Thursday, December 10, 2009

Presenting your essay

Text set solid vs. text set with added leading...Image via Wikipedia
If all has gone according to plan, your essay should now be finished and ready to print out. Here are a few tips for maximising its impact.

1. Make it legible.
Put yourselves in the position of the people who will be marking your work. Your essay will make for a much more pleasant reading experience if it is double-spaced in a decent-sized font (such as Times 12 point).

2. Cut out the packaging. 
There's nothing more annoying for a marker than having to extract an assignment from a plastic wallet and then slot it in again after marking. Don't use any plastic envelopes or binding—simply stapling the pages together is much easier for readers.

3. Follow the guidelines. 
You will have been given guidelines (in your course handbooks and elsewhere) on referencing style, word counts, electronic submission, etc. Make sure you follow them.

4. Make it easier for your marker to give feedback. 
Depending on the kind of assignment, your marker may or may not be writing comments on the essay itself. Either way, make it as easy as possible for him/her to refer to specific bits of your essay when writing feedback. Pages should be numbered, or course, but so should lines. (In Word, choose 'Document' from the Format menu. Click on the 'Layout' tab. Press the 'Line number' button and check the box, then click OK. Line numbers will appear in Page Layout View, and also when you print.)

5. Read it through.
Many errors of style, fact, argument or presentation can easily be picked up on a simple read-through. Plan the writing of your essay so as to give you a few days at the end in which you can have a break before re-reading it. Getting some distance on your work is not only good for the soul; it also allows you to gain some all-important perspective on what you have written, and to see it with fresh eyes.

I hope you've found this blog useful. I'd be very pleased to carry on in the New Year, but please let me know that you have found it helpful, and perhaps also suggest things you would like to see covered. You can email me through my departmental webpage or through my website, or else you can leave a comment right here on the blog. Have a good holiday.
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Friday, December 4, 2009

Drawing a conclusion

The arguments
You're getting towards the end of the first draft of your essay, and it's time to read back over what you've written so far. You need to be your own harshest critic here. What would you make of this essay if you were coming to it for the first time? Does the introduction set the themes up nicely? Are assertions supported? Does the argument have a logical, coherent flow? If you're having trouble judging what you've written, then ask a friend to read it for you. A fresh pair of eyes can often spot what is wrong when the author cannot.

This is the point to make changes if you are not happy with things. Are you really answering the question? Perhaps you can be more explicit about how certain findings relate to the essay title. Are you finding that bits are too digressive; that you are going off at a tangent and losing the thread of the argument? Be bold in cutting what you have written, if it makes the essay flow better. Are you evaluating the findings rigorously enough? Can you go further? Have you gone too far, and included too much of your own opinion and speculation?

Last week I noted that your conclusion should only go as far as the evidence allows it to go. Go ahead and speculate; gaze into your crystal ball at what delights future research will bring, but be clear about the limits of that kind of speculation. If you have taken other researchers to task for over-interpreting their findings, then make sure you don't fall into the same trap. If you have clearly established the limitations on the facts, then it will be clear to your reader what your basis is for any further speculation.

Don't be tempted just to repeat what you've said so far without developing it in any way. Your conclusion is the place to draw your argument together: that is bound to mean recapping on that argument, but you need to do it succinctly and in a way that builds on its meaning. For example, don't just repeat your judgement that the evidence favours Theory Y over Theory X. Put that conclusion in context, by perhaps returning to the historical background within which those theories were developed, or by highlighting some issues that are currently 'in the air', and might help to contextualise your conclusions.

A common technique in journalism is to return to the starting point for the piece. If you kicked off with a quotation, or a particular finding, then you might want to go back to it in light of what you've learned through the essay. Don't force it: that approach won't always be appropriate. But it is usually worth bearing your starting point in mind when you are considering your ending.
You're nearly there. Next week we'll talk about the all-important question of presentation.

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Sunday, November 29, 2009

Using evidence to support an argument

Coffee ArgumentImage by alasdair.d via Flickr
By now you should have a sensible structure for your essay and an opening paragraph that grabs the attention. The task now is to marshal the facts at your disposal in making a really persuasive argument.

An argument is not something you have with your housemate after too much red wine. It's the structured, reasoned establishment of a point of view on the basis of evidence. (Have a look back at this post if you need a refresher on this.) With an academic argument, you are trying to persuade somebody of something, by showing them how logic and evidence support that point of view. Facts are the foundation stones of an argument—you can build one without them (based on your own intuitions, hunches or prejudices) but it will quickly fall down.

So what sort of evidence is going to be important? The first point is that it needs to be good evidence. Asking your friends for their opinions is not going to cut the mustard. What we need here are published scientific findings from reputable sources. That means academic journals and books, although other sources of information (such as the internet) can, if carefully evaluated, also be relevant.

You then need to evaluate that evidence. Is it really relevant to your argument? Was the study well designed and conducted? Get into the habit of looking carefully at the Methods sections of the articles that you read, checking for flaws in the design, or methodological problems that might affect how the data should be interpreted. Not all published data is good data. Don't be afraid to be critical about any aspect of a study, if criticism is warranted. Is the rationale sound? Are the methods appropriate? Have the data been properly analysed? Are the findings actually relevant to the study's hypotheses? Are the interpretations of the data sensible? Are the conclusions valid and appropriate?

If you're happy that you have good findings to rely on, then you can be more confident in arguing your case. Here are some tips for constructing a convincing argument.

1. Support every claim or assertion with a piece of evidence.
Ask yourself: what is the basis of this claim? On what evidence is it founded? If I want to make the point that children acquire language quickly, how do I back this claim up with scientific findings? Make sure that you make proper reference to published studies (we'll be looking in more detail on referencing in a week or so). You might want to cite a 'classic' study in the field, or something more recent. It might be appropriate, for example, to cite a recent review article which summarises lots of different studies in the field. But make sure that everything you say is backed up by scholarly research.

2. Evaluate the strength of the evidence.
In psychology, as in many other disciplines, there are few debates that can be settled by any one decisive bit of data. Some findings are stronger, more reliable, more generalisable than others. When using evidence to back up a claim, be critical in evaluating it, and show that you understand its weaknesses and strengths.

3. Consider evidence to the contrary.
Science is as much about proving things wrong as it is about proving things right. Don't keep quiet about evidence which fails to support your thesis. Show that you are aware of it, and give it as much attention as you do to the supportive stuff.

4. Think about alternative points of view.
There is always another side to every argument. Think about alternative viewpoints on the data you are discussing. If you haven't read about any such alternative interpretations, then come up with your own! Strive to make your argument a balanced one.

5. Don't let the facts lead. 
The facts are critical, but they should not drive the essay. The driving force behind your assignment should be your ideas, your argument, your plans for this piece of connected prose. Student assignments often read like an unconnected list of empirical findings, in which it is hard to discern any argument or ideas. Don't let your essay be like that.

6. Reference, reference, reference.
If in doubt, cite. You don't need to reference an academic study when writing your own name at the top of the page, but you do for just about everything else. Be particularly wary of the following scenarios where proper referencing is absolutely essential: direct quotations from someone else (although see below); the use of tables, graphs or diagrams from other work; assertions about the statements or opinions of any named individual; descriptions of how a particular piece of research was conducted; and assertions of fact of any kind, unless they are so obviously part of general knowledge that they don't require a reference.

7. Watch the flow. 
The logic of your argument might be perfect, but you need to make sure that your reader is on board. Connect your paragraphs and sections of argument with succinct linking sentences which make the flow clear to the reader ('Having considered x, we can now consider y...').

8. Learn to hate quotations. 
Direct quotations are only rarely appropriate in an essay assignment. If the person you are quoting has put the thought in a particularly elegant, succinct or epoch-defining way, then quote them sparingly, with full attribution. By this I mean quotation marks showing where the quotation begins and ends (you don't want to be accused of plagiarism), full referencing of the quoted source, and page numbers showing where in the source the quotation comes from. Generally, you should steer clear of direct quotations and put your ideas in your own way. There is nothing less impressive than an assignment that is full of other people's words.

9. Draw a sensible conclusion.
Go as far as your evidence reasonably allows you to go. Speculate on how things might be, or how future research might change the picture, but be clear when you are speculating and when you are arguing on the basis of findings. We'll be looking some more at conclusions next time.

Please leave a comment on this post or any other. Let me know if you're finding this useful, or if there's anything else you'd like to see covered.
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Thursday, November 19, 2009

Writing a killer first paragraph

Let's swap roles for a moment. You're a lecturer staring at a pile of 80 summative essays. Each one has to be carefully and fairly evaluated; the whole task is going to take days. You pick up the first essay from the pile and start reading. What's going to spark your interest? What's going to make the next twenty minutes or so enjoyable for you?

Successful writing is all about grabbing the reader's attention, and keeping it. Good writing is confident and sure-footed; it says, 'Listen to me, I've got something important to say.' A reader's impressions start being established in the very first lines. A professional marker will, of course, stick with an essay (good or bad) doggedly to the end, but if you don't get that first paragraph right, you're missing a chance to establish a good first impression.

So it's worth investing some time in that introductory paragraph. The introduction should encapsulate the whole essay and your arguments in a nutshell. It should sketch out the territory and give clear markers about where your essay is going to go. It should be a microcosm of the essay as a whole, and above all it should establish your authority in being able to answer the question in an interesting, informed, intelligent way. Ask yourself: if I had to answer this question in only a few sentences, what would I write? This should be your introduction.

Let's imagine that you're answering the following question: What can children suffering from autism and the case of Genie tell us about how typically developing children acquire language?

Here's a good introductory paragraph for this essay (with acknowledgements to my colleague Elizabeth Meins):
Acquiring fluency in their native language is something that most children do effortlessly in the first three years of life. Does this mean that the ability to acquire language is innate, or is the rich social and linguistic interaction that children experience from birth responsible for this rapid acquisition? Since ethical constraints mean that it is impossible to test these hypotheses experimentally, researchers have relied on language deficits in atypical cases to try to establish the mechanisms involved in normal language acquisition. The language skills of children with autism and those who have experienced severe early social deprivation suggest that there may be different developmental determinants and pathways for specific aspects of language (e.g., syntax and pragmatics). Data from atypical cases suggest that the early ability to engage in joint attentional episodes and to grasp symbolic representation may be essential for the full acquisition of the major defining feature of human development: language.
What's good about this introduction? For a start, it has a certain amount of academic gravitas. It is not wordy or jargonistic or obscure, but it nevertheless reads as though it were written by someone who knows what she's talking about. This author has engaged with her discipline, read lots of academic work in the subject, and is showing that she knows how to speak the lingo.

This paragraph also gives the reader a clear idea of where the essay is going. It doesn't needlessly duplicate information that is also given later, but it does provide a sort of gloss or commentary on it. It says: this is the kind of essay you're going to get, and this is why it's going to be interesting. It touches on the main points of the argument that is going to be made (i.e., that we can learn about typical language acquisition by looking at how joint attention and symbolic representation are affected in atypical cases) in a way that makes its agenda very clear.

Here, then, are a few tips for writing an intro:

1. Don't simply repeat the title. 
There's nothing worse than reading an essay that simply regurgitates the essay question in a boring way. Show how you intend to address the question, or point out some interesting fact about the question, or comment on it in some way—but don't just give the reader the question again. It's the classic opening gambit of he who does not know what to say.

2. Think 'funnel'. 
A good plan is to start with the general and move to the specific. Why is the study of language acquisition important? Because, for one thing, language is supposed to be a quintessentially human characteristic. Why should we spend time looking at atypical development? Because, generally speaking, the study of atypical psychology can tell us a lot about typical psychology. Move from general points to specific points that set up your argument, just as the mouth of a funnel narrows towards its base and gathers the material in. (See the clip below for more on the funnel metaphor.)

3. Don't waste words on banal, subjective or journalistic openings.
"Memory is one of the most fascinating aspects of human psychology." Well, excuse me while I yawn loudly. There are plenty of people out there who are willing to write bland pop psychology; don't let yourself be one of them.

4. If you need to define terms, then make it interesting. 
Another perennial switch-off is the essay that begins by defining, in a boring, kid's-encyclopaedia kind of way, the main terms and concepts that are going to be used. Now, it might be extremely important that you define terms, especially if common usages of those terms are ambiguous, or if the concept has a specificity in psychology that it doesn't have in everyday speech. But save it for later, or at least do it in a way that doesn't send your reader to sleep.

5. Don't repeat yourself.
Don't duplicate material that will appear later in the essay. You will give the impression that you are not in control of your material; that the essay is writing you, rather than the other way round. Comment on what is to come; sketch out the argument with a few deft strokes; point to a historical connection or an interesting quote, or a news story that is relevant to the issue. But don't waste words saying things twice.

6. Avoid the dull road map. 
Yes, your essay should signpost where your argument is going and tell the reader how you are going to get there. But avoid the intro that says 'First I will do this. And then I will do that. And then I will do the next thing.' Those essays are Dullsville. You can go there if you want, but don't leave your map for us to read.

Finally, you might find the following clip useful:

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Thursday, November 12, 2009

Structuring an argument

Illustration of a scribe writingImage via Wikipedia
Last time we looked at how to come up with a simple structure for an essay using words and pictures. This should have allowed you to get your ideas really clear in your head, in a structure that makes it very obvious where any gaps are and where you need to go back and do more reading and research. The second part of this process involves ordering your ideas into a proper essay plan, and making those crucial decisions about what should go in and what should be left out.

I'm going to ask you to do something rather counter-intuitive at this stage. I suggest that the first thing you do is look back at your word limit for the essay. Word limits are a necessary evil (we'll be talking some more about them in later posts). But they can also be a force for the positive, and here's how.

Let's say you've been given the following question for your assignment: Critically evaluate Theory X as an explanation for Phenomenon A.

You have 1500 words to write an essay on this topic. Question: how many paragraphs is that?

If that sounds like a dumb thing to ask, please bear with me. I'm hoping that the answer you will give me to the Paragraph Question is somewhere around the 8 to 10 mark. If you wrote many more paragraphs than that, they would be very short and your essay would risk looking rather bitty. If your paragraph count is much lower than that, then your paragraphs are going to be too long and your essay will not be an easy read. Either way, it will seem as though your assignment has not been carefully planned, and as though you are regurgitating all the facts you know without paying attention to structure and flow. Somewhere between eight and ten paragraphs will look good on the page, and (as we will see) will help you to structure your essay. Of course, if you have a bigger word limit then you will be able to use more paragraphs. Think of the right length for a paragraph as being around 150-200 words (for comparison, this paragraph is 177 words long). 

(If you don't know how to answer this question at all, because you never use paragraphs, then you've got a problem. Perhaps what follows will help.)

What is the point of a paragraph? Simply put, a paragraph is a home for an idea. Give each point or section of the argument its own paragraph, and then start a new paragraph for each new idea. Have a look at how the writers you are reading do this. You will find that they take paragraphs seriously (editors and publishers insist that they do). Make sure that you too are following this basic convention of connected prose. Your essay will be much the better for it.

Let's say you've plumped for eight paragraphs. You know your own writing; choose a number that works and feels comfortable for you. You've immediately got a ready-made template for your essay. To see how, list your paragraphs (1, 2, 3...) on a single sheet of paper, spreading out so that you use the whole page. Now, what's Paragraph 1 going to be? That's easy: the introduction. And Paragraph 8 is (just as easy) the conclusion. We'll be talking about both of these essential parts of an essay in later posts.

Two down, six to go. Here's where you really start making decisions about what will go in your essay. There are no right and wrong answers here: the structure depends on the question. But one general question you can ask is: Am I going to come down supporting one theory or another at the end of all this? Do I think that, on balance, the evidence supports one side of an argument over another? If so, deal with your favoured position towards the end. Spend your first couple of paragraphs setting up the 'weaker' argument, and then show why it is the weaker in the remainder of the essay. (This is a standard trick of rhetoric: set up the position you oppose and treat it fairly, and then demolish it by the force of your argument. Save the knock-out blows to the end.)

Let's go back to Theory X. Let's say I know that Theory X was proposed in the 1980s on the basis of some very strong evidential support. But things have changed since then. There have been new findings, methodologies and technologies which support another theory, Theory Y. Meanwhile, over on the West Coast, a small but vocal group are plugging Theory Z. The jury is still out, but from your reading Theory Y fits the evidence best.

So here's a suggestion. Dedicate Paragraph 2 to Theory X. You'll use this space to show why the theory was important and valuable (particularly in historical context, when nobody had yet come up with any decent explanation for Phenomenon A), and to explain its theoretical details. In Paragraph 3, you can show how well it accounts for the evidence, both then and now.

Start Paragraph 4 by showing how Theory X was eventually found lacking, and how Theory Y grew up to challenge it. Give us the theoretical details on Theory Y. Then use Paragraph 5 to show how Theory Y accounts for the evidence, both that which Theory X could and couldn't handle, and also the new findings that have emerged since then.

Paragraph 6 could have a flavour of 'compare and contrast'. Put the two theories side by side and show how they match up. Bring Theory Z in as well for a further comparison. If you have a strong view of your own, then make your case (on the basis of the evidence you have discussed, not on the basis of hunches or personal opinions). If you think that all the theories are as bad as each other, treat them fairly while making it clear what the problems are in each case.

You might want to leave Paragraph 7 aside for loose ends. There are no debates (in psychology, the social sciences, and many other disciplines) that are completely sewn up. There is always scope for more research, and your essay needs to look to the future like this. There is always dissent, and contradictory or equivocal evidence. This penultimate paragraph can be set aside for discussing those issues that are to be continued and resolved (hopefully) in the future. You must be able to show that you know what the limitations are to our current understanding of the phenomenon, and that you understand your science's future priorities for it.

You now have a pretty good plan for what your argument will look like. What you've come up with should look very much like the kind of essay plan you will write in an exam, and that's no coincidence: we're talking about the same thing. Do exactly the same in planning an exam answer, and you'll be on firm ground. 

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Friday, November 6, 2009

Knocking your ideas into shape

A hand-drawn mind mapImage via Wikipedia
You've thoroughly researched your topic and done all the reading that (for now) seems relevant. Now you're ready to pump up the coffee machine and type through the night in a frenzy of inspiration. Well, you can do that if you like, but I wouldn't recommend it. Long before you start typing, you need to go completely back to basics. I'm going to deal with this part of the process in two posts (the second part will follow next week).

First of all, let's go back to the essay question. You have of course read the question thoroughly, put yourself in the mind of the question-setter and worked out his/her reasons for putting the question in this way. Be honest, now. Have you?

First of all, ask yourself what sort of assignment title you've been given. Is it one that makes a statement and asks you to discuss it? In that case, you need to ask yourself why this particular statement has been chosen. What makes the statement controversial or interesting in some way? Is it patently out of date, and superseded by recent research? In which case, there's a heavy hint that this is the stuff you are meant to be writing about. What different theoretical perspectives does the statement encapsulate? How does the 'Discuss...' part of the title ask you to use evidence, empirical and otherwise?

Other assignment titles have more of a flavour of a command. They ask you to do something, and it would be nice if you did so. Are you being asked to compare and contrast? To critically evaluate? To describe, outline, itemise? If the essay title is a true question, then why has the question been phrased in this way? How does it separate out a particular aspect of a topic and invite you to focus on that aspect, rather than simply vomiting out everything you know on the subject? Does the question come in two parts, or more? If so, make sure you address them all. It's worth bearing in mind that we don't just think of the first essay title that comes to mind and then hand it over to you. Assignment titles are carefully scrutinised, first by the teaching team and then by the external examiners. The wording you can see there has been chosen for a very good reason, and you need to do some careful thinking to work out what those reasons were.

Now as ever, you already have some important information to guide you in this process. Go back to your learning outcomes and ask yourself how this particular question assesses the knowledge and skills that you are meant to be picking up on this course. The most common complaint made by markers is that candidates have not answered the question. Feel free to ask your lecturer if you have any questions of interpretation. (Using the Discussion Boards on Duo is a great way of doing this). But bear in mind that your lecturer will not provide detailed feedback on essay plans. You are being assessed on your own ability to carry out this research, and it has to be your own thought and effort that goes into the assignment.

Now that you really understand the question, you're ready to start knocking your answer into shape. This is the point at which I put everything away except for a single sheet of A4. Notes, books and computer files can come out later. Remove all other distractions, and give yourself some time alone with your ideas. Be prepared to make mistakes and to go down blind alleys. If it's going wrong, recycle that piece of paper and start again. Keep it simple. Don't get bogged down in detail. All you need to be writing down at this stage are the key points of what you can remember: from your reading, from your lectures, from your conversations with others. Jotting down those key ideas, and beginning to see how they fit together.

I myself am not a particularly graphical thinker, but lots of people are. Such people find it invaluable to draw mind maps or other graphical depictions of their ideas, with the connections between them. There are lots of ways of doing this, and you might find this site useful. Try different ways of representing the findings you have read about. Make a table, for example, listing the key studies on a particular topic, along with information about whether they support or refute a particular theory, whether they found the same results, how their methodology differed, and so on.

Above all, don't get bogged down. Don't feel that you should be writing detailed notes on all the papers you've been reading. There's a chance that you'll never get started if you go down that route. You'll end up not being able to see the wood for the trees, and you certainly won't be able to see how different studies, theories and ideas fit together. Move lightly. Get yourself into a place where you can quickly respond to your ideas, jot them down and develop them. Dictate into a voice recorder. Stick post-its on the wall. Do whatever works for you, but keep it simple. The thing you're aiming for is a rough sketch of how your answer is going to look. You won't have written much, but you'll have taken a big step towards completing your assignment successfully.

Next week I'll be giving some more detail on how you can build on this basic structure. Happy essay-writing until then.
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Thursday, October 29, 2009

Getting the most out of bibliographic databases

Oh, the soaring boringness of that title. But some careful attention to this part of the process will pay off later in a big way. You've found your way to Web of Science. What now?

Web of Science is part of Web of Knowledge, which also contains lots of other bibliographic databases (they're listed here, in the Web of Science factsheet, which gives the official info on how the system works). A bibliographic database is essentially a massively searchable list of scholarly articles, books, chapters, etc. So what I have to say about Web of Science (the database I am most familiar with) should be mostly applicable to whatever database is relevant to your own discipline.

Here's the basic Web of Science search screen (if you can't get this far, you need to go back to last week's post):

You'll see from the above image that you have got three basic search boxes. Each one can be assigned differently (you can change that 'Topic' to 'Author', for example, using the drop-down menu). Say you're writing an essay on the evolution on the human female body shape, as some of my students are doing this term. Just type some or all of those words into the 'Topic' search box, and hit 'Search'. You're away.

When I did that just now, I got 104 relevant results. How am I to know which of these articles is important? Well, I can use the other search boxes to limit my search in various ways. Use the 'Year Published' criterion to pick a particular date or date range. Back in the 'Topic' box, try putting female body shape in double quotes, so that only items containing that exact phrase are returned. 

You've ended up with a list of articles on your topic. The next step is to sort that results list. Look for the 'Sort by' drop-down menu at the top right. This will allow you to sort by date, by relevance, and various other criteria. Possibly the most useful of all is the option to sort by 'Times Cited'. You'll remember that a citation is where one article references another article. This is handy because it allows us to sort our results list according to the number of such references our articles have had. If number of citations is an indicator of how important an article is (debatable, but probably largely true), you have got an instant way of arranging your results list by order of importance, with the most highly cited (most influential) articles at the top.

Now start exploring those items in your results list. Each article in the list will include a live link which takes you to the record for that article. That record will look something like this:

There are several important live links embedded in this screen. Right under the title you'll see the names of the authors. These are clickable, and lead to a separate results list for each author—a list of all the other things they've published. As scientists tend to stick to the same areas, it's highly likely that your author will have written other relevant things on the topic. Click on him/her, and then sort the results by 'Times Cited'. Then you'll find out what your author is really famous for.

Just below the author names, you've got links for Times Cited and References. These lead to lists of which papers have cited this particular article (Times Cited) and which papers this article itself cites (References). Explore both of these to follow the trail in different directions. You'll also see some details on citing articles in the blue box to the right of the screen.

Now it's time to actually read something. You've decided that you like the look of this article, and you want to track it down (preferably through e-journals, so that you don't have to traipse to the library). The Connexions button, right under the title, will tell you immediately what access you have to that article, and will hopefully take you right to it. If Connexions doesn't work, go back into the library catalogue and search E-journals. Failing that, the library may have a paper copy of the journal, so you'll need to get your shoes on.

Web of Science can of course do much more than this. Do you remember the name of an author mentioned in the lecture, but no other details? Search on the name using the 'Author' search box, and add in a keyword in the 'Topic' box. Make use of the fact that Web of Science is updated every week to find the very latest articles in your topic area. Use the 'Add to Marked List' tool to keep track of the articles that look interesting (retrieve your list at any time by clicking on 'Marked List' at the top). Keep an eye out for recent review articles (comprehensive reviews of a topic published in journals such as Psychological Bulletin, Annual Review of Psychology or Developmental Review). These will give you an expert review of the topic which should be a valuable way of directing your reading.

Using these tools wisely will mean that you should be able to include lots of relevant references that go beyond the info in your lecture notes. And that, as we saw last week, is a Good Thing.

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Friday, October 23, 2009

Researching your topic

Sign at the GoogleplexImage via Wikipedia
'Where's my reading list?' I hear you ask. 'How am I supposed to write this dumb essay if I don't know what books to read?'

Well, that's kind of the point. Remember that learning outcome from last week? Students passing this module should be able to locate, read and review a body of research evidence. You're being assessed on your ability to track down, all by yourself, the stuff you need to write this essay. It's a major part of the task. So here are a few tips.

1. Use technology
In my day (yawn), we used to have to traipse to the university library and root through dusty old journals to find the articles we wanted. Then they would have to be photocopied (which we always imagined was a pretty good substitute for actually reading them). Now, of course, we have a world of knowledge at our fingertips. You can use the internet to access your own library's catalogue (including online resources), but you can also access the catalogues of libraries all over the world—some of which may not actually be all that far away. You can look at some of the excellent science blogs that are out there. And you can access numerous books that have been put online through Google Books and other projects.

2. Wean yourself off Wikipedia
I use Wikipedia all the time. It's a great place to start finding out about a topic, and much of it is good, reliable, well-researched material. But make sure it is only a starting point, and be very selective. To meet Wikipedia's editorial standards, articles are supposed to have proper references and further links at the bottom. If you don't see these, or if you see warnings about the article's reliability, take what you read there with a pinch of salt and move on.

3. Get smart with Google
Many of these warnings apply to Google and other search engines. Proceed with caution, and be wise to what Google can do. You probably already know that Google has some specific tools such as Google Scholar, which can be great for finding academic references and which also gives information on how often an article has been cited on the internet. It doesn't stop there, though. Google's Options feature allow you to choose to search only blogs, for example, or to order results by the date in which they appeared, or to restrict the time range of a search.

4. Make friends with a database
Wikipedia and Google are only the appetizers for your research feast, and many of your lecturers would prefer that you got straight on to the main course. This will involve a pig-out on the main bibliographic databases for your discipline, such as Web of Science. Your library's online catalogue should give you an easy link to these (in Durham, choose Databases from the main library homepage; Web of Science can be found as part of Web of Knowledge). The possibilities of these databases are endless, and, if used properly, they can be incomparable research tools. So much so that I'm inspired to do an entire post on this topic next week.

5. Go beyond the lecture material
You probably won't have a specific reading list for your essay, but you will have some relevant references on the topic from your lectures. These are likely to be important, high-quality articles carefully selected for their academic qualities. But they should not satisfy you. If you only write about the research your lecturer has told you about, you will have failed to demonstrate a key academic skill: the capacity for self-directed research. Use the lecture materials as a jumping-off point for looking at what else the authors of those articles have written, for example, or checking what other studies have cited the articles mentioned.

6. Use primary material
You will get credit for showing that you have found your own research material, but you will further impress your markers if can show that you have been to primary sources. By primary sources, I mean journal articles, edited research volumes, and monographs (the term given to academic books usually with one or two authors). In other disciplines, materials such as historical documents, letters and original texts will count as primary sources. Textbooks count as secondary material. You might initially learn about a study through a textbook, but as long as you go on to read the actual article, you can count it as a primary source. The more evidence you can give that you have worked from primary rather than secondary sources, the more impressive your essay will look.

7. Keep it fresh
Your lecturer is probably a lonely individual who last saw real life some time in the 1980s. Use your essay as an opportunity to tell him or her about what is new. I know that I myself feel a tingle of excitement when I read an undergraduate essay that includes references to articles published that year, or to things that are still in press (accepted for publication but not yet actually published). The bibliographic databases mentioned above will help you to keep up with the very latest research, as will blogs and news channels such the BBC. (With blogs and news sites, make sure you read the actual articles, or else be clear that you are using material garnered from a secondary source.) Don't overdo it, though, in your quest for modernity. 'Classic' articles are classic for a reason: because they have stood the test of time and made a real contribution to the discipline. A good balance between the venerable and the edgy is the thing to aim for.

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Friday, October 16, 2009

Those pesky learning outcomes

Last time we asked why the essay has become a perennial favourite as a way of assessing students' knowledge. Now that you know what the enemy is, the next thing to ask is what criteria you are being assessed on. This is where you go back to your module handbook and remind yourself of the learning outcomes for your course. Learning outcomes don't make for exciting reading (believe me, they're even more boring to write) but they are essential in showing what is expected from students taking a course. Lecturers keep them in mind when they are deciding what to teach, how to teach it, and how to assess what has been learned. If you want to impress your marker, show that you have taken this information on board.

For example, I'm teaching a course this year called The Science of Consciousness. Here are the learning outcomes for this module (stay awake at the back):
Subject-specific knowledge: Students passing this module should be able to explain the ways in which consciousness is studied scientifically, and describe models and empirical studies of consciousness in normal subjects and brain-damaged patients.
Subject-specific skills: Students passing this module should be able to locate, read and review a body of research evidence; adopt and critically evaluate different theoretical perspectives and see the relationships between them; and interpret and evaluate the significance of empirical work.
Now, these few lines of pedagogical mumbo-jumbo have just told you exactly what you have to do pass—nay, get an excellent mark on—this module. When we are marking the summative assignments (essays) for this course, my colleagues and I will be looking for evidence of the knowledge and skills described here. Your job in the essay, then, is to show this evidence.

This is not just about knowing how to please the people who are assessing you (although we like to be pleased, of course). An essay that demonstrates these kinds of knowledge and skills will be a good essay. It will be a scientific essay (explain the ways in which consciousness is studied scientifically) rather than an aimless ramble about things that have interested you. It will be based on scientific theory and findings (describe models and empirical studies of consciousness in normal subjects and brain-damaged patients) rather than just being about casual observations. It will show signs of diligent research (be able to locate, read and review a body of research evidence) as well as the ability to say whether the evidence described is any good or not (interpret and evaluate the significance of empirical work). And it will recognise that science is unfinished business—that there are different points of view which deserve fair hearings, and which will be supported by some existing, and some yet-to-be-discovered, facts (adopt and critically evaluate different theoretical perspectives and see the relationships between them).

Every course has its learning outcomes; they will not all be the same as these. (In other disciplines, they may look very different). But they are always there, and they are calling to you: Pay attention to me, and I will show you what you have to do. 
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Thursday, October 8, 2009

What is an essay and why has it come here to bother me?

You've been asked to write a 1500-word essay. You've panicked, moaned to your friends about the unfairness of it all, cried on the phone to your mum, and now it's time to do some work. What is expected of you?

An essay is an argument in words. The 'words' bit of this definition is easy to understand, but the 'argument' part is more slippery. When you are asked to write an essay at university level, you are not being asked simply to regurgitate some facts. You are being asked to organise those facts in making an argument. That means putting forward a point of view which is based on evidence. In the social sciences, that usually means some kind of empirical findings: the kinds of knowledge that come from people doing experiments, conducting surveys or carrying out observations. Your own point of view might well be an important part of your essay (as we'll see in a later post), but at some point in the process it has to be backed up by facts.

I'll be talking more about how to use evidence in making an argument in later posts. We'll also be talking about researching a topic, structuring an essay, working within word limits, considering points of view, and turning a stylish phrase. I'll end this post by asking you to ponder why this thing has been sent to bother you. Why do academics want to spend their time ploughing through reams of paragraphs when they could be finding out what you know through multiple-choice exams? The answer is that essays are not only a great way of finding out what you know, but also of testing how you can use that information in communicating your knowledge and creating new knowledge. A fact in isolation might raise a nod of appreciation; a fact in the service of an argument is a beautiful thing.

Durham students can find more useful information (including feedback sheets, sample essays, notes on referencing style) on duo at Psychology Undergraduate Information > Course Information > General Programme Information > Guidance on essay writing and referencing. 

There is also plenty of useful online information about essay-writing: see the links on the right. You may also want to try and track down the following books:

Smythe, R.T. (1996). Writing in psychology: A student guide. New York: Wiley.
Rosnow, R.L., &  Rosnow, M. (2001). Writing papers in psychology. London: Wadsworth.

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