As the government begins its crackdown on essay mill websites, it’s easy to see just how much pressure students are under to get top grades for their coursework these days. But writing a high-scoring paper doesn’t need to be complicated. We spoke to experts to get some simple techniques that will raise your writing game.
Tim Squirrell is a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh, and is teaching for the first time this year. When he was asked to deliver sessions on the art of essay-writing, he decided to publish a comprehensive (and brilliant) blog on the topic, offering wisdom gleaned from turning out two or three essays a week for his own undergraduate degree.
“There is a knack to it,” he says. “It took me until my second or third year at Cambridge to work it out. No one tells you how to put together an argument and push yourself from a 60 to a 70, but once you to get grips with how you’re meant to construct them, it’s simple.”
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The goal of writing any essay is to show that you can think critically about the material at hand (whatever it may be). This means going beyond regurgitating what you’ve read; if you’re just repeating other people’s arguments, you’re never going to trouble the upper end of the marking scale.
“You need to be using your higher cognitive abilities,” says Bryan Greetham, author of the bestselling How to Write Better Essays. “You’re not just showing understanding and recall, but analysing and synthesising ideas from different sources, then critically evaluating them. That’s where the marks lie.”
But what does critical evaluation actually look like? According to Squirrell, it’s simple: you need to “poke holes” in the texts you’re exploring and work out the ways in which “the authors aren’t perfect”.
“That can be an intimidating idea,” he says. “You’re reading something that someone has probably spent their career studying, so how can you, as an undergraduate, critique it?
“The answer is that you’re not going to discover some gaping flaw in Foucault’s History of Sexuality Volume 3, but you are going to be able to say: ‘There are issues with these certain accounts, here is how you might resolve those’. That’s the difference between a 60-something essay and a 70-something essay.”
Critique your own arguments
Once you’ve cast a critical eye over the texts, you should turn it back on your own arguments. This may feel like going against the grain of what you’ve learned about writing academic essays, but it’s the key to drawing out developed points.
“We’re taught at an early age to present both sides of the argument,” Squirrell continues. “Then you get to university and you’re told to present one side of the argument and sustain it throughout the piece. But that’s not quite it: you need to figure out what the strongest objections to your own argument would be. Write them and try to respond to them, so you become aware of flaws in your reasoning. Every argument has its limits and if you can try and explore those, the markers will often reward that.”
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Fine, use Wikipedia then
The use of Wikipedia for research is a controversial topic among academics, with many advising their students to stay away from the site altogether.
“I genuinely disagree,” says Squirrell. “Those on the other side say that you can’t know who has written it, what they had in mind, what their biases are. But if you’re just trying to get a handle on a subject, or you want to find a scattering of secondary sources, it can be quite useful. I would only recommend it as either a primer or a last resort, but it does have its place.”
Focus your reading
Reading lists can be a hindrance as well as a help. They should be your first port of call for guidance, but they aren’t to-do lists. A book may be listed, but that doesn’t mean you need to absorb the whole thing.
Squirrell advises reading the introduction and conclusion and a relevant chapter but no more. “Otherwise you won’t actually get anything out of it because you’re trying to plough your way through a 300-page monograph,” he says.
You also need to store the information you’re gathering in a helpful, systematic way. Bryan Greetham recommends a digital update of his old-school “project box” approach.
“I have a box to catch all of those small things – a figure, a quotation, something interesting someone says – I’ll write them down and put them in the box so I don’t lose them. Then when I come to write, I have all of my material.”
There are a plenty of online offerings to help with this, such as the project management app Scrivener and referencing tool Zotero, and, for the procrastinators, there are productivity programmes like Self Control, which allow users to block certain websites from their computers for a set period.
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Look beyond the reading list
“This is comparatively easy to do,” says Squirrell. “Look at the citations used in the text, put them in Google Scholar, read the abstracts and decide whether they’re worth reading. Then you can look on Google Scholar at other papers that have cited the work you’re writing about – some of those will be useful. But quality matters more than quantity.”
And finally, the introduction
The old trick of dealing with your introduction last is common knowledge, but it seems few have really mastered the art of writing an effective opener.
“Introductions are the easiest things in the world to get right and nobody does it properly,” Squirrel says. “It should be ‘Here is the argument I am going to make, I am going to substantiate this with three or four strands of argumentation, drawing upon these theorists, who say these things, and I will conclude with some thoughts on this area and how it might clarify our understanding of this phenomenon.’ You should be able to encapsulate it in 100 words or so. That’s literally it.”
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In July 1998 we launched Internet Detective - an informal but comprehensive online tutorial designed to teach the skills required to critically evaluate the quality of information found on the Internet.
The tutorial includes interactive quizzes, worked examples and practical hint and tips. It can be accessed via the World Wide Web from:
Who created Internet Detective?
The tutorial has been developed by staff at The Institute for Learning and Research Technology (ILRT) at the University of Bristol. It uses the TONIC-ng software developed at Netskills at the University of Newcastle and is hosted at Netskills. The tutorial was funded by the European Union as part of DESIRE, a project in the Telematics for Research Programme.
What are the aims of the tutorial?
Internet Detective aims to alert people to the questionable quality of the information that is freely available over the Internet. After completing the tutorial users will:
- be aware of the key factors that affect the quality of Internet information
- have learned practical hints and tips for evaluating the quality of an Internet information resource
- have seen a comprehensive list quality criteria
- have seen practical examples of the evaluation process
- have tried out the evaluation process for themselves on a sample of Internet resources
Who is the tutorial aimed at?
Internet Detective can be useful for anyone using information found via the Internet. It is designed for people who have already acquired basic skills needed to use the Internet and who are now able to focus on the information they find.
It is likely to be of particular relevance to those working with Internet information:
- information professionals
It will also be particularly relevant to those using the Internet for academic purposes:
How long does it take to complete the tutorial?
The tutorial may take three to four hours to complete fully. However, users select a login name and may use this to work over a number of sittings - the login will take them directly to the part of the tutorial at which they left off, and will keep a record of their quiz scores.
Who can use the tutorial?
Internet Detective is available on the WWW and is freely available for anyone to use. (Users will need to access the tutorial using a Web browser that understands frames and accepts cookies).
Users will need to login and remember their username for re-entry at a later date.
How do I start?
Internet Detective is now freely available from the following URL:
So please feel free to "get on the case" :-)
Review of Internet Detective by final year BA (Hons) Information Management students at Queen Margaret College, Edinburgh
Internet Detective describes itself as an interactive, online tutorial which provides an introduction to the issues of information quality on the Internet and teaches the skills required to evaluate critically the quality of an Internet resource. The tutorial claims that it has been designed with information professionals and librarians in mind and will also be particularly relevant to researchers, teachers and students. A group of fourth year Information Management students at Queen Margaret College thought it might be interesting to apply the criteria introduced by Internet Detective to the site itself, thereby judging it in accordance with its own standards. The following description and evaluation are the products of collated individual assessments and group discussion.
Internet Detective allows the user to complete the tutorial in either a single session or a number of split sessions. It does this by allowing users to register a login name and password. The tutorial records the users progress and saves their position for the next session. Users are reassured that any part of the tutorial can be repeated at any time.
Initially the site seems well presented. The text is clear, the graphics - although a tad bland - are not over-used, and everything seems to be set out in a sensible fashion. To the left side of the screen is a contents/navigation menu showing where the user is located within the site and the various sections one may jump to. During the tutorial, coloured markers appear beside the contents to show user progress.
The main area of each page makes good use of space and the sections of the tutorial (each on a separate page) contain just enough information for the users not to feel they are being force-fed too much at once. There are occasional quizzes at the end of sections which allow users to test their new knowledge. When users give an incorrect answer in response to a quiz question the system provides an explanation. This is a nice touch which helps users learn why they went wrong, instead of where. Be warned however: using Netscape 3 at Queen Margaret College we find that the processing of the answers can take a little time and you may be tempted to hit the Reload button. One might say a little patience is a system requirement although, generally, the rest of the site is up to speed.
Before evaluating the actual content, a note about the use of frames. Under Netscape 3, where the Contents/navigation menu might be better with a separate frame, here it is actually part of the main page and consequently scrolls off the top of the screen when the user reads text further down the page. (One student who tested this using Internet Explorer 4 from his machine at home, however, found this not to be a problem.) This is not a major issue, but raises a question of usability all the same for particular browser users. While this concern relates more to design than content, remedying it would improve the pages.
Content-wise, the tutorial begins with some excellent tips on general site navigation and the nature of URLs. The information is aimed at beginners and would form a useful part of any introduction to the Web class. Bearing this in mind, it is nice to see that the site takes pains not to use jargon. Some knowledge is assumed but, since the users have already loaded their browser software and navigated their way to the site, this is not unreasonable.
Before progressing to the sections on criteria for evaluation, the tutorial introduces the issues of resource types, formats and, among other things, the difference between primary and secondary information. The first short quiz follows, which is very simple if the user has paid attention to the preceding pages.
The second section of the tutorial considers criteria for evaluating web site content. Bearing in mind that the purpose of this site is to introduce criteria for evaluating web sites, Internet Detective certainly matches its own content criteria. The group feels that the site is genuine, well-researched, unbiased. It includes enough references, statements of sources and aims, and we support its claims to be considered valid, although perhaps not exhaustive. Despite a few typographical errors the site is judged as accurate. All the work contained therein seems to be original and the authors freely give their credentials on the welcome page. All the information required in the tutorial is held on a single academic server, going some way to boosting confidence about the credibility of the quality of the tutorial. The group was pleased to see that no area of the site was under construction. There seems to be no missing information at all.
The third tutorial section considers form criteria. This relates to issues of navigation, user support and technology. The group decided that, when compared to the form criteria, Internet Detective falls a little short of the mark. The site offers no single downloadable file for perusal off-line (despite recommending users to search for such a thing). It was also felt that navigation is not to a standard which could be achieved with a little more design flair.
The final section on evaluation criteria introduces process criteria. The group agree that Internet Detective once again meets its own criteria. The site is judged as durable and reliable, its content is unlikely to lose its relevance for a substantial period of time and although the site does not mention when it was last updated, such updates are unnecessary given the nature of its content.
The tutorial ends its list of criteria and proceeds with some worked examples. These examples make perhaps the best use of graphics in the tutorial. The following Try It Out section allows the users to test their new skills. Users are invited to evaluate (by answering questions) an electronic journal, a mailing list and a subject-based web-site. The Quality Controlled Services page points users towards some reliable Internet resources established for the academic community. When the users reach the end of the package they are presented with a congratulations page and told they may now call themselves Internet Detectives.
Despite being let down slightly by lack of design flair (in terms of presentation as mentioned above), the group judges this site as a worthwhile and informative introduction to evaluation criteria for web sites.
Internet Detective can be found at: http://sosig.ac.uk/desire/internet-detective.html
- Freda Brodie
- Nicola Coutts
- Chris Coutts
- Shona Drummond
- Rhonda McLean
- Lynda Murray
- Steve Parker
- Fraser Raitt
- Mhairi Scobbie
- Gillian Swanney
- Alison Wilson
Author DetailsEmma Worsfold
DESIRE/SOSIG Research Officer
ILRT, University of Bristol, UK
Telephone: +44 (0)117 928 8443
DESIRE/SOSIG Research Officer
ILRT, University of Bristol, UK
Telephone: +44 (0)117 928 8443