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Planning your answer

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Planning your answer

This guide looks at how to organise your answer to an essay question, by looking at two types: discussion questions and cause and effect questions.

Analysing and answering discussion questions

One of the most common types of questions wants some form of argument or discussion as the answer. These types of questions often include key phrases as highlighted in these examples:

    Given the revelations of the Leveson inquiry, there is a serious argument for legally reducing the power of the Press. To what extent do you agree with this statement?

    Tab 1

    Excessive use of social media is often criticised for the negative effect it may have on young children and teenagers. Critically discuss whether this criticism is supported.

    Tab 2

    Tourism is overwhelmingly beneficial to a country’s development. Choose one specific country and discuss to what extent you think this statement is true.

    Tab 3

    PPP (a teaching methodology) is often criticised as being out of touch with research into language learning. Critically discuss whether this criticism is supported.

    Tab 4

    Taking a position

    The key requirement of these types of questions is to draw conclusions from evidence. Often, what essay writers do is take a position (a view or opinion based on the evidence) and then argue that position throughout the essay. In simple terms, the writer’s overall position in relation to the question might be:

    • Yes
    • No
    • A little bit Yes but mainly No
    • A bit of both, etc
    From position to plan

    Now let’s look at how your plan for answering a discussion question would vary for different positions that you might take. Consider this essay question:

    Excessive use of social media is often criticised for the negative effect it may have on young children and teenagers. Critically discuss whether this criticism is supported.

    This question is asking you to support a position on whether the excessive use of social media has a negative effect. You might take any of the three positions below:

    Click on each box to see an outline plan for that approach to the answer.

      Plan One

      Your position: Yes, the criticism is very much supported by research

      Definitions

      I'm going to start with defining what social media I'm talking about so the reader knows what I'm referring to.

      Yes, it's supported

      For a start, there's a lot of evidence on obesity of children and teenagers. I'll need to link social media to lack of exercise and lack of exercise to obesity. I'll need to bring in government statistics on obesity.

      Yes, it's supported

      Secondly, there's some evidence of the social distance that social media can bring. If people are communicating on-line and there is less face-to-face communication, then there is less development of face-to-face social skills . (This is supported by Marks, 2009 and Hadden, 2009)

      Yes, it's supported

      Finally, because children and teenagers need technical equipment to use social media sites (smart phones for example) there are more robberies and pressure on parents to provide. (Government statistics on number of robberies as support)

      Position 1

      Yes the criticism is very much supported

      Plan Three

      Your position: Some research supports the criticism, but some doesn't

      Definitions

      I'm going to start with defining what social media I'm talking about so the reader knows what I'm referring to.

      No, it's not supported

      Social media often brings benefits. Research into on-line learning (Smith, 2008, Harvey, 2003)

      Yes, it's supported (as for Plan One)

      Secondly, there's a some evidence of the social distance that social media can bring. If people are communicating on-line and there is less face-to-face communication, then there is less development of face-to-face social skills. (This is supported by Marks, 2009 and Hadden, 2009)

      Yes, it's supported (as for Plan One)

      Finally, because children and teenagers need technical equipment to use social media sites (smart phones for example) there's more robberies and pressure on parents to provide. (Government statistics on number of phone robberies as support)

      Position 2

      Yes, it's mostly supported (but not completely)

      Plan Three

      Your position: Some research supports the criticism, but some doesn't

      Definitions

      I'm going to start with defining what social media I'm talking about so the reader knows what I'm referring to.

      No, it's not supported

      Some research supports the opposite. Research into on-line learning (Smith, 2008, Harvey, 2003)

      No, it's not supported

      Social media often brings benefits. Research into social communities in certain areas that provide support for vulnerable groups (Marks, 2008, Hind, 2011).

      Yes, it's supported


      There is some evidence of the social distance that social media can bring. If people are communicating on-line and there is less face-to-face communication, then there is less development of face-to-face social skills. (This is supported by Marks, 2009 and Hadden, 2009)

      Yes, it's supported


      Finally, because children and teenagers need technical equipment to use social media sites (smart phones for example) there's more robberies and pressure on parents to provide. (Government statistics on number of robberies as support)

      Position 3

      Some research supports this criticism, but some doesn't

      From plan to introduction

      The approach you are taking for your answer will determine what you should say in the essay introduction. Looking again at the same essay title:

      Excessive use of social media is often criticised for the negative effect it may have on young children and teenagers. Critically discuss whether this criticism is supported.

        Plan One

        My Position: Yes, it is very much supported by research  

        Plan Three

        My Position: Some research supports it, but some doesn't  

      This is how your introduction for each plan might look:

      Introduction – Plan One

      The past ten years has seen a considerable rise in the use of social media with Facebook putting the number of users worldwide at nearly 850 million (Facebook Fact Sheet, 2012) and active Twitter users, according to their CEO, at 100 million (Tsukayama, 2012). With such an enormous user base, the interesting question is, to what extent, if any, does this sort of usage affect the health and well-being of the predominantly younger audience. This essay argues that there are significant negative effects of this usage on younger people, notably in terms of the effects of limited exercise and face-to-face communication, and also in terms of issues related to the cost of the technology that is needed to access social media sites.

      Introduction – Plan Three

      The past ten years has seen a considerable rise in the use of social media with Facebook putting the number of users worldwide at nearly 850 million (Facebook Fact Sheet, 2012) and active Twitter users, according to their CEO, at 100 million (Tsukayama, 2012). With such an enormous user base, the interesting question is, to what extent, if any, does this sort of usage affect the health and well-being of the predominantly younger audience. This essay argues that research presents a mixed picture of the effects of this usage on younger people. Both Harvey (2008) and Smith (2009) present findings into the beneficial effects of on-line social groups, while other research highlights the dangers of limited face-to-face interaction.

      First Part of my essay:

      Descriptions of social media including statistics

      First Part of my essay:

      Descriptions of social media including statistics

      Second Part of my essay:

      Lack of exercise, links to obesity

      Second Part of my essay:

      Research into on-line learning

      Third Part of my essay:

      Lack of face-to-face contact

      Third Part of my essay:

      Lack of face-to-face contact

      Note how the two different introductions set out your position on the answer and tell the reader roughly what you plan to cover in the rest of the essay.

      Now do the exercise on Answering discussion questions. This will help you identify different positions writers take in their answers.

      Analysing and Answering Cause

      and Effect Questions

      Another popular type of essay question wants you to give reasons why something happened or what the effect was of something happening. These types of questions often include key phrases as highlighted in these examples:

      Italy on the eve of 1860 has often been described as an unlikely nation. Why?

      What are the possible effects of the current unemployment situation in the UK and America in both the short and longer term?

      Discuss the impact of age on the learning of a second language.

      Outline the most common effects of smoking.

      Identifying the key instruction word and subject

      The best way to handle this type of question is:

      • identify the key instruction word (e.g. cause, effect, impact)
      • decide what the subject of the question is.

      For example:

      What are the possible effects of the current unemployment situation in the UK and America in both the short and longer term?

      Key instruction word Subject
      effects current unemployment situation

      This subject is restricted to four areas:

      • UK
      • USA
      • short term
      • long term

      Planning your answer

      Identifying the key instruction word and the subject enable you to start planning your answer, which might look something like this:

      Essay title

      What are the possible effects of the current unemployment situation in the UK and America in both the short and longer term?

      Introduction

      The subject

      What is the current situation:
      a. In the UK now and in the long term
      b. In America now and in the long term
      Need to bring in data that relates to points a. and b. (Might need two paragraphs of information here)

      Effect one in the short term

      Economic slowdown (both in the USA and in the UK). Use data that shows that when unemployment was high last time, the economy slowed down.

      Effect two in the short term

      Market confidence - unemployment makes share prices go down (Data on Iceland)

      Effect three in the longer term

      The social impact of unemployment on families, especially children. (Bring in evidence from an article by Warren, 1999)


      From plan to introduction

      The approach you are taking for your answer will determine what you should say in the essay introduction. Developing the plan above, the introduction would look like something like this:

      What are the possible effects of the current unemployment situation in the UK and America in both the short and longer term?

      Introduction

      The current unemployment figures show that March 2012 saw the highest percentage of unemployment since 1995. This equates to 8.4% of the active population, totalling 2.67 million people in the UK. (Office for National Statistics, 2012). A similar situation is evident in the USA, which has seen a 14% rise in unemployment since 1998 with a current rate of 8.3% of the population or 12.8 million people (Bureau of Labour Statistics, 2012). This essay will focus on the effects that this rise in the level of unemployment could have on the USA and the UK, both now and in the longer term. In the short term, both the USA and the UK could see an economic slowdown due to the rise in unemployment, as well as a negative effect on market confidence. In the longer term, research suggests that the current rise will have a significant impact on families, especially children.

      (Thanks to Chris Veysey for this paragraph)

      First part of my essay

      The current situation (the subject)

      Second part of my essay

      Economic slowdown (Effect one in the short term)

      Third part of my essay

      Market confidence (Effect two in the short term)

      Fourth part of my essay

      Social impact (Effect three in the short term)

      Note how the introductory paragraph introduces the subject of the essay (current unemployment situation in UK/USA) and tells the reader what you will cover in the rest of the essay (the possible short and long term effects of this).

      Now do the exercise on Answering cause and effect questions to practise planning answers to this type of essay.
       
      Summary

      In this guide we have looked at planning your answer to two common types of essay question:

      1. Critical discussion questions e.g. ’Discuss’, ‘To what extent do you agree’ etc.
      • Decide your position on the answer e.g. ‘completely agree’, ‘mainly agree’, ‘partly agree’, etc.
      • Write an outline showing the main parts of your answer.
      • Start with some definition/explanation of the subject so the reader knows what you’re referring to.
      • Divide the essay into parts, each part should bring in a key area of evidence that supports your position (for, against, or a combination).
      • Use this outline to plan what will go into your introduction.
      2. Cause and effect questions e.g. ’Discuss the impact of’, ‘Outline the possible causes of,’ etc.
      • Identify the key instruction word (cause, effect, impact) and subject of the essay (the situation you need to consider, usually restricted to given areas e.g. specific countries, periods of time, etc.)
      • Write an outline showing the main parts of your answer.
      • Start with a description of the subject that covers any particular areas given in the title.
      • Divide the essay into parts, each part should cover a different cause/reason/effect/impact.
      • Note the key evidence you will bring in to support each cause/reason/effect/impact.
      • Use this outline to plan what will go into your introduction.
      • It’s really important not to start writing the main body of your essay until you have a reasonably clear idea how you intend to answer the question and an outline plan of the main areas you will cover along with the key evidence that supports them. Then you are ready to start structuring your essay in more detail, and thinking about what to say in the introduction and conclusion.
      If you’re not clear on the advice in this guide, go back and pay particular attention to the examples of essay outlines. You might now want to try writing an outline plan for a real essay you have been given. Remember you can always discuss your plan with your tutor at this point and get advice on whether you are going in the right direction.

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