• Summary
  • Contents
  • Subject index

"This book takes a clear approach to the challenges of university life, offers realistic advice, and demonstrates how to acquire transferable skills for future employment. Issues examined include how to maximize your academic performance, develop powers of expression, analyze data, write a dissertation, and identify what employers want."—ABSTRACTS OF PUBLIC ADMINISTRATION, DEVELOPMENT, AND ENVIRONMENTThis book takes a clear-eyed approach to the challenges of University life, offers realistic advice and demonstrates how to acquire transferable skills with a view to future employability. Topics covered include: " What employers want;" How educational performance can be maximized;" How to maximise powers of expression;" How to analyze data; " What to do and avoid doing in writing a dissertation.Written in an engaging and non-nonsense style, by experienced teachers, the book offers students the perfect one stop guide to making their university study experience count.

Writing Skills
Writing skills

It follows from what we have said before that you actually need to develop rather special writing skills for academic life, but, once you know where you are going, you can focus your efforts. The sort of writing you may have done so far might have been fairly limited anyway, given the increasing importance of texts and e-mail; fewer people write letters or diaries, perhaps. Yet universities often assume that the written form is still the most important way to communicate (and so too does business, so it is a good skill to acquire, in terms of future employment), and you will certainly have to do quite a bit of writing as a part of your assessment régime.

You will have begun this process already in the courses you took before coming to university. Of course, we are not implying that you are unable to communicate or that you ‘can't write’ (a view that is often expressed about young people these days). It is rather a matter of getting used to a particular type of writing, perhaps a particular technology (if your university insists on word-processed assignments). After practise, you should be able to feel able to express yourself fluently again, in the new media. You could even prepare by trying to get used to writing in the required way, perhaps with a diary or blog, or even a few trial essays on your thoughts so far (which you can throw away afterwards if you are not happy with them).

You will need to make sure that particularly long-lasting problems are not the result of any other problem such as any of the varieties of dyslexia or dissociated disorders: we know of quite a few students who had not been diagnosed until they arrived in higher education. Many found it a great relief to be diagnosed, but some still experience such a diagnosis as a stigma and do not wish to disclose their condition. You will have to decide what to do in your specific circumstances.

As usual, there are no fixed formulae to offer you here. You need to work out in detail what sort of writing gets the best results in your specific university, on your specific course, and with your specific tutors. We have already argued, for example in Chapter 2, that many tutors place a particular emphasis on presentation, on spelling, adequate grammar, and on the less easily specified matters such as style.

We are going to assume that you are able to take care of spelling and grammar for yourself. If it is a problem, you might need specialist help and practise in your actual institutions. Getting help could be slightly embarrassing but it is important to be able to write using a good standard of English. There are also some useful websites to help you if you need to work on this, such as Concordia University (http://cdev.concordia.ca/CnD/studentlearn/Help/Writing.html), the University of Toronto (http://www.utoronto.ca/writing/advise.html), or the Online Writing Lab (http://owl.english.purdue.edu/handouts/grammar/) at Purdue University. All these will use North American spelling, of course. A good basic UK site is provided by the Open University (http://www.open.ac.uk/study-strategies/index.htm).

We want to concentrate on structure and style here, and explore some of the things to pursue, and some to avoid, when trying to develop academic argument. Forms of assignment might well vary also between essays, portfolios, reports, and examination answers.

Basic Principles

Let us start with the most important points first. We have already argued that the major sin for many tutors and university administrators is plagiarism, and we have begun to discuss it from the lecturers' point of view (in Chapter 3). It is so important to avoid plagiarism that we want to discuss it again, this time in terms of developing basic writing techniques to ensure that you will not be accused of committing plagarism.


What actually is plagiarism? As we have indicated earlier, essentially it involves passing off someone else's work as your own. However, you will find different local definitions and variations which makes it difficult to give a precise description. To help, Box 5.1 gives examples of different practices that may be used in a piece of academic writing, and indicates how these relate to the risk of plagiarism. Later in the chapter, we tell you how to improve your practice so that you do not accidently arouse suspicions of scholarly misconduct.

In our view, the key to the kind of plagiarism that really stokes up anger and a desire to punish involves the deliberate attempt to copy out someone else's writing and pretend it is your own – in other words, the bad practice that is described in the top row in Box 5.1. You must simply avoid doing this at all costs. We are not going to offer a simple moral argument, which will work only if we have a strong principled standing for you, but to pursue our stance on ‘informed choice’ as always. We shall argue that:

  • The effort involved in copying other people's work and then concealing the copying is increasing dramatically as techniques of detection get better.
  • It is almost impossible to be sure of getting away with it.
  • It is less work, and far more satisfying, to just write the assignment in the approved way.

We have met one or two students who have clearly broken the rules. In one case, one student copied, virtually word-for-word, the essay of another. They both handed in their essays ‘innocently’, and seemed mildly surprised when we demanded an explanation. In cases like these, it is hard to think what students expected to happen. Could they seriously have imagined that the tutor would not have noticed that two essays were identical? We have heard students assert that tutors do not mark essays very carefully, that they skim, and even that they occasionally weigh them and do not actually read them at all – but it is amazing to think that students might actually believe this. Perhaps they imagined that two tutors would happen to mark the two essays separately? Again, this simply shows a lack of understanding of marking practices – we very commonly divide essays up according to topics, and tend to take away and mark all the essays on a particular topic. Maybe this particular pair of students had done something similar in the past and got away with it, but it still seemed to be very reckless to attempt to do the same again. They were caught quite easily, and punished.

One other issue occurred to us as we dealt with the case. We could hardly imagine anyone being unimaginative and uncreative enough to simply copy out the work of another. We could hardly imagine ourselves wanting to just copy without looking to make some small alterations, to rephrase things, to argue differently, and to come to different conclusions. Of course, electronic forms make literal copying much easier, but not bothering to read through a copy, even to correct any errors, seems careless, risky, and also an embarrassing sign of deep misunderstanding of what academic life is all about.

We have also met students who have clumsily copied sections of books, articles, or, more commonly these days, websites. In the worst cases, their essays have been nothing but someone else's sections, paragraphs, or sometimes whole pages, just pasted together. Once more, the perpetrators seemed completely unaware of the risks that they actually ran. When they were caught, it was clear that they had no real defence – those pieces could not have been put together by accident, and there were clear signs of a deliberate attempt to conceal the sources.

It happens to be often very easy to spot plagiarism of this crude kind, which explains our view that it just is not worth risking There are a number of telling signs, that researchers have called ‘smoking guns’, which classically raise strong suspicions in the mind of the experienced marker. Box 5.2 includes the more obvious ones.

Clearly, the determined plagiarist will have to carefully read through their work to make sure there are no such ‘smoking guns’, or else the game is up. The work involved is likely to be substantial, and may take longer than just doing the essay ‘straight’, as we suggest. Some students might believe that there could still be ways to plagiarize and get away with it, however.

More Sophisticated Plagiarism

You can get someone else to write your assignment. You might be able to persuade a friend or former student to do this. This seems safe but you would need to be sure that your friends can write effectively themselves, that their own work is not on record somewhere, and that the work cannot be recognized. The risks mount up again, clearly.

Some commercial sites will write an essay for you, as long as you are prepared to pay. You have to be sure that they can meet the correct standard, and that they are not simply plagiarizing well-known material themselves. We have picked up some ‘smoking guns’ in material written by a third party (a tutor from a sixth-form college, it turned out), that our own students have failed to remove, which defeated the object of the exercise.

Just this year, we met a student who had used a lot of material from a website, and had given only the most general reference for the website. On that website were several hundred specific articles and essays. People logging on would pay a registration fee and then a further fee to download one of the articles or essays. Our own suspicion is that it is easy to download the ‘wrong’ essay and thus to require several others as well, so the costs can mount up. Of course, the whole tactic assumes that those articles have not been published somewhere else: in this particular case, many had been published somewhere else, and typing a few keywords into one of the search engines easily found them. There is also no guarantee of the quality of the work you get, of course.

There may be a temporary advantage offered to the plagiarist with such developments, but it is surprising how quickly the technology can catch up. Students may not be aware of this, but a UK Government-sponsored website is now available that has the latest word-matching electronic technology to detect plagiarism. Further developments, tracing syntactical structures, not just words, is not far behind. These structures are very hard to conceal, and it would require substantial rewriting in your own words to be sure. Rewriting in your own words, with proper referencing of sources, is quite close to what you would be doing if you tackled the essay properly in the first place.

Ultimately, a simple low-technology device can also be deployed. We could simply ask students to discuss their work. We could ask them why they have come to the conclusions that they have reached, exactly how they used the sources that they have cited, and why they have included some arguments and not others. We have employed this oral examination technique once or twice in our own institutions when we have had suspicions, and have easily detected copied material. On both occasions, students very sensibly decided to admit the offence early on. On another occasion, it must be said, a student managed to convince us not only that he had adequately used references, but that he had understood the material to a much greater depth than was apparent from his essay. He left the oral examination with a substantially increased grade!


Overall, we hope you are now convinced that it will probably take so much effort to plagiarize with a reasonable chance of success that it is worth simply writing the essay or assignment in accordance with the conventions in the first place. It is really not that difficult to reference source material correctly. If you are copying a quotation, you need to indicate that clearly and give the source that you have copied it from. There are various particular styles and techniques of acknowledging sources, which may vary locally. It is reasonably common practice to use quotation marks around short quotes, but to indicate longer quotations, more than 40 words, say, by indenting the quotation, marking it out from the text with large margins around it. As for giving the source, there are a number of conventions again, some of them extremely detailed.

You will need to contact your local institutions and practise these conventions. Our advice is to learn the basic ones first – how to cite books, articles and websites – and then explore some of the other regulations for citing personal communications or newspaper articles, say. In essence, what you have to do is to identify the source in one of these conventional ways.

To take an immediate example, we have used the ‘Harvard’ referencing system in this book, which is the system commonly used in the social sciences. If we are referring to an author, the author's name is provided in brackets, together with the date of publication in the actual text (as in Brown, 2005). In the References section at the end of the book, all the books and articles cited are listed alphabetically with full details of the title, the title of journal, if appropriate, the place of publication and the publisher, if it is a book. If you turn to our own References section at the end of the book, you will also see how we reference material obtained from websites. These conventions are provided by our publisher and are fairly straightforward.

There are good examples of referencing rules and conventions on various websites too, including an excellent one at Bournemouth University (http://www.bournemouth.ac.uk/library/using/harvard_system.html). Alternatives to Harvard can also be used, of course, and you will need to check your local requirements. For example, some acceptable systems involve inserting numbers in the text so that the references do not interrupt the flow for the reader. The references are arranged numerically either at the bottom of each page (footnotes), or at the end of the manuscript (endnotes).

As with the other study advice we supply, we see it as important not to provide great detail, but to explain the principles. There is another good reason for not taking you through more detail on referencing conventions because we are not far away from having cheap and convenient software which will set out the sources for you, using any one of a number of preferred styles. Some academic writers already like the ‘Nota Bene for Windows’ software, for example, and you can currently try a version free (on http://www.notabene.com/nbdemo8.html).

The main point is to remember you will need a lot of detail to reference properly, and that you need to note down details of publications as you read the material. It is time-consuming to have to go back and look things up just for referencing. Websites can offer particular problems here in that the information required may be located on home pages rather than the specific pages you are examining. One of our local institutions provides a helpful service in that you can save the books you have found on the library catalogue in an archive and e-mail it to yourself: the e-mail arrives with all the relevant publication details like date and place of publication, publisher and the rest.

Even if you are paraphrasing, summarizing, or putting arguments in your own words, you still need to indicate if it is someone else's work that you are citing. This is sometimes called indirect quotation. You need to introduce your paraphrases by saying things like ‘According to Harris (2005), Leisure Studies has become one of the most important social sciences…’ As long as you indicate the source of your ideas and views in one of these reliable ways (the ways in which your institution has suggested) you are not plagiarizing. Indeed, you are demonstrating that you have read widely and thus ‘covered the material’ or whatever your local assessment regulations say you should do.

We have again encountered student misunderstanding here. Some students fear that they will fail their assignments if they produce an essay which is merely a patchwork of other people's opinions. The first thing to remember is that it is better to declare the sources of your patches, and that being able to assemble a patchwork of relevant material is an important scholarly skill. You will get a reasonable grade for a properly referenced patchwork: it is a poorly referenced patchwork that should be avoided.

Of course, there is no need to simply offer a patchwork of other people's opinions anyway. You do have to show that you have examined some of the background literature, and summarized the main points made in that literature. You may wish to use direct or indirect quotations, with proper acknowledgement of the sources, to show that you have done this correctly and skilfully. It is not easy to arrange your summaries of different pieces of literature into a coherent and effective structure – which we discuss below – and again, you will gain credit if you can do so. However, you can then add additional comments of various kinds to add value to this summary.

Box 5.3 draws together some of the points made above and is a quick guide to good practice; if you adopt these behaviours, then you should avoid falling into accidental plagiarism. The most important thing is to be aware of the risk when you are collecting and recording material for essays or reports, and to make sure that you clearly distinguish between the ideas and thoughts derived from other people and your own.

Adding Comments of Your Own

You may feel that as a beginner you cannot add anything of value to the considered and published works of the experts in the field, but this is not so. There is always something to add, even to the views of experts.

It is unlikely that published experts will have taken the precise modules, courses, or programmes that you are taking, nor will they be reviewing the very latest work. As a result, you will have an unusual (maybe ‘original’) combination of arguments to draw upon. If you can bring to bear arguments you have encountered on other topics, modules or courses, you are in a position to make an effective comment. To take an example from one of our own social science courses, there are expert summaries and published materials which attempt to account for the commercial success of leisure goods such as the Sony Walkman, and Nike trainers. One important book on the Walkman (du Gay et al., 1997) offers a general model to explain how the product managed to combine effective production, advertising, and knowledge of consumer culture. The equally central and important book on Nike trainers (Goldman and Papson, 1998) offers a different model to address the same issue. Any student that happens to take the particular module that offers both discussions is clearly in a position to use one source to make a comment on the other. If they are writing an essay on the Sony Walkman, they can summarize the model offered in du Gay et al., and then, by way of comment, refer to the different approach found in Goldman and Papson. Or vice versa. There is also newer material which neither classic book mentions, obviously.

It might be helpful to think of this sort of comment as offering ‘external’ criticism. No single book is perfect, and there are several different approaches, so one approach can be compared with a number of other external sources and arguments. Sometimes the essay title itself might invite an explicit comparison between two or more approaches of this kind. Even here, it is quite acceptable to make additional comparisons, point out similarities and differences, to note that some approaches are better at explaining some aspects of the issue than others, and so on. Comparisons of this kind help develop a particularly fruitful approach to understanding and argument which we discuss later in this chapter – using analogies.

Once you have gained a little confidence, you might want to attempt another kind of critical comment as well – what might be thought of as an ‘internal’ criticism. Here, you might notice some controversial issues for discussion, even in the most prestigious books and articles, as you work through and summarize them.

  • They might be out of date, for example. The essay on the Sony Walkman we mentioned above was written before the advent of the iPod, or, indeed, the more recent kinds of mobile phone. If we considered these recent inventions, not developed by Sony but by rival companies, what would be the implications for duGay et al. and their argument?
  • Some arguments are well supported by evidence, and others less so. Should there be more evidence? What sort of evidence might be particularly important? In the case of du Gay et al., there is little evidence about how people actually use the goods. Sometimes, this lack of evidence becomes apparent if you think of your own experiences as consumers.
  • In other cases, you might be able to transfer into your essay some material from a research methods module that you happen to be taking at the same time, or that you took in an earlier year. The general issue of methods is always worth discussing, and it is always controversial, which means that you can always make a comment about it. What would be the best way to research consumers' use of their electronic goods?
  • There are many other sources of comment. Feminist work, for example, has been very successful in pointing to the ways in which much conventional work takes a male-centred point of view (defined in various ways). Ethnic and other minorities are also commonly sidelined. What would happen if we tried to introduce their specific interests and conditions into the debate? Was a recent Nike campaign really about empowering women by urging them to participate in consuming sporting culture or trying to exploit them? Were women customers able to turn the tables by using the goods for their own purposes once they had bought them?
  • There are always implications which you can draw from arguments. You might wish to consider how the project might be continued, with further research. You might think what kind of policy issues are involved – do consumer goods have a ‘bad’ side, and should they be regulated in some sense? Does the provision of flexible and pleasurable leisure technology offer a ‘good’ side to globalization?

These are only examples and it is the general issue that is important. The interesting thing about social sciences is that even beginners can make insightful comments about it. We often find it is the case that students lack the confidence to make these comments in their essays, even though they think of them. This is almost certainly because they have misunderstood what academic work is all about.

You might want to go back and look at Chapter 3 on what lecturers want. Here, and in several other places, we are trying to insist that academic work in social sciences is about debate and argument. It is about considered discussion. In other words, it involves both summary and comment as we have defined them. It does not matter who is involved or what the topic is. There is always discussion available. Looking at the assessment criteria commonly cited, we are confident that you will find that it is almost universal to require discussion, even though that is sometimes called analysis, synthesis, being critical, or whatever.

Academic Argument

Academic argument is central to academic approaches in social sciences. We have already argued that it takes a different shape from the sort of arguments you are likely to have in everyday life, because it operates from an unusual starting point and stance. We can now explore this in more detail when looking at written assignments. One major problem with student work is that it does not sufficiently display academic argument, even though it might contain ‘arguments’ in the ordinary sense. That single major problem is probably what lies behind many specific comments you are quite likely to receive on your written work. Problems with academic argument can also affect verbal presentations and discussions, as we shall see in the next chapter. The specific comments take the form of remarks such as: lacks critical analysis; too descriptive; you need to structure your argument more effectively; try to avoid repetition; you need to provide more evidence – and so on.

In fact, there is quite a lot of work on, and interest in, getting students to learn how to argue in a suitable way. Cioffi (2005) suggests that students simply misunderstand the constant requests made to them to engage in argument, because, for them, an argument means some sort of unpleasant confrontation or heated disagreement. As Bonnett (2001) adds, this means that we are often used to trying to avoid arguments in various ways, or, if we find ourselves in one, to see it as a kind of personal combat with only one winner.

What academics usually have in mind is something much more controlled and guided by conventions and rules, though. Of course emotions can be involved in both, but the main issue with the latter is to be able to deliver a good technical performance. If this is achieved, everyone can benefit, with no losers. This stance is likely to produce better results in assignments, but also to increase your sense of involvement and your academic pleasures, as Bonnett (2001: 1) suggests: ‘The ability to engage in argument is what makes learning exciting … It transforms you from a passive and bored receptacle of another's wisdom into a participant.’ This is real participation in higher education as opposed to the tokenist variety where you are invited to do little tasks of various kinds to keep you busy.

Some recent work tries to suggest that various kinds of computer programs might be used to help students engage in technical and constructive argument. Chryssafidou (2000), for example, has produced a flow chart specifying that students should undertake particular steps in order to produce an effective argument, and has devised a way to display these on a computer. You might want to try out the basic principles just with pen and paper.

  • Define your own position on a topic – say, whether the National Health Service should charge patients for treatment.
  • Then anticipate a position opposite to your own – what would charging for treatment actually look like and how could it be done? Would it make a difference if insurance companies were charged, not individuals? Should all patients be subsidized – even those with injuries resulting from lifestyles?
  • Consider arguments and evidence for and against each stance. The difficulty might be in thinking of evidence to support your views, and rational arguments to support the alternative views.
  • Finish with the last step – considering counter-arguments and counter-evidence for each position. You have summarized your opponents' arguments and evidence in Step 3 above – which weak points are now apparent and what evidence would we need to resolve any problems? Then try what is perhaps the most difficult of all – how would you counter your own arguments?

More generally, there is quite a bit of discussion of academic argument and how it actually works to persuade somebody. This can be rather technical, but you may well meet versions later on in social theory courses. Crow (2005) stresses the ‘art of argument’ in his introduction to classical social theory, for example. There is also a view that methods courses should also be recast to move away from learning surface techniques to grasping the deeper issue of argument.

It is worth pointing out that learning both how to do academic argument on your own, and how to understand the arguments of academics, takes practice and commitment. As you gain more experience, it tends to make more sense. No doubt, developing judgement and gaining confidence and security also help.

Let us confine ourselves here to a few basic problems that new students often display when they attempt to pursue an academic argument. There are a few types of argument, and a few features of argument that you probably need to learn to avoid as soon as possible. Bonnett's excellent text (2001) gives some useful examples of how to both develop and criticize arguments, including verbal argument (and we return to his ideas in the chapter on presentations). Rather than just summarize Bonnett's work here, we have selected a few characteristics of poor argument which we encounter quite frequently (Boxes 5.4, 5.5 and 5.6).

This approach is not only offensive and impolite about major academics, but is a weak argument. Even if those personal characteristics were correct – and, of course, they are highly debatable – it still would not necessarily disqualify the argument made by the person concerned. You might be obsessed by sex, a hypocrite, a man-hater or an elitist, but still be right. Academic arguments are not just produced by some spontaneous outpouring of essential personal characteristics, but by research of various kinds as well.

Although this kind of argument might be suitable for general discussion on social occasions, social scientists tend to expect generalizations to be either qualified or supported by evidence. Citing the sources for these views, and evidence that might support or qualify them indicates a crucial readiness to discuss them.

There are other characteristic forms of argument that can attract critical comment as well, but let us move on to consider other more general features of written assignments that can cause problems. It is common to find essays that offer a mere list of points rather than a well-structured argument. This is sometimes associated with a poor preparation strategy, where students have made notes from a number of sources, which are then simply copied and pasted end to end. As a result, a particular point can be made on page 2, and then revisited on page 4, and yet again on page 6. Introductory remarks can appear at intervals throughout. The conclusion to one section is ignored or contradicted by the conclusion to another one. This kind of random collection would be an extreme example of the lack of structure that we have discussed above. A good discussion of this and other problems is provided by Dunleavy's classic account of essay writing (1986) (especially his Chapter 4). Bonnett (2001) offers a number of useful techniques including developing claims, counter-claims and evidence in a flow chart, rather like the exercise derived from Chryssafidou (2000) we suggest above.

In academic discussion you do not just express a view and find evidence to support it. You address the topic from different angles, not just the one you are particularly interested in. Sometimes essay titles begin with a quote that expresses the sort of views that you encounter in popular discussion, but again, these are there to provoke academic discussion. An essay title that asks ‘Does Nike exploit its workers?’ is quite likely to be about the benefits and drawbacks of globalization, and probably it will require you to outline different approaches to globalization, and then organize discussion of the good and bad effects, before coming to some technical conclusion about whether more research is needed, or whatever. We have provided an example of a tutor's view of a particular question in Chapter 3. You should be able to see that ‘deep’ principles are involved rather than too much surface detail.

It is really straightforward once you put it all in context. What is the reason for setting academic essay titles at university? It is largely because we want to test whether we have managed to teach you anything successfully. In particular, we want to see whether any of the ideas we have been discussing on a course or module have been understood. We might want to see if your arguments are developing along the lines we expect and value. We are not particularly interested in hearing your specific views, based on your specific experiences in having your children pester you to buy Nike trainers, or whatever – not in essays, that is. Essays are formal exercises connected to assessment. It is a mistake to see them as a chance to put the world to rights, demonstrate what a long and interesting life you have led, or get back at us ivory-tower academics by explaining what the real world looks like when you are young and enthusiastic.

Some students misinterpret this sort of advice and go to the other extreme. They find no personal interest in any of the essays, and can approach them entirely cynically. Or they feel inhibited and unable to express any kind of opinion. We have met students who have told us that they have simply been forbidden to express an opinion in their essays. Our own view is that it is uninformed opinion that is unwelcome. Even ‘unwelcome’ is the wrong word, perhaps. What we mean is that uninformed opinion can be largely irrelevant to the task that the essay requires. It may be desperately relevant to students on a personal level. They may feel that their whole identity is involved in taking a stance on consumer goods for the under-fives, or the ways in which leisure seems to be encouraging social isolation, or whatever. Our views are simply that:

  • Opinions are acceptable if they are based on informed understanding of the relevant literature.
  • Personal and unsubstantiated opinions based on personal experience cannot really be assessed, and so including them is not a very effective use of limited time and space in essays (and even less so in examinations).

Let us briefly explore that last point. When we assess essays (we discussed assessment in Chapter 3), we have to try to work using agreed criteria covering all the essays in front of us. We cannot judge students' personal experiences using general criteria. You probably would not want us to do so anyway, in case we judged you adversely or unfairly. We are not uninterested in your opinions, and we may enjoy discussing matters with you – but there are better and safer ways to write essays, and better places and occasions to discuss your personal views.

Polishing Your Writing Skills

Once you have got the basic idea of what you have to do, you are well on the way to developing an effective essay style. You can still practise the tasks involved, especially the ability to express yourself effectively and clearly. There are some books which recommend particular kinds of academic style, and some local regulations which lay down some fairly tight prescriptions about it. We know of institutions where, for example, you are not permitted to use the first person singular – that is to refer to yourself as the originator of ideas, as in sentences such as ‘I think the real reason for the popularity of labelling theory was …’. It may be the case that some disciplines particularly prefer this impersonal mode of writing. You are supposed to replace those sentences with more anonymous and ‘objective’ forms – ‘The real reason for the popularity of labelling theory was …’, ‘It has been argued that the popularity of labelling theory grew because …’, ‘One reason for the popularity of labelling theory was …’, and so on.

We take the view ourselves that occasionally it can be quite appropriate to confess to the authorship of an argument. Indeed, you may well encounter some arguments in debates about ethnographic methods, for example, which suggest that authorship should be openly acknowledged, that research should be ‘autographed’, to borrow terms from the debate, but some colleagues would argue that this should be practised by experienced writers only. As usual, you should always bear local conventions in mind. This particular one can lead to other problems with style, however, especially if people run out of ideas about how to write sentences anonymously and objectively. We have encountered clumsy formulations where students sound a bit like US Marine recruits and use phrases such as ‘the student thinks that …’, or ‘this researcher thinks that …’.

You will sometimes encounter other forms of prescription. It seems to be increasingly common to tell students that they must not introduce new information into their conclusions, for example, especially in research reports (see Chapter 9). However, much depends on what you consider to be ‘new information’. Clearly, you do not want suddenly to introduce a whole new debate or completely new data, but you will see that we have advised you to make comments, in conclusions and elsewhere, which do suggest that further research might be needed, new applications of approaches might be tested, or new comparisons made. Made as a series of fairly brief comments, these points seem perfectly acceptable in conclusions as indicating a way forward.

Certainly, as with all easy rules, it does not always pay to apply advice too literally and too specifically, and to remember that experienced and professional academics might be able to experiment successfully where a newcomer might not. On one of the courses we have taught, we have invited students to critically analyse a chosen piece of published academic work. To our surprise, some students have proceeded to rebuke well-established authors and famous arguments on the grounds that it is not good practice to introduce new information in the conclusions.

With those cautions in mind, let us refer you to some of the widely available advice on how to do academic writing (Box 5.7). Here is some work that we have used with our own students. A very useful site at Glasgow Caledonian University includes advice on academic writing (http://www.gcal.ac.uk/student/coursework/writing/index.html), writing essays (http://www.gcal.ac.uk/student/coursework/essays/index.html) and referencing (http://www.gcal.ac.uk/student/coursework/referencing/index.html).

There is a whole series of workshops on academic writing which have been undertaken by Queen Mary College, University of London, and which seem extremely sensible. They are written in the form of advice to lecturers wanting to assist their students in developing good interactive writing practices. There is no reason why you should wait for lecturers to suggest these, however. You can consult the relevant website (http://www.thinkingwriting.qmul.ac.uk/) for yourselves, but we have borrowed one of the exercises suggested (Box 5.8).

Reading Academic Writing

Note that the rationale for the last few examples is that reading the academic writing of others is the same sort of activity as writing in an academic way yourself. Students can probably only ever feel at home with academic writing when they have read enough of it for it to become familiar. Reading academic pieces can provide a considerable challenge, of course, and we have some exercises to help here too. You can try out these exercises and activities on a piece of academic writing of your choice, (Box 5.9).

Another common problem is trying to get to the essence of the argument while avoiding a number of common distractions. These can include being sidetracked by a minor argument, or sometimes even an aside. Distractions can include mentioning names of other academics in passing, or using ‘shorthand’ terms used to reference a whole debate. We endorse the usual advice to look for summaries, conclusions, subheadings and abstracts in the text, but there is a broader task too (Box 5.10).

One reason for trying to note these different audiences, if not actually identify them, is that it can give you the confidence to read selectively. Do you need to track down the academic sources mentioned in the introductory sections, or are they there to convince other academics of the quality of the work? Are the policy recommendations relevant to you at this moment or can they be left for another reading at a later time? Do you need to grasp the full academic justifications for a point, or should you just try to get the main points for now?


It is conventional to think of reports as taking a specific form, and this form is well described by a number of writers and experts. Usually, for example, the content is expected to be ‘factual’, reporting research findings, policy statements, or government documents. The idea is to present information so that readers can feel informed, perhaps knowledgeable enough to make a decision. Of course, this implies that you have worked with similar audiences already and can anticipate what readers want to know in addition. In writing reports at work, you will often be given a rather tight brief, or be expected to be able to derive one from what the clients stipulate. Academic reports can be less well specified, but there is still a need to undertake research or at the very least to take account of and write up the work from a particular angle.

The actual structure can sometimes be specified quite tightly. The real problem is often structure in a different ‘deeper’ sense, not only summarizing, but making the report flow. Williams (2004) has a very useful section covering both issues. To borrow from his discussion, we might consider the typical structure of a report as featuring the usual stages (Box 5.11).

Reports should flow in ways which help the audience to anticipate what is coming and thus get involved. Williams (2004: 78) suggests the following (Box 5.12).

Further information about report writing is available on http://www.gcal.ac.uk/student/coursework/reports/index.html. We return to this topic in Chapter 9, where we provide more detailed information about how to write a research report or a dissertation.

Examination Answers

Writing an examination answer can actually be easier than writing an essay or a portfolio. This may sound odd to students who find examinations very stressful and whose minds go blank as soon as they enter the examination room. Conventional study skills books often recommend that such students engage in a number of relaxation techniques to reduce the stress, ranging from simple yoga-based breathing exercises to techniques which sportspersons might find familiar, like attempting to visualize the successful completion of an examination while controlling negative thoughts.

We want to break with convention a little, as we have done in other sections of this book, and argue that examination answers can sometimes involve a lot less stress if you know what to expect. You only have a limited time to write your answer, instead of having to decide what to do over a longer period of time. This should help you focus on the essential elements. The other advantage, which you may not know about, is that examination answers are probably marked slightly more leniently. We know that you will be under pressures of time. We will not usually expect lengthy quotes or tables of statistics. We even make an allowance for simple mistakes. There can be no suspicion of plagiarism, and specific forms of malpractice (like impersonation) are still rare, which is one of the reasons that unseen examinations may be making a comeback.

As usual, you have to adapt your writing to the conventions of the test. The basic structure we have discussed above – summary of debates followed by comments on them – still applies to examinations. Indeed, there is even more reason to focus on these core elements, because you do not have time for lengthy asides, preambles, rants, thinking aloud, or long descriptive sections. The task renders itself down to the real basics.

As with writing essays or longer coursework pieces, your strategy for preparing for examinations should bear in mind that you have to deliver an answer based on summary and comment. It follows that you prepare for examinations by being able to note and then remember (if it is an unseen exam) brief but accurate summaries of the main approaches and pieces of work. You can do that in a number of well-known ways. Study skills books often recommend that you produce memorable summaries by reducing your notes to key bullet points on file cards, for example, or that you visualize the debates and draw a spider diagram, flow chart or ‘mind map’.

Some useful work picks up some of the points we made earlier about structuring arguments and offers ‘scaffolding’ to help students focus their efforts (for example, Nussbaum, 2002). Nussbaum suggests that students follow a template he has devised to help them. Basically, it consists of three sets of boxes, which invite students to summarize main points, note the evidence that supports the main points, and then focus on the relations between the points and the evidence. Some intriguing work on computer-mediated discussion (Hirsch et al., 2004) offers a set of options to guide argument. We can borrow their idea here and apply it to preparing revision materials for exams. Students might want to think of themselves as learning to use arguments of the following type (Box 5.13).

Note that there is a similar but briefer general statement that the Thinking Writing website (http://www.thinkingwriting.qmul.ac.uk/ and http://www.thinkingwriting.qmul.ac.uk/shortwrite2.htm) also suggests students might add to their lecture notes – ‘Yes, but …’.

At the very least, what these particular techniques encourage you to do is to take notes with the need to argue economically in mind. You can then further reduce the notes by thinking about them, with or without the aid of further writing and mind-mapping. Some people like to think of a model of their memories where information is stored in the pre-conscious or subconscious mind. A few words on the file card can help to bring that information back into the conscious mind. A homely analogy that is often cited concerns being able to drive for several hundred miles. Drivers can rarely remember their journey in detail, but as they come to each section of the road, it reminds them of what to do next.

Working over notes, either by constant re-reading or by attempting to transform them in various ways to shorter or more visual versions, can often simply help students to feel at home in a debate. Confidence grows, or what is sometimes called ‘ownership’. Indeed, we have met students who have only really felt they are on top of their subjects when they have prepared material for examinations. Paradoxically, this often comes at the end of the module or course. No doubt this is partly because information provided during the course gets recalled, as in the driving analogy. It may also be something to do with getting the right level of stress and motivation, perhaps even combined with a feeling of relief that the examination ordeal is nearly over.

What is often not realized is that you can also revise and prepare comments as well. Remember that you will need to provide all sorts of alert and intelligent argument and comment on the summaries that you are providing if you want to do well. To overcome the effects of stress, we have sometimes recommended a really simple structure which reminds students to provide comments. When you write down your six or seven sentences or bullet points in your examination answer plan, to remind you of the content of the debates, we have suggested that you also draw a box at the beginning and the end of this plan. You are going to fill the boxes with comment, and the most convenient and simple locations for comment are in boxes labelled ‘Introduction’ and ‘Conclusion’. This simple structure may not suit you, and you may prefer to introduce comments as you go along, at the end of sections, or even intertwined with summary. However, if you are not a good examination candidate, it might be best to follow the simplest structure, at least until you find your own way.

You can obviously think of comments to make as you do your note-taking and revision, and you will want to record these comments so you can revise them as well. Of course, with any luck, the stress level of taking the examination will be exactly right, and will stimulate you to recall all kinds of additional links, comparisons, and critical comments of both the ‘internal’ and ‘external’ kind as we argued above. If you are a poor examination candidate, you will prefer to have at least a few comments ready-made, just in case.

What sort of comments will you be noting? The same kind of things you were noting in your essays, which we have listed above. It is impossible of course to specify detailed comments because they depend very much on the topic, but we have made some general suggestions that apply to examination answers as well – comments on alternative approaches and comparisons, on the methods used, on additional cases which have not been discussed, including recent developments, comments on the arguments involved, and what they both emphasize and ignore.

Where do you get comments like this from? Although you will be focusing on chosen topics for revision purposes, you may well get ideas for interesting comparisons from other topics discussed on your modules or courses, perhaps those that were discussed in the same section as the ones you have chosen to specialize in. If you have been to most or many lectures and taken notes, you can often get ideas for comparative comment. You will have almost certainly received some lecturers' comments on your written work, and they can clearly be borne in mind. We have certainly written comments ourselves that are specifically designed to provoke the sort of reflection that can be used to generate useful material for revision.

You can also get comments from seminars and presentations. If you have attended the seminars and presentations on adjacent topics, and listened skilfully, you may well have some comparisons to make. In fact, if you are really well prepared, as we suggest, you will even have asked about comparisons in presentations and seminars so that you will have some material already to hand. You can get material for comments from discussing topics with other students, perhaps when you revise together, or from tutorials, including special revision tutorials. Of course, you will have to remember to note down these comments and include them in your mind maps or file cards. To our continued surprise, many students never do note down interesting comments that have arisen in discussion, even if they take lots of notes in lectures.

You can get ideas for comment from other questions on the examination paper. If you are tackling a question on youth subcultures, and there is also a question on the difficulties of doing research, or one on policy developments to combat illegal drugs, or one on Marxist approaches to deviance, you should not be short of ideas for comments. Sometimes the actual question itself will remind you to comment. It may include a quotation which you have to ‘critically discuss’. You may be invited to apply arguments to a specific example. There may be an additional part of the question that specifies that you should focus on methodology, current relevance, comparison with other approaches or whatever. You will gain marks if you take up the invitation to address the specific issues as you go through your summaries and comment. Students tend to get rather poorer grades if they simply reproduce a very general debate with no particular focus, as with essays. Worst of all is the answer that gives the impression that some set of notes, sometimes even an essay, has been memorized and is being regurgitated, regardless of the actual question.

Incidentally, some of the features of examination questions can sometimes puzzle or distract students. We have known students who have been ‘put off’ answering particular questions even though they have prepared the topic. Sometimes this is because a question is unnecessarily obscure, perhaps because it includes a piece of difficult jargon or some other kind of scholarly flourish. However, sometimes it is a simple misunderstanding on the part of the student. The specific cases we have in mind are questions that are deliberately designed to encourage a range of answers. If you remember our assessment task, it is to provide a test that will produce different sorts of answers, so that we can award different sorts of grade. To put a nice gloss on it, we want to design a question that will permit the really well-prepared, well-motivated, and well-read student to generate a first-class answer. At the same time, we want to allow a student who has made a reasonable effort to produce a reasonable answer.

One technique to produce this range of answers is to divide the examination question into two parts. The first part might require a reasonable survey of some of the literature, but the second part might require some additional demonstration of knowledge or commitment. The general form of the question might well ask students to first summarize a well-known debate, which they can find in the materials they encounter on the course, and then to apply it to a new area: here, they will not find ready-made answers in the materials but will have to demonstrate their own understanding. To take an obvious example, we could ask: ‘What did Durkheim think were the main causes of suicide? How might this be applied to understanding recent suicide bombers?’

If you only have a reasonable knowledge, and can feel fully confident only with the first part, you might still wish to attempt questions like this, of course. If you have practised doing critical comment and argument, you could profitably apply these skills to the new area.

Turning to more detailed advice for the examination itself, one approach which sometimes works well is to devise a plan for all the required examination answers as soon as you are allowed to begin the examination. That helps students who worry that they will forget material for the later questions, or spend too much time on the first one. It can also serve as a calming ritual to get you started actually doing something. Having devised your plan, you include the boxes for comment, and sketch in any ideas you might have already. Then you begin to address the questions, thinking of summary and comment as before.

As with all the writing and presentation techniques we have discussed (and will discuss in later chapters), examination questions will require you to not only remember summaries of debates and make comments on them, but also to edit what you know as you go along.

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  • examination questions
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