There are a number of mistakes made that are quite widespread and are easily avoidable in the future:
1. Use the Material on the Reading List
Although it is useful to read materials from beyond the reading list, to simply avoid the reading list and search the internet for material is very dangerous. It may be that at School you were encouraged to use the internet to discover and research new topics but at University you need to learn to judge the quality of what you are reading and this takes time. As module organiser I provided a complete set of readings both electronically and as a reading pack. Why do you think I did that? It surprises me how many essays I read wherein not one of the readings provided by me was actually used. Why is this? The readings provided were chosen for very good reason – they are important texts which tell you something very worthwhile about the topic. Many of you simply went to the internet and quickly searched for material and thereby often relied on poor quality sources. Please, please in future use the reading material provided by the lecturer – s/he has studied the topic for a long time so avail of this expertise and read the material provided in the reading lists – why trust the internet but not the lecturer – the lecturer picked readings for a reason and he or she (not the internet) is examining you? If the reading material is difficult then use the seminars and the lecturer’s office hours to seek help – it is why we are here. I want to stress I am not saying never read anything from outside the list – I am saying read the material on the list before you go outside of it and use what you have learned from the reading list to judge the quality of what you find in journals, on the internet etc. In short, the person examining you thinks you can learn from the readings so do so and then use others but only if you rate their quality.
2. Opinions Need Evidence
A second recurring issue is the stating of opinions as though they are fact. If I say ‘the the recent education reforms will lead to working class people not going to University’ – this is an opinion not a fact – we do not know yet and if working class people do stop going we cannot simply assume it is because of the reforms we have to prove it is because of them. You need to back it up a statement of opinion with a reference or with evidence. To put this differently if I say ‘Liverpool are a better team than Man Utd.’ it is a matter of opinion. I need to back it up with evidence e.g. won so many cups, titles, have had more influence on the way football is played, etc. Too often students simply stated controversial opinions as fact – think more about how you would back up your opinions – imagine being challenged by a friend to support your statement. What evidence or references would you provide to boost your argument?
Equally students often do not reference things within your essays e.g. ‘Adam Smith’s pin factory was based on’ – yes Adam Smith did write about the pin factory but how do you know this? You read it somewhere – it needs a reference so someone can check that you have correctly interpreted his work and, if not, can challenge you to justify or back up your interpretation. Your bibliography also needs to be complete so that people can check your argument – often they will want to check it because they like it and want to verify it. If you have not read Adam Smith but simply heard me mention him in a lecture that is not good enough to make an argument about the pin factory – that is simply summarising the lecture and is worthy of only a low grade (assuming you have summarised it correctly).
4. Written English
Students written English is sometimes poor – this is not necessarily because students cannot or do not write well – often students can write well but they do not proof-read their own work hence sloppy mistakes are evident in the text, the meaning is unclear, spelling errors occur, etc. You should proof-read your work or ask a friend to do so.
This is not to say that people did not write good essays. Some were excellent and well researched and well argued but in general there were these common mistakes.
5. Opening paragraph
The rule of threes – do not confuse, keep concise, look after the reader, opening paragraph – introduce broad topic in first sentence, then clarify, elaborate and define in next few paragraphs but do not over elaborate, then indicate areas you will concentrate on – 10-12 lines for paragraph as a whole. It is not simply a description but a case to be argued.
6. Writing Tight and Linking Paragraphs
Read your work, imagine yourself as the reader – is it clear, do you have to dig out the meaning, is it cumbersome, are the sentences grammatical. Sentences themselves – subject/verb/object (or complement). Paragraphs must follow on from each other – so that they have continuity and development. Key then is the opening and closing sentence – this is where points can be gained if you reread the essay with these sentences in mind.
7 Evidence, Final Third, and Conclusion
The essay is about making a case for or against something and using evidence to back it up. It is not description. It is not X said this and Y said that. You have to consider the evidence and commit to a view. This is then the final third of the essay wherein you outline all the evidence thus far and then provide your understanding of it – this keeps the essay fresh. And then in the conclusion say what you know now that you did not know at the beginning.