Tackling ‘A’ level Essay Writing
The start of Year 13 for me always begins with trying to teach A Level students how to write a successful essay. We do AQA and there is a lot of emphasis in terms of marks on the one essay they have to write for the Geog3 paper. Although students are usually used to writing essays in other subjects, I find that they often struggle to ‘get going’ on writing that first geography essay and the resulting quality is often poor.
Last year I decided to have a department focus on essay writing. The marks on the essays that summer had been quite low and there were no Level 4 marks despite there being several A grade students. I spent one lesson going through examples of Level 4 essays and the mark schemes. In order to boost their confidence and get them working together as a team I decided to do the first essay as a whole class exercise. I chose a title that covered the work we had been doing in the first few weeks on plate tectonics – “Compare and contrast two plate margins and evaluate which is the most hazardous”. I felt that this covered three command words which we could explore and also covered the concept of ‘hazard’. The powerpoint I used through the lesson is attached here.
We began the exercise by using thinking maps (we are a thinking school and students are familiar with using them in lessons). We used a double bubble map to compare and contrast two margins (as a class the students chose Mid Atlantic Ridge and the North American subduction zone). This allowed them to focus on ‘compare and contrast‘ and to develop their initial thoughts.
We then used the circle map to define ‘hazard’ in terms of the two margins. A class discussion took place to plan out the structure of the essay. 6 paragraphs were then agreed on.As they were going to complete the conclusion at a later stage I took this out and then randomly selected five groups (I use Super Teacher Tools for random group making) and gave each group a large piece of sugar paper and some resources. Each piece had one of the paragraphs written as a heading. A café style exercise then took place – each group was given 3 minutes to write their ideas for the paragraph before moving onto the next table. In this manner every student had the chance to contribute an idea to each paragraph.
Each group was then given one of the pieces of sugar paper to review. They crossed out ideas that they thought they wouldn’t use – I visited each group and asked them to justify their decision. A class discussion then ensued to ensure continuity and establish successful use of examples. Following this they were then given the task of writing the paragraph for the essay in their groups. They did this on laptops so that they could email me the finished version. Each group had a ‘runner’ who visited other groups to check that there was continuity between the paragraphs and each group had a check list of what to include in a successful paragraph (attached here).
The resulting paragraphs were of a very high standard. I collated them together and they then wrote their conclusion as an individual homework. These then allowed me assess their individual progress but it also demonstrated the importance of reading through your essay before you write the conclusion to ensure that you are supporting the essay as a whole. It also allowed them to explore the concept of ‘hazard’ and be synoptic in their approach.
The whole exercise was a huge success – student feedback indicated that they enjoyed the lessons (it took 2 lessons to complete in total) and it gave them confidence. The next essay I gave them to write individually was of a much higher standard than I had seen the previous year. I also had one third of students achieve Level 4 in the essay question in the summer exams.
Head of Humanities at Clyst Vale Community College and Senior Examiner for AQA (GCSE and A level)
Although the content and information that you put in an essay will change depending on what topic it is on, a logical and coherent structure (part of the mark scheme) is essential in getting top marks.
How it should be structured:
Read the question carefully. What kinds of phrases stand out? i.e. 'Explain', 'Examine', 'Evaluate' - these all lead to various structures and ways of answering the question.
Introduction - key (especially for a 15 mark essay) - provides the examiner a insight into a student's understanding of the context and the key words (which should be defined) of the question. State your argument/stance on the question. Perhaps include a key fact if you have time.
Main body - This may seem overwhelming at first. Make it simpler by choosing thematic/topical points based on the question and following this structure: Point, Evidence, Explanation, Link to the question (PEEL). Make sure that in the point, you are answering the question. Make sure you paragraph and keep the structure clear. This will help you to ensure a clear argument throughout. Provide case studies to exemplify knowledge and to strengthen your points/argument.
Conclusion - Draw together the various points made in the main body of the essay. Summarise the arguments you have made; reiterate your argument and link back to the question.
Notes: Be synoptic! This is key to make sure you get into the top band of marks - shows the examiner that you are well-rounded; illustrates a better understanding of the fundamental basis of geography as an area of study. Timing is important - for 15/20 markers allows for around 20 minutes, for 12/10 markers, aim for around 15 mins. Spelling, punctuation and grammar are important. Make sure you know what the exam board are asking for i.e. Edexcel
- AO1 Knowledge and understanding - application of theories, case studies etc. to show understanding and knowledge; "accurate and relevant geographical knowledge and understanding throughout".
- AO2 Application and analysis - using case studies to strengthen your points and argument; synopticity
- AO3 Communication and structure - logical and coherent organisation of essay.