Step 1: Analyse the brief
Reading the essay brief seems a very obvious and straightforward process, but the many students who lose marks for misreading essay briefs suggests that this is actually a process that needs careful thought.
Consider the following seven points when reading an essay brief and deciding exactly what’s required of you.
1. Read the essay brief out loud
Reading out loud forces you to pay attention to every word and to familiarise yourself with the brief in its entirety instead of focusing on only part of it.
2. Underline and define key words
Make sure you understand exactly what is required in the essay. Identify the key words and underline them. If there are any words you are unfamiliar with or whose precise meaning you are unclear about, look them up in a dictionary (never just guess at a word’s meaning).
3. Underline directive verbs
Directive verbs are those that give instructions about what you are required to do in the essay. Make sure you understand these words. Below is a list of the more common directive verbs used in essay briefs.
Example of Directive Verbs
Break something down to identify the main ideas and component parts then show how they are related and why they are important.
Give the meaning. You give your own opinions, backed by evidence.
Discuss, criticise or explain the meaning of a situation or statement.
Show why you think it is right. Give reasons for your statement or conclusion.
Show both the similarities and the differences.
Give a general summary of the main ideas, supported by secondary ideas. Omit minor details.
Compare by showing the differences.
Show by argument or logic that it is true. You must provide adequate evidence.
Give the exact meaning.
Examine, giving the details and the points for and against. You must develop a logical argument backed by sound evidence.
Make a survey in which you look critically at the important parts.
List, name, and specify and describe the main ideas.
Specify the main points in precise terms. Omit minor details.
Give your judgement, after showing the advantages and disadvantages.
Give a concise account of the main ideas. Omit details and examples.
Make plain, interpret, and account for in detail.
Follow the progress or history of a topic.
Explain or make it clear by concrete examples. Sometimes you may use a figure or a diagram.
4. Identify key issues
Always read the essay brief with the following factors in mind: the unit outline, its desired learning outcomes, what you have heard in lectures or read in prescribed texts; direct and indirect indications from your lecturer about which aspects, themes, or topics are most important in the unit. Keep focused on the key issues.
5. Clarify in your mind what the lecturer is looking for by making connections between the essay brief in context of the course unit
As well as focusing on the key issues, it’s useful to think of the essay in terms of why the lecturer set this particular essay brief and what they will be looking for in your completed essay. Think about how you can most convincingly demonstrate to them that you have satisfactorily transformed information into your own knowledge and that the learning process has been successful.
6. Note the number of words required
The number of words specified in the essay brief is a good guide to the depth and level of complexity and detail required in your essay. Given the tight assignment schedules in most courses, it is useful to develop a sense of how much research and note-making is required for different lengths of essay. Making enough detailed notes for a 10,000-word essay when you are required to write only a 1,000-word essay is not economical use of your time. It’s also more difficult to manage large quantities of detailed notes, so keep the level of note-making appropriate to the length of essay. As a general guide, academic paragraphs are 100 – 200 words. Therefore a 500-word essay should be no longer than 5 paragraphs, while a 1000-word essay could be between 5 and 10 paragraphs.
7. Analyse the marking guide
A marking guide allocates marks to individual components of the essay according to what is considered to be the most important aspects of the assignment. The marking guide is the basis of evaluation of the assignment and corrective feedback to the student.
Example of Marking Guide
This is typical of the emphasis in marking guides for first-year essays, as lecturers encourage students to engage with the basics of writing in an academic context.
Although the most heavily weighted component is ‘evidence that the topic is understood’ (25%), it is clear that the lecturer also wants you to give evidence that you’ve understood and can apply to your own work the scholarly conventions of citation and referencing. This is typical of the emphasis in marking guides for first-year essays, as lecturers encourage students to engage with the basics of writing in an academic context.
Some lecturers use a more holistic marking scheme that evaluates the essay as an organic whole rather than in terms of its individual parts. The following identifies the characteristics of essays that score the lowest, average, and highest marks.
Example of Holistic marking scheme
|Example:The lowest (fail) marks are awarded for work which:
Average (pass to credit) marks are awarded for work which:
Highest (distinction to high distinction) marks are awarded for work which includes all of the features necessary for ‘average marks’ category, and in addition:
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