ANALYSING AN ESSAY QUESTION Learning Centre, University of Sydney
What do markers want when setting essays?No matter what course you are doing, itsdesigned with two specific goals in mind: to show knowledge of a particular subject to show your skills in thinking and communication.
IntroductionCommon 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 QuestionsSet questions are usually written in order to judgeyour ability to understand a topic or theme, andto relate general ideas to specific applications (orvice versa).In order to demonstrate that you can do thesethings you must be able to:correctly identify the focus of the questiondeal with it consistently and within the terms ofthe essay and disciplineThat is, you must answer the set question.
Exercise 1First year students were asked to write an essay on thefollowing question:“The science of ergonomics is central to goodmodern design.” Discuss this statement.About half of the group wrote essays that answered this questionappropriately. The other half wrote essays which really answered otherquestions. Read the essay extracts below and match each essay extractwith the question it appears to be answering. Write the letters a) - d) inthe boxes.
Essay extracts:a)Ergonomics is important in design as it can cut down workloads andthe energy needed to perform a task.b)During the industrial revolution, the word "ergonomics" had a rathernegative implication about it. .... However, the word has taken on adifferent meaning through time.c)Whilst the statement seems straight forward enough I take issue withthe words "modern" and "good".d)If we were to design a chair we should have an understanding of thepurpose 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 QuestionsErgonomics is important in design as it Why is ergonomics important?can cut down workloads and the energy (i.e. some students gave reasons whyneeded to perform a task. ergonomics is important.)During the industrial revolution, the word What is ergonomics?"ergonomics" had a rather negative (i.e. some students defined theimplication about it. .... However, the term.)word has taken on a different meaningthrough time.Whilst the statement seems straight Discuss the wording of thisforward enough I take issue with the question.words "modern" and "good". (i.e. some students criticised the wording of the question.)If we were to design a chair we should Describe an ergonomically designedhave an understanding of the purpose of object.the chair - will it be used for work or just (i.e. some students described anto sit on and eat. ergonomic object - usually a chair.)
There may also be some sections of your essay where youwill write descriptively. However, most disciplines,especially in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, willset 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 versusspontaneous 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 differentcategories of play contribute to different areas of development.
Essay questions requiring analysis may also involve some (or all) of the following processes.PROCESS/TYPE PURPOSEEXPLANATION to offer explanation on why things happenINTERPRETATION to look at assumptions/ information in terms of key/ model/ frameworkEVALUATION to present and justify a value judgement about certain informationARGUMENTATION to take and justify a position on some issue/ debateAdapted from Martin, J. R. & Peters, P.  "On the analysis of exposition" in Hasan, R. (Ed) Discourse on Discourse, ALAA OccasionalPapers, No. 7, p. 88.)
ExplanationWhy was the early 19th century so important for the development ofarchaeology?(Archaeology)This essay question assumes that the 19th century was veryimportant in the development of archaeology and is asking youto explain why it was so important, and to give your reasons foreach of the points made or issues raised.
InterpretationJemma (aged 14 years) fights a lot with her parents but not withher friends. She used to be a keen student but now seems to havelost interest in both her school studies (she wants to leave schoolnext year) and outside school activities. She does however take apassionate interest in the environment and in boys.‘Interpret these behaviours in the light of Eriksons stage theory onadolesence. (Education)This essay question is asking you to interpret particular behavioursin a brief case study of an adolescent in terms of Eriksons theoryon adolescence.
EvaluationEvaluate the role of J.S.Mills in the transition from Classical,Political Economy to Modern Economics, with particular referenceto value and distribution. (Economics)This essay question is asking you to make a judgementon the contribution made by J.S.Mills giving the reasonsfor your judgement. By making a judgement you are alsotaking a position - that he played a major role or a minorone.
ArgumentationNursing practice has been crucial in preventing the spread ofdisease. Do you agree?(Nursing)This essay question is asking you to discuss the relationshipbetween nursing practice and the prevention of the spread ofdisease. You would select and show how different examples ofnursing practices have prevented the spread of disease/s and youwould take a position on this relationship, i.e. that nursingpractice has been crucial or has not been crucial in preventing thespread of disease.
Look closely at what you are being asked todo in yourassignment(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 essayquestion;The task words set out the academic action you mustundertake;The limit words are those that tell you the boundaries ofthe essay;The Assignment structure tells you what type of writing youshould produce (Academic Action): essay; report; criticalreview; literature review; reflective journal; portfolio and caseStudy.
Analysis in ActionFor example, look closely at the following question:Discuss the effects of the 2000 Olympic Games onAustralia’s international reputation (2500 word essay)In this question: The assignment structure is ‘essay’ – the format of thewriting The content words are ‘the effects of the 2000 OlympicGames’ 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 followingstatement.The internet will bring about a new freedom of informationand so narrow the technology gap between developed anddeveloping 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.
SummaryDeconstructing the question guides your writing in terms of what theassignment is asking of you (as well as setting limits to what you do):You should: Identify the key points and note them downAsk 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 InternationalRelations course:What is the “world food crisis”? What are thepolitical causes of it and what might be the politicalresponses to it? (2,000 words)While you are reading the following section onsubject, angle and process,think about how they apply to the question above.
Subject/angle/processAnalysing the question in terms of subject/angle/process helps youidentify 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 demonstrateknowledge about?”• The angle of your essay is the controversy or debate that is at theheart 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 answeringthe “what” and the “why”: ask yourself, “How should I answer?”The process is the way in which you demonstrate your academic pointof view, using evidence to develop your answer to the question.
If you look at the handout What do markers want in an essay? youllnotice that -the subject above corresponds to the “focus,the angle corresponds to the “wide and critical reading,” andthe process corresponds to the “argument.“In the essay question above, the subject is the “world food crisis.” In thisquestion, the angle for International Relations is to identify what the“world food crisis” is, the political causes of it and the possible politicalresponses to it.The process involves explaining the politics of trade and the inequalitiesof wealth, and some suggestion of how these might be overcome.Now you are in a position (though this will adapt and evolve) to developan 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 thesignificance 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 notacknowledged explicitly in your courses, but improving these skills is fundamental to successfuluniversity 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. Thisassessment can be considered as four areas of competence: focus, wide and critical reading,argument, and presentation.
FocusIn order to demonstrate your questioning and critical mind, it isexpected that your essay focuses clearly on the issues of thequestion 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 readingOf 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 tounderstand the spectrum of points of view relevant to the topic.Whatever the topic, its likely that there is a range of views which take different positions,contradict each other, support each other, use alternative evidence, refute the positions ofothers and so on. As you read widely, your ideas will be tested, your assumptions may bemade 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 deeperunderstanding of a point of view rather than necessarily accepting the writer’s position. Askyourself: •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?
ArgumentThe “argument” in this sense is not a dispute.Your argument is a combination ofreason,analysis andevidenceconstructed coherently and logically,intended to persuade the reader to this position.The argument of your essay is your answer to thequestion and is a demonstration of your academic pointof 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 torealise that your argument relies on the focus of your essay, thewide and critical reading you demonstrate, and the presentationof your essay.
PROBLEMS/SOLUTIONSLiving in a foreign country can be fun andexciting, but it can also be problematic. Oneof the most serious problems that peopleliving in a foreign country face is cultureshock. What ways can you think of to helppeople 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 Communication – language – friendship ; Environment – bigger/smaller; weather; ways of dressing ; Transport ; Shopping ; Food ; Money problems Accommodation ; Values – religion, moral behaviour,Solution 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 ; try talking to counsellors and teachers.
Understanding the Question Example 2Present a written argument or case to an educated readerwith no specialist knowledge of the following topic:We live in a technological age. However, technologycannnot solve all the world’s problems. Therefore somepeople argue that we need to place less emphasis ontechnological 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 2The first part of the instruction makes it clear thata) you need to present a serious argument in a formal style (for an educatedreader)b) you are not being tested on your deep knowledge or understanding of thesubject (with no specialist knowledge).The last part of the instruction offers a suggestion about what to include.(Youshould use your own ideas, knowledge and experience to support yourargumentswith 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 2Part a) is generally expressed in 1 to 3 sentences. One ortwo sentences may present a statement or a questionabout a situation: (’We live in a technological age, buttechnology cannot solve all our problems). The second part will probably present a conclusion thatsome people draw from this situation (therefore weshould place less emphasis on technology and more onother values). This is designed to help you to think aboutthe contents.Part b) asks the question. This may be phrased as to whatextent do you agree? orwhat is your opinion? or do you agree with this? orwords to that effect.
Understanding the Question Example 2Now 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, youranswer 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’sproblems. Therefore some people argue that we need to place less emphasis ontechnological solutions and more on other values.
Finding the Focusa) Many people believe that the Internet is the most revolutionarynew invention of the last century. Do you agree?b) The Internet has revolutionized the modern world, but manypeople argue that it has also created new problems and inequalities.What is your opinion?c) The Internet could revolutionize the world in future, if everyonecould have easy access to all the information that is available onthe World Wide Web. Do you agree or disagree with this statement?
Finding the FocusEach question has a topic of the internet and its role in theworld.However each must be answered differently. How?a) Many people believe that the Internet is the most revolutionarynew invention of the last century. Do you agree?b) The Internet has revolutionized the modern world, but manypeople argue that it has also created new problems and inequalities.What is your opinion?c) The Internet could revolutionize the world in future, if everyonecould have easy access to all the information that is available onthe World Wide Web. Do you agree or disagree with this statement?
You can see that a) involves comparing the Internet with otherinventions, and arguing that it is, or is not, themost revolutionary.On the other handb) expects you to accept that it is revolutionary,and to consider both its benefits and theproblems it has created.Finallyc) wants you to speculate about the future, andto consider how much you believe the futurebenefits will change the world.
Which of the following basically ask the same question. (In each case the statement would be followed bya question asking for your opinion.)a)Tertiary education is of greater benefit to the individual receiving it than to the society as awhole. It is therefore not desirable for governments to spend the taxpayers money onsupporting 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 trainingcourses.c) Free tertiary education is essential for every country since tertiary graduates are the onlyqualified 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 theirbackground, if children have good schools and teachers they can progress. Governments shouldtherefore put their major resources into school education.e) Modern science and technology can solve environmental problems, such as pollution andglobal warming, if we apply enough resources to research.f) People throughout the world are ignoring the dangers of environmental pollution and ofglobal warming in the hope that science and technology can find solutions. This is not true. Weall 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 homeand the school in education;e ) and f) deal with the same question fromopposing ends
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