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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