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ANALYSING AN ESSAY QUESTION

Learning Centre, University of Sydney

What do markers want when setting essays?

No matter what course you are doing, it's

designed with two specific goals in mind:

to show knowledge of a particular subject

to show your skills in thinking and communication.

Introduction

Common criteria of undergraduate essay writing focus on the

following requirements:

students need to be analytical and critical in their response students need to structure their writing logically students need to be persuasive writers

students need to answer the question

Essay Questions

Set questions are usually written in order to judge your ability to understand a topic or theme, and to relate general ideas to specific applications (or vice versa).

In order to demonstrate that you can do these things you must be able to:

correctly identify the focus of the question deal with it consistently and within the terms of the essay and discipline That is, you must answer the set question.

Exercise 1

First year students were asked to write an essay on the following question:

“The science of ergonomics is central to good

modern design.” Discuss this statement.

About half of the group wrote essays that answered this question

appropriately. The other half wrote essays which really answered other

questions. Read the essay extracts below and match each essay extract with the question it appears to be answering. Write the letters a) - d) in the boxes.

Essay extracts:

a)Ergonomics is important in design as it can cut down workloads and

the energy needed to perform a task.

b)During the industrial revolution, the word "ergonomics" had a rather

negative implication about

it. ....

different meaning through time.

However, the word has taken on a

c)Whilst the statement seems straight forward enough I take issue with the words "modern" and "good". d)If we were to design a chair we should have an understanding of the

purpose of the chair - will it be used for work or just to sit on and eat.

Essay questions:

[

]

Discuss the wording of this question.

[

]

Why is ergonomics important?

[

]

Describe an ergonomically designed object.

[

]

What is ergonomics?

Extracts

Questions

Ergonomics is important in design as it can cut down workloads and the energy

needed to perform a task.

Why is ergonomics important?

(i.e. some students gave reasons why

ergonomics is important.)

During the industrial revolution, the word "ergonomics" had a rather negative

implication about

it. ....

However, the

word has taken on a different meaning

through time.

What is ergonomics?

(i.e. some students defined the term.)

Whilst the statement seems straight forward enough I take issue with the

words "modern" and "good".

Discuss the wording of this question.

(i.e. some students criticised the wording of the question.)

If we were to design a chair we should have an understanding of the purpose of the chair - will it be used for work or just

to sit on and eat.

Describe an ergonomically designed object.

(i.e. some students described an ergonomic object - usually a chair.)

There may also be some sections of your essay where you will write descriptively. However, most disciplines, especially in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, will set essay questions that involve the process of analysis.

Analysis is the process of

breaking down a topic/concept/group of facts into components or categories

looking for relationships between them

understanding how each component contributes to the whole picture

drawing conclusions about their significance

For example, an essay question such as

“How does play contribute to the development of the primary school-aged child? (Education)

requires you to:

understand what is meant by the two key concepts of play and development

identify different types of play, for example, board games, group games, solitary play, imaginative play, ...

organise these different types of play into logical groupings or categories for your discussion, for example, inside versus outside play, group versus solitary play, organised versus spontaneous play and so on

identify different areas of development, for example, social, cognitive, emotional, physical, language and psychological development and so on

then by referring to the research literature show how (= in what ways) the different categories of play contribute to different areas of development.

Essay questions requiring analysis may also involve some (or

all) of the following processes.

PROCESS/TYPE

PURPOSE

 

EXPLANATION

to offer explanation on why things happen

 

INTERPRETATION

to look at assumptions/ information in terms of

key/ model/ framework

 

EVALUATION

to present and justify a value judgement about

certain information

 

ARGUMENTATION

to

take

and

justify

a

position

on

some

issue/

debate

 

Adapted from Martin, J. R. & Peters, P. [1985] "On the analysis of exposition" in Hasan, R. (Ed) Discourse on Discourse, ALAA Occasional Papers, No. 7, p. 88.)

Explanation

Why was the early 19th century so important for the development of archaeology?(Archaeology)

This essay question assumes that the 19th century was very important in the development of archaeology and is asking you to explain why it was so important, and to give your reasons for each of the points made or issues raised.

Interpretation

'Jemma (aged 14 years) fights a lot with her parents but not with

her friends. She used to be a keen student but now seems to have

lost interest in both her school studies (she wants to leave school next year) and outside school activities. She does however take a

passionate interest in the environment and in boys.‘

Interpret these behaviours in the light of Erikson's stage theory on adolesence. (Education)

This essay question is asking you to interpret particular behaviours in a brief case study of an adolescent in terms of Erikson's theory on adolescence.

Evaluation

Evaluate the role of J.S.Mills in the transition from Classical,

Political Economy to Modern Economics, with particular reference to value and distribution. (Economics)

This essay question is asking you to make a judgement on the contribution made by J.S.Mills giving the reasons for your judgement. By making a judgement you are also taking a position - that he played a major role or a minor one.

Argumentation

Nursing practice has been crucial in preventing the spread of

disease. Do you agree?(Nursing)

This essay question is asking you to discuss the relationship between nursing practice and the prevention of the spread of disease. You would select and show how different examples of nursing practices have prevented the spread of disease/s and you would take a position on this relationship, i.e. that nursing practice has been crucial or has not been crucial in preventing the spread of disease.

Look closely at what you are being asked to

do in your assignment

(Deconstructing the Question):

There are:

content’ words

‘task’ words

limit’ words and

The Assignment Structure

Definitions:

The content words tell you the subject matter of the essay question;

The task words set out the academic action you must undertake;

The limit words are those that tell you the boundaries of the essay;

The Assignment structure tells you what type of writing you should produce (Academic Action): essay; report; critical review; literature review; reflective journal; portfolio and case Study.

Commonly Used Task Words Overview :

analyse

argue

assess

compare

contrast

criticise

define

describe

discuss

evaluate

examine

explain

illustrate

interpret

justify

outline

prove

review

summarise

trace

enumerate

Analysis in Action

For example, look closely at the following question:

Discuss the effects of the 2000 Olympic Games on

Australia’s international reputation (2500 word essay)

In this question:

The assignment structure is ‘essay’ – the format of the writing

The content words are ‘the effects of the 2000 Olympic Games’ and ‘Australia’s international reputation’— the subject matter

The limit words are - ‘2000 Olympic Games’ and

‘2500’words;

‘discuss’ is the task (direction)

Your Turn

Try out your analysis skills with a partner:

Present a written argument or case on the following statement.

The internet will bring about a new freedom of information

and so narrow the technology gap between developed and developing countries.

Using the above essay topic, divide it into its various parts:

Decide what the assignment structure is likely to be.

Highlight the content words.

Circle the direction word.

Put square brackets around the limits of the topic.

Summary

Deconstructing the question guides your writing in terms of what the assignment is asking of you (as well as setting limits to what you do):

You should:

Identify the key points and note them down

Ask yourself:

What specific material needs to be addressed?

What specific issues need to be explored?

What commentators and theories are particularly relevant?

What questions need to be considered?

Consider this question from a first year International

Relations course:

What is the “world food crisis”? What are the

political causes of it and what might be the political

responses to it? (2,000 words)

While you are reading the following section on

subject, angle and process, think about how they apply to the question above.

Subject/angle/process

Analysing the question in terms of subject/angle/process helps you identify the task in preparation to developing a plan.

• The subject of your essay is the broad field or topic - it is the “what” your topic is about: ask yourself, “What do I have to demonstrate knowledge about?”

• The angle of your essay is the controversy or debate that is at the heart of the subject - “why” you should examine this topic: ask yourself, “What questions do I have to answer?”

• The process is the “how” your essay is going to proceed in answering the “what” and the “why”: ask yourself, “How should I answer?”

The process is the way in which you demonstrate your academic point

of view, using evidence to develop your answer to the question.

If you look at the handout "What do markers want in an essay?" you'll

notice that -

the "subject" above corresponds to the “focus," the "angle" corresponds to the “wide and critical reading,” and

the "process" corresponds to the “argument.“

In the essay question above, the subject is the “world food crisis.” In this

question, the angle for International Relations is to identify what the

“world food crisis” is, the political causes of it and the possible political

responses to it. The process involves explaining the politics of trade and the inequalities of wealth, and some suggestion of how these might be overcome.

Now you are in a position (though this will adapt and evolve) to develop

an argument: ask yourself, “What do I want to persuade (with evidence) the reader to think?”

The first point is about the subject matter: if you are studying commerce, you will learn the

significance of a debt to equity ratio and how to read a company’s financial statements.

The second point is more complicated: these skills in thinking and communication are often not acknowledged explicitly in your courses, but improving these skills is fundamental to successful university study.

In developing your knowledge about the subject - whatever subject it is - you will need to:

develop reading skills to order, test and evaluate ideas and evidence, assess the relationships of these ideas to other ideas and evidence, and formulate questions about these ideas and evidence become an increasingly independent learner develop a nuanced, coherent position which can be substantiated with evidence develop a questioning and academically critical mind learn writing and communication skills in order to express your position with clarity and precision.

With this list in mind, markers assess your ability as it is demonstrated in your assignment. This assessment can be considered as four areas of competence: focus, wide and critical reading, argument, and presentation.

Focus

In order to demonstrate your questioning and critical mind, it is

expected that your essay focuses clearly on the issues of the

question you have been given. This involves several tasks:

understanding the question(s) or task(s) you have been

given: what knowledge or skill are you being required to

demonstrate?

identifying relationships between ideas: are these ideas in

opposition with each other, in support of each other, or

somewhere in between?

what, in a nutshell, are the most significant elements that you explore to answer the question?

Wide and critical reading

Of all the skills developed at university, reading is perhaps the most important.

Reading widely - from a variety of sources, authors and points of view - enables you to understand the spectrum of points of view relevant to the topic. Whatever the topic, it's likely that there is a range of views which take different positions, contradict each other, support each other, use alternative evidence, refute the positions of

others and so on. As you read widely, your ideas will be tested, your assumptions may be

made clearer to you, and this will help you to develop a coherent argument for your essay.

Reading “critically” means reading for strengths and weaknesses to gain a deeper

understanding of a point of view rather than necessarily accepting the writer’s position. Ask

yourself:

what is the writer’s argument? what evidence is used to substantiate the argument? what are the limitations to the argument? what are the assumptions used by the writer? what evidence might refute or question the writer’s argument? how does this writer’s argument relate to other arguments?

Argument

The “argument” in this sense is not a dispute.

Your argument is a combination of

reason, analysis and evidence constructed coherently and logically, intended to persuade the reader to this position.

The argument of your essay is your answer to the

question and is a demonstration of your academic point of view.

A reasoned argument requires:

coherence: its parts fit logically together; the argument announced in your introduction develops through your paragraphs and is confirmed in your conclusion. explanation: background, theories, specialist terminology, evidence and conclusions are clearly identified and framed

so that the reader gains a better understanding of the topic.

evidence: examples, source documents, the arguments of others and results of experiments from your wide and critical

reading are explored so that they explain, support and

develop your point of view, or refute the point of view of others.

reason: logical connections are made between actions or

phenomena and results or implications, so that the reader

better comprehends your argument.

Argument is the key to a successful essay, but it is important to realise that your argument relies on the focus of your essay, the

wide and critical reading you demonstrate, and the presentation

of your essay.

PROBLEMS/SOLUTIONS

Living

in

a

foreign country can be fun and

exciting, but it can also be problematic. One

of the most serious problems that people living in a foreign country face is culture shock. What ways can you think of to help people deal with this problem?

Culture Shock

Frustration, anxiety and stress occur whenever people can’t do all the things they are

accustomed to doing in their everyday lives.

Problem

Solution

Communication language friendship ; Environment bigger/smaller; weather; ways of dressing ; Transport ; Shopping ; Food ; Money problems Accommodation ; Values religion, moral behaviour, justice

Learn the way your hosts do things from as simple as shaking hands to what is taboo ; Be more flexible in your thinking ; Join as many

different groups that will allow you to mix and form friendships ;

be

prepared to open up to new experience at least once to broaden your

outlook ; be prepared but if not learn quickly ; become familiar with

your surroundings ; expect and learn to cope with teasing and ridicule ;

talk with people who have “been there, done that” ; meet someone

local who can guide you through the problems that may arise talking to counsellors and teachers.

; try

Understanding the Question Example 2

Present a written argument or case to an educated reader

with no specialist knowledge of the following topic:

We live in a technological age. However, technology cannnot solve all the world’s problems. Therefore some

people argue that we need to place less emphasis on

technological solutions and more on other values.

To what extent do you agree or disagree with this opinion?

You should use your own ideas, knowledge and

experience to support your arguments with examples and relevant evidence.

Understanding the Question Example 2

The first part of the instruction makes it clear that

  • a) you need to present a serious argument in a formal style (for an 'educated

reader')

  • b) you are not being tested on your deep knowledge or understanding of the

subject ('with no specialist knowledge').

The last part of the instruction offers a suggestion about what to include. ('You

should use your own ideas, knowledge and experience to support your

arguments with examples and relevant evidence.')

Now let us look at the question itself.

This also has two components:

a) the description of the topic, which is usually expressed as a point of view on a current situation and

b) a question asking you what your opinion is.

Understanding the Question Example 2

Part a) is generally expressed in 1 to 3 sentences. One or

two sentences may present a statement or a question

about a situation: (’We live in a technological age, but technology cannot solve all our problems').

The second part will probably present a conclusion that

some people draw from this situation ('therefore we

should place less emphasis on technology and more on other values'). This is designed to help you to think about the contents.

Part b) asks the question. This may be phrased as to what extent do you agree? or

what is your opinion? or do you agree with this? or words to that effect.

Understanding the Question Example 2

Now what is your task?

  • a) to present both sides of the argument?

  • b) to either strongly support or strongly oppose the argument, depending on

your own personal opinion?

  • c) to partly support or partly oppose the argument, depending on your

own personal opinion?

The correct answer is either b) or c).

The words to what extent mean the same as how much. That is, your answer will express one of these attitudes:

  • a) I agree completely

  • b) I agree partly and disagree partly

  • c) I disagree completely.

We live in a technological age. However, technology cannnot solve all the world’s problems. Therefore some people argue that we need to place less emphasis on technological solutions and more on other values.

Finding the Focus

  • a) Many people believe that the Internet is the most revolutionary

new invention of the last century. Do you agree?

  • b) The Internet has revolutionized the modern world, but many

people argue that it has also created new problems and inequalities.

What is your opinion?

  • c) The Internet could revolutionize the world in future, if everyone

could have easy access to all the information that is available on the World Wide Web. Do you agree or disagree with this statement?

Finding the Focus

Each question has a topic of the internet and its role in the

world.However each must be answered differently. How?

a) Many people believe that the Internet is the most revolutionary new invention of the last century. Do you agree?

b) The Internet has revolutionized the modern world, but many people argue that it has also created new problems and inequalities. What is your opinion?

c) The Internet could revolutionize the world in future, if everyone could have easy access to all the information that is available on the World Wide Web. Do you agree or disagree with this statement?

You can see that

a) involves comparing the Internet with other

inventions, and arguing that it is, or is not, the

most revolutionary.

On the other hand

b) expects you to accept that it is revolutionary, and to consider both its benefits and the problems it has created.

Finally

c) wants you to speculate about the future, and

to consider how much you believe the future benefits will change the world.

Which of the following basically ask the same question. (In each case the statement would be followed by a question asking for your opinion.)

a)Tertiary education is of greater benefit to the individual receiving it than to the society as a whole. It is therefore not desirable for governments to spend the taxpayers' money on supporting students just so that they can earn more money in future.

  • b) Parents have a greater influence on their children’s future success than schools do.

Governments should therefore provide ‘parent training courses’ rather than 'teacher training courses'.

  • c) Free tertiary education is essential for every country since tertiary graduates are the only

qualified and educated people that can help countries to progress in the modern world.

  • d) Education is the most important source of children’s development, no matter what their

background, if children have good schools and teachers they can progress. Governments should

therefore put their major resources into school education.

  • e) Modern science and technology can solve environmental problems, such as pollution and

global warming, if we apply enough resources to research.

  • f) People throughout the world are ignoring the dangers of environmental pollution and of

global warming in the hope that science and technology can find solutions. This is not true. We

all need to take responsibility for the damage we are causing and must change our life-styles.

TASK ANSWERS:

a)and c) ask the same question, but from

opposing ends;

b ) and d) both compare the role of the home

and the school in education;

e ) and f) deal with the same question from

opposing ends