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 dont 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 Units 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 XVs 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 dont feel I have all the answers. Indeed I am very much aware that I dont! 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
Introduction to 20 mark essay writing
Essay writing in Higher History is very important. Overall, 70% of your grade will be ascertained from the essays you write, 30% from your extended essay and 40% from your 2 essays in Paper 1 of the final examination.
As you have advanced through the school in Standard Grade and Intermediate 2 you will have learned how to write short essays worth 8 marks. You will remember how daunting these essays seemed to be when you first started writing them. You will also remember how writing these essays became easier with practice.
Essay writing is a skill, something that has to be learned. You had to learn how to introduce your essay, develop the points and then conclude your argument when writing 8 mark answers.
Essay writing at higher takes you a stage further in your development as rational, discursive and deliberating beings and again you will have to learn how to write Higher Essays skilfully.
However, some words of warning! Your development of these “higher” skills will not come naturally, neither will they come from listening attentively to your teacher or copying your friends essays (it does happen and these people are invariably caught). Your development of these essay writing skills will be down to hard work, reading and practice. Simple.