We’ve spent a bit of time away from essay writing doing Addictive Behaviour and Research Methods. In the final couple of weeks of the course, we’re going back to essay writing, revising some of the topics. Revision for essays has been running on Friday mornings. I’m grateful to the people who have turned up for sharing what they know and being honest about what needs doing. I think the planning grid you helped to devise has been a really useful tool. Here are some ideas which have emerged from these sessions. I’m grateful in particular to Molly for her input into this on Friday.
1) The process of unpacking an idea in AO1 is sometimes harder than it looks. One we tried on Friday was theories of the formation of relationships. It is important to specify what these theories are doing: explaining how and why relationships get started. Once we got that clear, we managed to get the theories summarised and evaluated relatively smoothly. The same goes for evolutionary explanations for food preference. You need to say what the preference is and why it might be said to have an evolutionary basis.
2) It sounds obvious but there is no problem about using key terms across topics. We’ve used “vicarious reinforcement” often in Addictive Behaviour so use it somewhere else. You can use some of the ideas on validity and reliability we have just covered in research methods. Focusing on extraneous variables is often a good way of talking about a study.
3) The hard work comes at the start of an essay. You need to be able to unpack the title and show you understand the core theory or explanation: see above 1. You then need to be tight on evidence. It is important not to “over explain” it. That means getting to the findings quickly and saying what they show. You only need procedure insofar as it clarifies what the findings are and gives you a way into evaluation if you want to identify strengths and weaknesses. Once you have got this far, you can relax a bit and expand on the issues, debates and approaches questions which arise.
4) To write really well, you need to get the overall shape of the piece. People sometimes know what the main point is but are not quite sure how to get there. This week, I marked an essay where making a small adjustment so that a piece of evidence supported a theory and making another small adjustment so that another piece of evidence introduced an application enabled the whole essay to make sense. The trick is to know when to hit the IDA. Sometimes, you need to swap things about. You do not have to stick to the order on the revision sheet.
5) Applications are IDA. So is contrasting a biological explanation with a psychological explanation or vice versa.
6) Make your writing yours. Remember it is you who is writing it. Of course, you need to be scientific and you need to be precise, particularly at the start of the piece where you are unpacking key terms, describing theory and using evidence. When you get on to the evaluation and commentary, use your own perspective and your own interpretation.
What’s really helpful here is to link back to the advice from AQA. I have in front of me as I write a document from AQA which gives teachers feedback on the 2013 exam and works through some samples. What we’ve isolated here coincides with what AQA see as good practice. A point that’s been troubling me for a while is methodological evaluation. You cannot evaluate a research study unless you relate back to the theory on which it is based. It is often easy to criticise a study for being artificial or having a small sample but you need to be able to say whether you think the criticisms are strong enough to make you believe in the theory less. This is quite a tough call. Theories and the studies which support them would not get into the text book unless they had some merit. A good way round this is to make methodological evaluation positive. Use it when the research looks good, for example when several studies say the same thing. Looking back through the course, I think we have got this area right most of the time.
There’s a bigger point here though. There’s no indication in the documents which AQA put out that there are particular right answers they are looking for. You don’t have to use reductionism as an evaluation point: I choose not to because there has been so much dispute in the past about what is reductionist and what isn’t. You don’t have to produce methodological evaluation unless it fits particularly well and throws light on a theory either positively or negatively. What you do have to do is to answer a question directly, use evidence to support or challenge it and say what this tells you more broadly about the topic area. You have to make a point, explain it and link it to something else. In doing so, you transform your knowledge, express yourself and your perspective and perhaps surprise yourself with the insights which you generate. It’s hard but it’s worth it if you can do it.