Thursday, February 18, 2010

'Discuss.' Discuss.

Durham Schools CompetitionImage by Lizzie Wells via Flickr
This question came up in a comment on an earlier post, and I thought it deserved a post to itself:
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?
Great question, and sensible to start off (as you do) by stating some of the things that 'discuss' is not. As we'll see, I think there is also a bit of 'assess (evaluate)' in 'discuss', but it's something more as well.

First, if we are to understand the beast, we need to understand where it is found. 'Discuss' questions will often start with a statement or quotation of some kind. Here's an example (picked pretty much at random from a Durham past paper):
'Most conflicts between men and women are reducible to unequal parental investment.' Explain and discuss. 
This is the classic 'discuss' question: it gives you something to get your teeth into (a controversial, striking or interesting statement), and then tells you to get your teeth into it. In this particular example you have a bit of 'explain' to do first: most people won't know what 'unequal parental investment' means, so you need to show that you understand that bit of the question before you can proceed.

Now here's an actual dictionary definition of 'discuss':
to consider or examine by argument, comment, etc.; talk over or write about, esp. to explore solutions; debate
So you are being asked to test out the statement in question, using reasoned argument and evidence for and against. You are being asked to be critical (which means not meekly accepting a viewpoint just because a bloke in a dodgy jumper has told it to you). And you are being asked to evaluate, which means working out, on the basis of empirical findings and reasoned argument, whether the theory/methodology/observation/interpretation/conclusion in question is a good one or not.

If the 'discuss' question doesn't have an actual statement or quotation for you to respond to, it may have the following format instead: 'Discuss the idea that...' or 'Discuss the statement that...'. Again, it's a simple matter to pull out the proposition in question, and test it out through the processes mentioned above.

'Discuss' can sometimes be used in a weaker sense, as in:
Discuss what the study of X has told us about Y.
Here, you can simply plug in the words 'Write an intelligent, balanced, concise, critical, evaluative, well-supported and well-referenced essay which constructs a strong, clear argument explaining what the study of X has told us about Y.' (You can see why we prefer 'discuss'.) You're certainly being asked to do more than just describe, or to write down everything you know about the topic. In each of these scenarios you are being asked to use evidence to support an argument, draw appropriate conclusions, and all the other things we've talked about on this blog.
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Friday, February 5, 2010

In flight from the banal

The IQ test is scored so that the mean score i...Image via Wikipedia
I've been marking lots of summative essays! (Yeah, thanks everyone for setting me up with that.) One thing I've found myself writing on a lot of feedback sheets is the comment: 'lacks academic bite'. What do I mean? How can you make your essay-writing more toothy?

In studying psychology at university level, you are encouraged to read widely and to consult different types of material. The things we suggest reading can include journalistic treatments of psychological matters, such as in an online news service or a pop science book. What your lecturers expect in a summative essay, though, is something a bit more academic. Writing in an academic style can be dull, but it doesn't have to be. What academic writing should always be is concise, intelligent, objective and well-referenced. We've already discussed a lot of these issues, but here are a couple more thoughts.

Firstly, when you read a 'journalistic' source, you will often find that the author takes some time to set the story in historical context. In academic writing, it isn't always a good idea to go too far with this, mainly because it takes up space which you could turn to better use in making your main arguments. If you're writing an essay on sex differences in intelligence, for example, you don't need to itemise all the historical developments in IQ testing. You will probably find that this information can be summarised in a line or two.

Another tip is to aim for some sort of striking introduction. You could start your essay by saying something like 'Psychologists have debated sex differences in intelligence for many years', but I might yawn. Why not choose an opening that shows that you understand the basic point and are ready to take it further? 'Although sex differences in intelligence have been of concern to psychologists for many years, there is beginning to be a consensus that any such differences are more likely to obtain in specific rather than general intelligence.' Immediately you have made a statement of interest, and can begin to build an argument.

Another difference between 'pop' sources and academic ones is fairly minor, but contributes to the impression your assignment makes. Language like 'the English psychologist Dr Charles Fernyhough, from Durham University' may go down well with a general readership, but in an academic context it is a waste of words. Chatty though we (hopefully) are on the corridor, in the world of summative assignments and journal articles (which should always be the model for your academic writing), we are not on first name terms. If you want to cite me, Fernyhough (2010) will do just fine.
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