Here’s another post from my classroom blog. I’ve entered all of my year 12 students into an essay writing competition which is a little unusual considering the all consuming nature of this final year but, as this post explains, this may turn out to be one of the best things they do this year in preparing for their future career in education.
It will come as a surprise to no one that student life in a tertiary institution is very different to that of secondary school. However, what does come as a shock to many is just how different the demands of writing are.
VCE expects written responses that
• are hand written
• are completed within a timeframe (50-60 minutes usually)
• deal directly with the wording of concise and carefully worded topics
• aim to be between 600 – 1,200 words in length
• have very little opportunity for editing
• encourage students to articulate their ideas and opinions
Yet the extended written responses students write in Tertiary institutions are almost the complete opposite in their construction.
• They are typed (although this is rarely compulsory)
• They have long, open-ended essay topics
• They have due dates set many weeks away from when they are first issued
• They are expected to be thousands of words long
• They are not really interested in what the student thinks (I’ll come back to this)
It’s a whole new ball game with a whole new set of rules and strategies to learn in order to perform well. In many respects it is a sad irony that the tremendous effort high school students make in writing well are redundant when they reach tertiary courses. Suddenly their writing skill set must be altered dramatically.
But then again, such is life.
So let us not dwell on difficulties here. Let us, instead, look at how to write well and how it helps you when you get to a tertiary course.
Who cares what you think?
This is putting the point a little bluntly but the fact is that essays at a tertiary level are frequently vehicles for showing how widely a student has read rather than their opinions. This is why the word counts are so high, due dates are so long and the topics are so broad.
A good technique is to read the articles of respected commentators in a field and write a short analysis of what aspects of this are relevant to your topic. They may be anywhere from 50 to 200 words in length. You will quickly see how some writers are similar and others different and you will probably see a pattern emerge of how to thread them all together into a coherent discussion. The individual mini analyses will need to be edited to flow together but the majority of the work should be already done.
With the body of your essay largely completed as an analysis of other people’s opinion, the last few paragraphs at the end of this style of writing is left open for you to draw your own conclusions. At this point don’t be surprised if the contention that you find you develop is different from the one you had expected to write at the start. In fact, the hope is that you have found your reading has informed and formulated your opinion. Also, don’t feel the need to develop a simplistic black or white, yes or no answer. If the topic was complex to begin with your analysis should probably reflect that.
The end is the beginning!
Paradoxically, it is often only when the majority of your essay is complete that you can construct its introduction. Now that you know the direction you’re piece will head in, you can have greater confidence in how to start it. Sometimes, there is a need to discuss the implications of defining certain words or concept within your topic here. On other occasions you may want to give a little bit of background to these concepts. If, through your reading and research, you found that opinions on the topic fall into two or more camps, here’s where you map that out briefly. You can also finish the intro with a reference to your conclusions.
These essays are true constructions in a way that your exam essay writing isn’t. With all this done, you will have a decent first draft which will almost certainly need some polishing up before submission. The good news though, is that the hardest part of the job is complete and subsequent drafts will work on fluency of expression, and checking for appropriate referencing.
A valuable distinction you draw here. Coming to secondary teaching after writing volumes and teaching at tertiary level it took me a while to see this distinction and understand what a good high school essay should look like!
You have clearly highlighted some of the main points of divergence between high school writing tasks and tertiary expectations.