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Writing an Essay for Psychology - What Will This Pamphlet Help Me With?

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Writing an Essay for Psychology

What will this pamphlet help me with?

Some aspects of essay writing are common across several subject disciplines; however, some additional skills are required in the study of Psychology. This pamphlet is designed to help you to understand exactly what is required in Psychology, and to give some examples of good and bad practice. You may find it helpful to refer to Heffernan, T.M. (2000) A Student's Guide to Studying Psychology. Second Edition. East Sussex: Psychology Press. Chapter 3. Other books on study skills will also contain some useful information: for example, see Cottrell, S. (2003) The Study Skills Handbook. Second Edition. Basingstoke: Palgrave. If you still have concerns at the end, consult your personal tutor for further advice.

An essay should be seen as the communication of an argument. The reader must both be convinced by the argument itself and that the writer understands the topic they are writing about. Some people often write poorly structured essays that lack a coherent argument and therefore fail to convince the reader that the writer understands or cares about the subject. As a student, your task in essay writing is to show the reader that you clearly understand the subject area.

Where to begin?

The first step to success in any assessed essay is the choice of an appropriate title. Read the titles offered in the module booklet, and think about which general subject areas interest you. Do some preliminary reading for each title - use lecture notes and the recommended text book for the course - and choose the title which interests you most, or about which you already have most knowledge.

What does it mean?

Having chosen your title, check that you understand what it asks you to do. A frequent mistake made by undergraduate students is to write down everything they know about the topic mentioned in the title, without ever answering the question asked. Of course you should look at the psychological terms in the title, but don't forget the "instructions" that are also found there. Psychology essays almost NEVER ask for simple descriptions! The following list of key "instruction" terms may help you to understand what you are being asked to do:

Account for - explain the cause of

Analyse - separate the issue into its component parts and show how they inter-relate

Assess - estimate the value of, looking at both positive and negative attributes

Cite - give evidence to support a point of view

Comment - make critical or explanatory notes

Compare - point out the differences and similarities in a logical way

Contrast - point out the differences in a logical way

Describe - write down relevant information

Discuss - present arguments for and against the topic in question

Distinguish - identify differences between listed topics

Evaluate - estimate the value of, looking at both the negative and positive attributes

Explain - give reasons, not just a definition or description

Justify - present a valid argument to support a given theory or conclusion

Outline - give main features and general principles, but no detail

Review - a critical survey of theories/literature

Suggest - often used when there is no "right" answer; try to cover a range of possibilities

Summarise - state only the main features of an argument

To what extent...? - Justify the validity of an argument, without the need to accept the argument completely

"Critical evaluation" is a term that is often used with regard to Psychology essays. This does not mean that you should only discuss the "bad" points of all the theories and studies you mention in your essay, but rather that you should consider their value constructively. Give supporting evidence for your views, and discuss both positive and negative aspects before reaching a carefully considered, well-balanced conclusion. See "Critical Evaluation: A Guide for Students" for more information.

Sources of information

Once you are sure that you understand the title, it is time to start thinking about how to answer the question. To do this, you need to obtain more information about the topic, and to have clear understanding of the associated theories, methodologies and arguments. Some information may have been provided in lectures and/or seminars, but regurgitating this will not allow you to achieve good marks - you need to use a range of sources.

The most sensible place to begin your reading is the recommended course text - you are required to be familiar with this, and your tutors will expect to see some evidence that you have read it! In addition, it has been chosen specifically because it provides a good introduction to the module content, of which your essay is a part. Information from Blackboard will also give you a good foundation from which to begin your research.

It is not sufficient to rely on a single text book when writing an essay - a wide range of reading is necessary for a good mark. Usually, lecturers will suggest a selection of references, which they believe offer a good insight into their area of Psychology. These should be used wherever possible - but remember that if you wait until the week before the deadline, the books will be difficult to obtain from the library, due to competition with other members of your course. If you cannot obtain these sources, be flexible, and look for others. Even if you do obtain all the recommended texts, a really good essay will use additional sources. One way of finding these is to look for the most relevant references cited in your text books, or to do an electronic literature search, to find original research papers. Try to use some specialised texts, not just general introductory psychology text books, which do not provide enough depth if used alone.

Suitable sources include text books, journal articles, lecture notes, electronic databases

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