General guidance on answering essay questions

General guidance on answering essay questions

Many students are wary of answering essay questions. Compared to a problem-type question there can appear to be relatively little guidance in the question itself as to the sort of issues the assessor is wishing the student to address. In fact, an essay gives far more scope for students to express their own ideas than does a problem-type question.

I therefore recommend that students attempt essay questions when a question appears which is based on a subject the student has understood and feels confident in. The scope for achieving a very good mark in an essay is enhanced because of the flexibility that the essay-form of question offers. Whereas even a good student will find it hard to answer a problem in a distinctive way within the allotted time, the same good student can give an essay answer a distinctive flavour and take the opportunity to make original observations. You may even go into the exam with something of interest in your mind, ready prepared, to say about each of the major topics you have studied.

A good technique is to decide upon whichever legitimate interpretation of the question gives you the greatest opportunity to discuss those aspects of the subject with which you are most familiar and in which you are most interested. Having said that, the main aim in writing an essay-type answer is to adhere as closely as possible to the question asked. The first rule is to answer the question that has been asked. The second rule is to answer it in your own way. As you write your answer make express reference to the essay title every now and then, and be sure to finish the essay with a conclusion that really does tie together your thoughts and refer back to the essay question and the points made in the introduction.

The point is that you should have a thesis, an idea. It is all too easy simply to string quotes together without suggesting any uniting thread. The best way to put across a thesis is to have a strong introduction which either analyses the question according to the literal words used, or re-defines the words used in a way that is more favourable to your strengths and knowledge (always being careful not to stray outside the ambit of the question). The introduction should set out the route that you intend to take through the question and should be tied up in a strong concluding paragraph where you tell the reader whether or not the thesis that you commenced with has been proved or disproved.

It follows from the preceding comments that a lack of structure, and a non-committal introduction/conclusion are undesirable in essay questions. Furthermore, you will probably wish to use separate paragraphs for each of your major points and you may wish to use sub-headings (perhaps in bold) to describe each of your major paragraphs (as do most academic journals). As well as structure, clarity is crucial. I recommend short sentences. (Like this one.) As a general rule try to restrict yourself to one point per sentence, so that your observations do not become muddled up. Enjoy the question and keep the reader’s interest.

A good answer will cite legal and (sometimes non-legal) authorities for the points made. The more authoritative the supporting reference the better. Authorities do not have to be recent, they just have to be the right authority for the point. However, recent authorities (and references to academic commentary, law commission papers etc) can be taken as evidence of sound research techniques. Don’t worry if you can’t remember the year of a case in an examination – the main thing is to understand the point. Of course all references should be attributed. You will be penalised if you pass off another person’s work as your own. Make your work attractive to the assessor by producing it in word-processed form wherever possible, and underline or otherwise highlight your legal authorities (cases, statutes etc).

It is difficult to get the balance right between comprehensive coverage of the range of points that can be made, and sufficient depth in the treatment of each. A good approach is to have a simple thesis and to support it by detailed examination of one or two important cases. If you can demonstrate that those cases are seminal, there may be no need to refer to too many others. (Although you should expressly state that this is the approach you are adopting.) Above all an essay should not be an encyclopaedia of the irrelevant, not matter how learned, but a focussed answer to a specific question – do not simply recite your lecture notes or the chapter from a book.

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