them to each other and edit into a full essay - this works well for developing the ability to link and to focus on the question. However, I only use it rarely to prevent them forgetting how to write a whole essay!

#11 Elle

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Posted 13 May 2003 - 07:12 AM

I do think that one of the major problems is that, in my dept anyway, essays are not even attempted in KS3, or even KS4. I recently set my top set yr9 an essay about Haig, complete with writing frame and info, to do as I was on a trip. When I marked them most of them were horrified to discover that they had L3 or L4. I am in the process of re writing the yr 8 scheme of work and I am now intending to put an essay assement in there.

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#12 jo norton

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Posted 13 May 2003 - 01:43 PM

I agree - essay writing at AS is much less problematic for those who have had experience of it from KS3 and KS4 - the more essay writing they have done the easier they find it.
This gives them a great foundation to develop their skills in AS. Our scheme of work builds in written assessments every year which certainly helps.

#13 Elle

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Posted 13 May 2003 - 03:41 PM

Another thing I have noticed with my AS class is that not all of them use capital letters, some have no idea what to put in an introduction, some can't even use paragraphs. Surely this is worrying in kids post 16...

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#14 Richard Jones-Nerzic

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Posted 13 May 2003 - 07:14 PM

I do think that one of the major problems is that, in my dept anyway, essays are not even attempted in KS3, or even KS4.

Absolutely.

Although not good for my students in other ways, I am the only English speaking history teacher for about 200 miles in all directions. This means that I am now taking the same students through IB that were in Y9 when my school opened. This has a number of useful consequences. I routinely view all Y7-9 and IGCSE students as my future IB students. I inevitably look forwards, working on the skills I know the students will need later. It helps that my expectations are continually reinforced; we keep revisiting old skills, using the same techniques. I have found that language is important and often gets in the way of the transferability of skills. We recently did a cross-curricular, essay writing workshop in school and discovered that we use a range of different terms to describe the same skills and sometimes the same word to describe different skills. For example, what I mean by 'signpost' in an essay introduction, did not mean the same thing to the English teacher. If we do this as history teachers, it is hardly surprising that our students get confused and find it difficult to transfer their skills.

It also helps that I don't teach National Curriculum at KS3. I am not driven by content but by the need to do the skills effectively. I also use the 'Think Through History' series which (seriously) encourages extended writing amongst other things. Also the students word-process pretty much everything, which really 'scaffolds' the learning. Once you have gone through a series of structured steps, it is easy to cut and paste the earlier work together. I am also experimenting with a hypertext curriculum which links assignments to the same description of the core skills and previous examples of work, where students encountered those skills before.

However, despite this I still face the same problems as everyone else at A/IB level. I have learnt a lot from the contributions above and have already started applying some of the suggested techniques. I like the sound of the grid mentioned by Jo. I wonder if it might be available in electronic form anywhere? I devised my own about a year ago and it has made a difference but I am going to re-evaluate it in the summer. Basically I no longer write on student essays but fill in one page evaluation grid as I read the work. The sections include quality of introduction, coherence, historiography, referencing etc. The sections refer to targets identified at the beginning of the course and good examples of good practice. Again, I hope to produce a hypertext version of this in the summer. What I find useful is that it disciplines my marking according to the requirements of the exam board. I also keep copies of everything returned to the kids. This makes my target setting easier. It also gives the students a checklist as they plan essays and structured feedback sheet from which they can identify trends of strength and weakness.

In addition to hamburgers and PEELing, I'd like to add my own 'minefield' scenario, designed to demonstrate the importance of signposting, introductions and coherence. There is a tendency for students to write history essays like scientific experiments. I compare writing a history essay to leading a blindfolded man/woman across a minefield. I get the class to arrange a series of obstacles and blindfold a volunteer. Before we lead the blindfolded student across the minefield, we reassure the victim that we know the route by briefly describing what is going to happen to them. At every turn (paragraph) we outline how many steps are to come and in which direction they will be going. Having successfully completed the route we remove the blindfold to reveal the route that has been covered. I do it for the first time in Y7 and again in Y9. Usually, after that I only have to mention minefields for them to get the point. The only problem is that new students think that I'm insane.

One final thing. I use a couple of articles from the History Today- History Review website that gives good, sensible study skills advice to new A Level students. You used to be able to download copies of this for free but the link doesn't seem to work this evening. Perhaps it pay only now? If it still doesn't work tomorrow, I'll put them on my site.
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#15 Carole Faithorn

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Posted 13 May 2003 - 07:41 PM

One final thing. I use a couple of articles from the History Today- History Review website that gives good, sensible study skills advice to new A Level students. You used to be able to download copies of this for free but the link doesn't seem to work this evening. Perhaps it pay only now? If it still doesn't work tomorrow, I'll put them on my site.

The History Review article 'How to write an essay under Exam conditions' is still available for free, but unfortunately the (in my view better) 'How to write an Essay' article by Gareth Affleck is no longer free and is only available to subscribers to the magazine or on a pay-for-view basis.

A bit 'off-topic', but the article on Tackling Source based questions at AS/A2 levels is still free as is How much historiography should be included in essays?




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