Planning skills for university students

Interpreting an essay brief and essay planning

Of all academic skills, the most valuable for a student is that of accurately interpreting course briefs. It's easy for a dyslexic to get this wrong and many have had the experience of receiving back a marked essay with a tutor's comment saying something like; 'Not quite what was asked for'. Students usually think that the weakness here is one of writing. It probably isn’t. It's normally one of interpretation and planning. Put differently, it's the work you do before you start writing that makes the difference between a good essay and a not so good one.

Remember that the title/brief is a menu of items that will earn you marks – if you follow it correctly. Here's an approach that will help. It may not be as easy as it seems at first but the technique is well worth mastering.

Work on the title: Take the essay title or brief, extract from it the key words or phrases (use a highlighter). Make sure that you have chosen a) all the key elements and b) the absolute minimum number of words possible. There should be a tension between these two requirements. It should make you think very hard about whether you need this or that word or phrase. If the process doesn't cause you some hard thinking, you may not be doing it right.

The exercise will be very different from one essay brief to another. It depends on how they are written. And we are assuming that the tutor has composed a title/brief that is an accurate reflection of what they require. It isn't always so. Also, you should take into account any additional requirements that the tutor has added verbally. S/he may say 'You should concentrate on X in the essay' or 'Don't spend too much time on the background issues'.

Creating a plan: Next, list these words/phrases. Your list should contain only words from the brief. Don't worry if you aren't completely sure of all of the elements at this stage. Spend some time arranging and rearranging the list until you have what looks like a plan for your essay. There isn't only one way to do this and you may have to spend time to find a result that 'works'. Some aspects of the brief may be repeated in different sections as necessary.

Add 'Introduction' to the start of the list and 'Conclusion' to the end. The introduction should have three sub-sections: overview of essay (in which the essay is 'described'); explanations and parameters (in which any aspects of the essay not clear from the title are explained, such as the student's decisions regarding content); preview of conclusion (which may start 'What this essay will show is...'). The conclusion has two main sections: overview of main arguments; concluding position including what is significant about it.

Now you should have a plan with, say, five or six sections. Depending on the detail in the brief, you may now need to add into the plan missing elements that you're aware of from your reading or lectures, etc.

Word-count: Allocate the word-count. The introduction and conclusion should each have roughly 10% of the words. Divide the balance according to your idea of where the emphasis should be. You will now have a series of separate sections of specific lengths that can be written more or less independently. All this should be done before any research – and definitely before any writing takes place.

Consider what your conclusion will say. You should certainly know this before you start to write. Think about the main significance of the subject – you'll also need to point this out.

Most students find that when they have done all of the above the task seems both clearer and more manageable.

What do I not know or understand? Now ask this question. Some students shy away from it, preferring to focus on what they do know, but it's always better to address this early in the process. The answers to the question are the areas that need to be researched first. Go to the course reading, your lecture notes. Speak to fellow students, your course tutor. You can't write your best essay unless you do this.

Bear in mind that what you will now have is a plan for your research as well as for your writing.

The 'verb': Also, learn to be clear what exactly the 'action' is that the essay requires. Most essay titles/briefs contain a main word/action/verb. It could be 'analyse', 'outline', 'describe', 'compare', 'contrast' or one of several others. (See Key Words in Essay Titles) They do not mean the same thing. Many students treat them as though they do. Or, often, they interpret all these words to mean 'write about' with little precision as to what this might mean.

Habits: When you practise all this for the first time what you are doing is creating a new habit. It's never easy to do this and your old ones will try to reassert themselves. Don't worry, it's normal. Just persevere and eventually you'll have a new habit – and better essays that actually answer the question that was set.



Key Words in Essay Titles

Account for: Explain why something happens; give reasons for it.

Analyse: Break down into its important parts and comment on. Examine in close detail; identify important points and chief features.

Comment on: Identify and write about the main issues, giving your reactions based on what you have read or heard in lectures. Avoid purely personal opinion.

Compare: Show how two or more things are similar. Indicate the relevance or consequences of these similarities.

Contrast: Show how two or more things are different. Indicate the relevance or consequences of these differences.

Critically Evaluate: Weigh arguments for and against something, assessing the strength of the evidence on both sides. Use criteria to guide your assessment of which opinions, theories, models or items are preferable.

Define: Give the exact meaning of. Where relevant, show that you understand why the definition may be significant.

Discuss: Describe the most important aspects of the topic (probably including criticism); give arguments for and against; consider the implications of.

Distinguish: Bring out the differences between two (possibly confusable) items.

Evaluate: Assess the worth, importance or usefulness of something, using evidence. There will probably be cases to be made both for and against.

Examine: Put the subject ‘under the microscope’, looking at it in detail. You may be asked to ‘critically evaluate’ as well. See 'Analyse'.

Explain: Make clear why something happens, or why something is the way it is.

Illustrate: Make something clear and explicit, giving examples or evidence.

Interpret: Give the meaning and relevance of data or other material presented.

Justify: Give evidence which supports an argument or idea; show why a conclusion or decisions were made, considering objections that others might make.

Narrate: Concentrate on saying what happened, telling it as a story.

Outline: Give only the main points, showing the main structure.

Relate: Show similarities and connections between two or more things.

State: Give the main features, in very clear English (almost like a simple list, but in sentences). 

Summarise: Draw out the main points only, omitting details or examples.

To what extent: Consider how far something is true, or contributes to a final outcome. Consider also ways in which the proposition is not true.

Trace: Follow the order of different stages in an event or process.


Written by Simon Hopper