further ruminations on writing an essay

This post’s triggered by the fact that I’ve just spent several hours reading through draft essays that students have asked me to check for them. I definitely don’t go through & correct every last thing, but I do identify areas that need work, & I’ll give examples of how to improve things. For example, I’ll re-write a paragraph as an example of how to tighten up a piece of writing, making it more concise without losing any of the information therein. And a lot of what I’ve said to my students is equally relevant to those of you intending to sit Schol Bio exams at the end of the year.

So far all the essays I’ve looked at have obviously been based on an initial essay plan. This is really good 🙂 An essay plan allows you to identify the key points you’re going to make & the supporting evidence you need to include, plus you can make sure that your ideas flow well & there’s a logical progression of concepts through the essay. This makes it much easier to read & follow your argument, & from the point of view of the schol examiners it’s good evidence of your ability to synthesise ideas and concepts into a coherent whole.

An essay plan is thus a Very Good Thing 🙂

On the other hand, don’t make assertions that you can’t support. In the exam, your supporting evidence is often quite likely to come from the resource material that’s provided as part of the question. (This can be quite extensive, so take the time to read it carefully before you begin on your answer.) For my students, the evidence needs to come from the scientific literature.

For example, I’ve just read one essay where the student’s saying that both genetic drift & natural selection have played a part in modifying the frequency of a particular allele in a population’s gene pool. As far as I’m aware only one of these factors has had an effect – but I’m open to persuasion (& aware that I haven’t read every single resource the students have sought out. And believe me, they’ve done an excellent job of researching their topics). If a student can marshall evidence in support of their point of view then I’ll give credit for that, even if it wasn’t in my original marking scheme. After all, one of the skills I want them to develop is independence of thought, & that’s not going to happen if they have to toe the party line!

Punctuation matters! (For those who haven’t seen the wonderful ‘Dear John’ letters, where so much depends on where you put the commas & full stops, I’ll add it to the end of this post.) The examiner is looking for good communication skills, and that does include doing your best to ensure that you’re using good punctuation, grammar, & sentence structure. In a prepared essay, like those I’ll be marking next week, I do come down fairly hard on this – but I’m realistic enough to know that things will probably go a little to pieces for some people during the exams 🙂

So far every draft I’ve looked at has had a good introduction that’s clearly set the stage for what’s to come. And without any use of the phrase ‘In this essay I will discuss…’. I already know that, from the choice of essay topic (which has to be included on the cover page). In an essay with a restricted word limit, those are just wasted words. And in an exam, those words take time to write, & you could probably use that time more profitably. (That’s actually one reason we have a restricted word limit, because in the final exam our first-year students have only about 45 minutes in which to write an answer, so they’re not going to be writing great long screeds but they still need to cover all the key points. The term essay gives them practice in this.) But a word of warning – the conclusion should not be simply a restatement of the introduction! It really should be a concluding statement that highlights the key points you’ve made in the course of the essay, linking them to your main themes or reinforcing their significance.

Anyway, it’s rather late & I’ve got a lot of meetings tomorrow; I need my sleep. The ‘Dear John’ letters follow, for your delectation. My class thought them extremely funny 🙂 I know which version I would prefer to receive!

Dear John,
I want a man who knows what love is all about. You are generous, kind, thoughtful. People who are not like you admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me for other men. I yearn for you. I have no feelings whatsoever when we’re apart. I can be forever happy—will you let me be yours?

Dear John,
I want a man who knows what love is. All about you are generous, kind, thoughtful people, who are not like you. Admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me. For other men, I yearn. For you, I have no feelings whatsoever. When we’re apart, I can be forever happy. Will you let me be?

2 thoughts on “further ruminations on writing an essay”

  • Hi Alison
    I would like to apologise for not getting back to you regarding a possible trip to Auckland to talk to schol bio students up this way. I made some initial steps (spoke to Michal and made a start at finding a venue) but other (work things) took over in the interim.
    Thankfully things have progressed due to yours and others enthusiasm. To cut a long story short (as they say), Mike Stone is now on to it and will contact you regarding possible times and venues etc.
    Looking forward to your visit, as are the schol students.
    Kind regards

  • Alison Campbell says:

    Hi Cindy
    Had a talk with Mike yesterday about this very thing 🙂 We’re probably looking at early November as next weekend is too close, I’m doing a Schol Bio session in Hastings on the 16th, & I don’t imagine people will want to mess up the Labour Weekend break! (Well, I don’t fancy it myself!!)
    Should be fun, I really enjoy these sessions 🙂

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