I have corrected student assignments for some years, and want to share some suggestions which could help lift the quality of the responses. While the examples I use are largely taken from a course in business ethics I have been involved in, these suggestions can be applied to most writing.
If there are evaluation criteria, read them carefully, this will indicate where you can get or lose points.
Read the questions carefully. Restate it in your own words, and make sure you have a firm grasp of:
- The actual question or questions asked
- The unit of analysis: the perspective are you expected to take
- The key issue under investigation à this is the larger context; which will help you prioritize what sections and aspects to focus attention on.
- The theoretical framework you are expected
Spend sufficient time on this. It is the difference between staring in a productive direction, or possibly ending with a confused answer, missing some key points.
The structure of any writing can make or break it. A logical and clear structure guides the reader effectively through your argument. A poor structure will leave the reader confused. This will rarely benefit you, and never in an exam.
A clear structure has several levels:
- The whole document
- Each section
- Each paragraph
The document level should include:
- An introduction, where you lay out the case and say where you are going
- A main part, where you lay out the arguments, both for and against, in a structured fashion
- A conclusion, where you critically evaluate the arguments above, decide on a position, and draw wider implications.
Structure of each part:
- Explain the question you are answering, and set it in a context.
- Introduce your key terms and boundary conditions
- Lay out your plan for how you will answer the question.
Based on the introduction, the reader should know what is coming, and in what sequence, and indeed, know if you have the right question and a good way of answering it.
Regarding defining key terms, you should not assume the reader understands a given concept in the same way you do, so make it explicit. Further these definitions set you up for your analysis.
An added benefit for the author is that it also lays out what is to be done in a clear manner, increasing the chance of a coherent paper.
This is where you do your analysis. Depending on the type of question, make sure you build up the structure, so that there is a flow. Start with the parts that you will use later in your arguments. For example, if you are using the Ethics Navigation Wheel, start with the parts that do not depend on any other part, for example “Law”. Then follow with other parts of the wheel you may need to refer to later. For example, findings presented in “Identity” may be referred to when discussing “Reputation”; And “Reputation” may be used when discussing “utilitarian ethics”.
For each sub-section, also have a clear structure.
For example, if asked to evaluate a case based on Utility ethics, you may want to:
- Define (act and rule) utilitarian theory
- Identify all stakeholders, and which you will limit your analysis to, and why.
- For each stakeholder:
- The good
- The bad
- The conclusion for the given stakeholder.
- Conclude the total utility for all analyzed stakeholders
Each paragraph, or set of paragraphs should have a clear structure, for example:
- Premise – what is being argued, and any assumptions
- Argument 1, 2, ..
- Conclusion / implication
To give an example: The question:
“Apply the principle of equality to discuss whether there are morally relevant differences between sugar-babying and prostitution. Under which conditions could they be the same, and when would they be different?”
I first identify different categories I think the two should be compared on, and then I proceed with a paragraph on each.
Then, to evaluate “Timing”
[Premise] A sugar baby relationship is ongoing, with at least more than a single date and with the expectation of a sexual component. [Argument 1] Given the expectation of future dates, the question of whether payment is made before or after sex is irrelevant, as it can both be seen as payment for services rendered, or to set expectations for future sexual encounters. [Argument 2] The implicit and mutual understanding that payment will be made from the sugar daddy to the sugar baby at some time further indicates that the exact time when payment is made, is of little consequence. [Conclusion] As prostitution defined as the exchange of sex for payment, sugar babying is no different with regards to timing of payment.
(This is a short paragraph for illustration, in an exam setting, I would include more arguments. I would also cite references.)
Conclusion and evaluation
I often get the question in class:
“What does the instructor want us to conclude with?”
In general, an examiner wants to see a well argued text, with relevant information. There is not necessarily a correct answer. It depends on the arguments, empirical data and theoretical lens. In some cases, if done thoroughly, these three components may almost force the writer to a given conclusion. In less clear cut situations, the result will vary.
When writing up the conclusion, include both the strongest arguments for AND against your decision, this will show you have taken the strongest argument against into consideration.
A possible structure for the conclusion:
- Reformulate and define the dilemma
- Strongest argument against
- Strongest argument for
- Explain why you believe the argument for your position is the stronger
- Put your findings in a greater context; what are the boundary conditions to the generalizing from the example / case.
PLEASE use headings and subheadings. Use the built in styles in Word or whatever editing software you use. It makes it A LOT easier to follow. (Look at this blogpost; would it have been the same if there were no headings?)
Throwing points out the window
All too often, students flush points down the toilet; classic ones include:
- Spelling mistakes
- Exceed word / page limit
- Poor (or missing) bibliography
There are no excuses for this, and annoys the reader A LOT. Unless you are a gifted writer with English as your native language (and even if you are), consider doing as many professional writers, and use a service like Grammarly. If you can afford it, use the premium version, it is MILES better (For reference, I use it now on all work I submit).
Citations and bibliography
A citation underpins a statement, and the quality and relevance of your source matters.
- Include ALL citations in your bibliography
- Use the same format throughout your paper
- Use a standard format.
This is a very time consuming and thankless task. Get into the habit of using a reference manager, such as Endnote or Mendely
Take a course at the library.. It will benefit you for the exam AND in ALL future papers.
Editing your work
Finally, and most importantly, edit your work. Go through a day after you have finished, if possible, and edit. You will find you can make the content flow better, make it more concise, and you may even spot logical flaws. This is a practice all professionals do; even professors of journalism.
Writing is a skill that takes a lot of time to become proficient in. there are some great books on the topic. Please see this post, for more on this issue.
Bonus Suggestions .. reflections from having graded exams
I will re-iterate the above: READ THE QUESTION! A surprising number of papers included topics outside the clearly defined question. (In this case, the exam question explicitly asked the student to conduct three specific analyses, as opposed to the six that make up a set). Some students did all six, meaning each was done in less detail. The three outside the scope do not get points, it only means there is less space for the three that can earn the student points.
A related point, is to get the angle correct. The course I graded is called “Applied business Ethics”; and the exam explicitly asked for empirical input and analysis. Despite this, several students wrote exclusively, or close to a theoretical paper. It was clear they had put a lot of effort into the paper, and that that they have a good grasp of the theory. However, as a large part of the grade is on the application to empirical data; the points such a paper can earn, is limited.
Some students, knowing there was a page limit, cut and pasted a graphic from the text book, which takes about half a page. The only thing doing this does, is to scream at the person grading the paper that the student did not manage to find enough to write. It does not impress. Indeed, if you have a graphic, model etc. you think will help; put it in an appendix.