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 Is it patently out of date, and superseded by recent research?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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  1. Dear Dr Fernyhough.

    Thanks for writing this blog, it's been very useful to me so far in my studies at Durham! I've been writing another Psychology essay, and I've just realised, that, although I've been wring essays for a while. I don't actually know exactly what one, very common key word actually means. It's "discuss".

    What critical / analytical tools are we supposed to bring to the command 'discuss'. It's not describe, not compare / contrast, not assess (evaluate). What does discuss actually ask you to do?

    Thanks again.

  2. Good question! Watch this space. Good to hear that you're finding the blog useful.


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