There is a saying which is apposite in this situation, that laws are a guide to the wise, but a rule for fools – in other words, it’s about how you use the mnemonics. You use them as servants of you – you do not follow them slavishly as their servant.
So: Comparison first
Let’s start at the beginning.
I suppose if I were asked to compare two film stars for a newspaper, it would be OK just to write about one, then write about the other, and just finish with ‘so; two stars with interesting lives!’ as a conclusion. But, in academic terms, it wouldn’t be a comparison, would it - it’d be two descriptions, one after the other.
To compare something in academia, you need to ANALYSE them – to select a number of criteria for comparison which allows you to measure one against the other systematically (i.e. point-by-point), and comprehensively (i.e. exhaustively). That is all your CACTUS mnemonic is – it is a suggestion by your teacher of a list of criteria which MAY apply to the sources you are being asked to compare. There are others – other teachers teach OCM (origin, context, motive), COC (content, origin, context), DCAD (denotation, connotation, author, date), SIOP (Surface content, Inference, Origin and Purpose), CPD (Content, Provenance, Date) etc. CACTUS seems especially good because it offers a long list of relevant criteria, but you don’t need to follow it slavishly in the exam – the exam isn’t about following CACTUS, it’s about answering the question, and CACTUS is merely a memory-prompt to help get you going.
Now, your teacher is ALSO exactly right when he says that examiners don’t like formulaic answers – they label it ‘learned response’, and they DO mark it down. By this they mean the pupil who clearly doesn’t understand/isn’t answering the question, but is just ‘CACTUS-ing’ the sources without really understanding why or what or he is doing.
Under the pressure of an exam, it’s really useful to have a list like CACTUS to fall back on, but you have to be open to noticing other criteria, or dropping ones that don’t really add anything to your answer.
Also to avoid the ‘learned response’ impression:
- Don’t make it clear that you are using CACTUS – don’t start every paragraph with something like ‘The first thing I am going to look at Content…’!
- Add, drop, rearrange your criteria to make sure your answer ‘builds’ in a systematic/planned way towards a conclusion (i.e. plan an answer using CACTUS rather than ploughing through CACTUS as your answer)
- Make sure you USE the criteria to answer the question. If you look at the question, it does not just ask you to compare the sources. It asks you to compare them ‘as evidence for’ something. I always told my Special Needs pupils to write about one source, then put the words ‘by contrast’ or ‘similarly’ thenwrite about the other source – THAT is a ‘learned response’. Rather make sure that your paragraph takes its criteria (e.g. content), but that you then realistically and exhaustively compare how the content of the two sources compaers as evidence for the cited issue. Of course you will mention both sources, of course you will use connectives of comparison, but your focus will be explicitly on how their content compares as evidence of the issue – i.e. there will be an evident freedom of approach within the paragraph which has an end-result (answering the question) as its focus.
- Finally, the best way of all you can break the ‘learned response’ mould is to finish with a conclusion which draws the points together and comes to a judgement. You HAVE to write a number of paragraphs comparing the sources criterion-by-criterion; the examiner knows this and will mark you down if you don’t. And he knows that your teacher will have taught you a list of ‘good ideas’ for criteria – that is what teaching you how to do these essays is about – so he is expecting to see a paragraph on content, and another or provenance, or authorship, or some such; again, he will mark you down if you miss some critical aspect of comparison. So there is a degree of ‘learned response’ which he is actually wanting to see. But your conclusion: now that is all your own, and after ‘ticking-through’ the ‘routine’ elements of your essay, he will sit up and take especial interest on what he will see as ‘your bit’ of the answer. So flag it up with something like: ‘So – what does all this mean overall’, and then draw out the cleverest overview point you can make, referring back to previous ideas in your essay, but also introducing a ‘new idea’ and a ‘clincher fact’ to ram home your point(s).
One thing which some teachers recommend, is that you START with this paragraph; it demonstrates planning, and it gives your essay a thread-to-hold-it-together, because each paragraph can refer as its last idea to the though-going thesis. Personally, however, I don’t recommend this – at A-level, these essays too often disintegrate into a repetitious: ‘This is what I’m going to say – now I’m saying it – there I’ve said it’! I prefer the essay which gives a ‘teaser’ in the introduction, ploughs through the routine stuff with an air of 'unearthing clues', and then provides a Miss-Marple-like solution-conclusion at the end; they strike me as much more fun.
As for the second question, most of what I have said above applies again.
Start by getting you head around what the question is asking and what you have to do to answer it.
‘Assess how far’ is fundamentally an ‘either-or’ question, so you are going to use a thesis-antithesis-synthesis (points for/points against/weighed conclusion) structure.
Your teacher’s mnemonic reminds you:
FIRST, to go through the sources and group (ie divide) them into ‘for’ and ‘against’ so they will fit into your structure.
SECOND, that the question is asking you how far the sources support the interpretation
, so REAKS is a suggestion of the different criteria/measure you might draw on in both halves of the essay to analyse the weight of the contribution of each of the sources to one side or other of the argument (everything above applying).
Does this help – get back if it doesn’t.