Easy essay structure for A-level sociology: Hit those AO’s!

Alexandra Hay
26th February 2016 at 15:12

Subject Genius, Alexandra Hay, Easy essay structure for A level sociology: Hit those AO’s!

When I began teaching I found A-level sociology difficult to assess, and even more difficult to write meaningful feedback for students. This was due in part to my own inexperience, but mainly due to the complex set of Assessment Objectives (AO’s) students are expected to meet.


In AQA sociology these objectives are (or rather were, in the old spec):

AO1 – description, demonstration of knowledge and understanding.

AO2 – interpretation, application, evaluation and analysis.


It is a big challenge for students (and teachers!) to understand exactly what is required by A02 in sociology. To assist students I have created a simple essay structure that they were expected to follow for the old ‘assess’ style questions for example. ‘assess the contribution Functionalists have made to our understanding of society today (33)’. To help recall I created the mnemonic ‘Dogs Sometimes Walk Looking Cross’ (in tribute to my angry dachshund) and have even included a cross looking dog in the wall display. This essay structure helps the less able students access some of the necessary features of AO2 by breaking down what is actually meant by ‘analysis’, ‘application’ and ‘evaluation’. It is also a good place to begin the more able student as they can use the structure as a template to develop their own essay style.

This structure does not include the ‘interpretation’ aspect of A02. It is inferred that if students do the other sections well they will have demonstrated correct interpretation of the question and the material used to support their arguments. I do however insist they refer to the item (if required by the question) a minimum of twice, and make constant references back to the original question in their prose.

I will explain how this essay structure has been used in the past by my students, then explain how it may be used to hit the reformed AO’s in the new 2016 AQA specification.


Essay Structure (old spec ‘assess’ questions)


Dogs –              Describe (A01)

Sometimes –     Strengths (evaluation A02)

Walk –              Weaknesses (evaluation A02)

Looking –          Links to a theory/sociologist/evidence (application A02)

Cross –     Comparison with other sociological material (analysis A02)  

Although it of course makes sense for the essay to begin with a description, the rest of the structure is semi flexible, as long as the order makes logical sense and adds to the quality of the argument.

To put this in context if a student were answering the question mentioned earlier - ‘assess the contribution Functionalists have made to our understanding of society today (33)’ (unit 4 old spec) the basic structure would go as follows:

Description (A01) Include a selection of the Functionalist theories and how they approach society e.g. Durkheim organic analogy, macro, positivism, social facts. Parsons, Merton. A comment on how this helps us understand society as reference to the question would also be useful.  

Strengths and Weaknesses (A02 evaluation) of these theories. E.g. they are dated…

Links to research, evidence, (A02 application) (as this is a unit 4 question synoptic links to other areas of the course would be expected e.g. to Parsons and the meritocracy of the education system from unit 2 or functional theories of crime from unit 4). It is possible this will be found following on from the A01, students may prefer to complete this part before beginning their evaluation, this will depend on the flow of their argument. In a unit 4 question such as this I also expect real world applications, for example a link to a specific crime perhaps that the Functional perspective would help understand – such as the public reaction to the WPC’s shot dead in Manchester in 2012.  

Compare and Contrast (A02 analysis) with another sociological theory – this is often found towards the conclusion, for example one of the criticisms of Functionalism is it is outdated, perhaps a more recent theory, Postmodernism may be better able to assist our understanding of society today? The trick here is to ensure your students show restraint – they do not want to launch into an essay on Postmodernism as this will not be creditworthy. They must draw out the differences between Postmodernism and Functionalism and explain why that is a problem for the original theory, and why it facilitates the need for a second theory to explain society today.


The new spec 2016

The new AQA specification for AS and A-level has added an AO although the skills required remain very similar.

AO1: Demonstrate knowledge and understanding of: sociological theories, concepts and evidence, sociological research methods.

AO2: Apply sociological theories, concepts, evidence and research methods to a range of issues.

AO3: Analyse and evaluate sociological theories, concepts, evidence and research methods in order to:

•       present arguments

•       make judgements

•       draw conclusions.


The splitting up of the chunk that was AO2 into AO2 and AO3 should help students to better understand what is required. The old ‘assess’ questions no longer exist (in sample paper 1 and 2 anyway) however they have been replaced with ‘evaluate the view’ and ‘analyse reasons’ that can still follow the structure suggested. However I would suggest more emphasis be given to the description, strengths and limitations in an ‘evaluate’ question, and emphasis given to the description, links/application and compare and contrast in the ‘analyse question’. The AO’s are also more explicit in their requirement of research methods content and application, this will need to be embedded within the teaching.  


Essay structure new AQA spec (2016)

Dogs –              describe (A01)

Sometimes –     strengths (evaluation A03)

Walk –              weaknesses (evaluation A03)

Looking –          links to a theory/ sociologist/ evidence/method (application A02)

Cross –             comparison with other sociological material (analysis A03)


By getting students to follow this structure, or at least ensure they include evidence of it in their essays, even if not in that exact order you maximise their chances of hitting the AO’s and gaining valuable marks. As a heavy essay writing subject sociology students often struggle for time in their exams, this structure means that if they begin to run out, they will know what they simply must include even if only alluded to very briefly.

This structure also has the additional benefit of making written feedback easier, as missing sections can be identified and students encouraged to work on them. Lessons can then be tailored to address specific issues. For example I find the compare and contrast section always warrants some additional guidance for example and lends itself well to an activity based lesson.

As the application to the new specification has demonstrated, this essay structure is flexible and may indeed be transferable to other exam boards and qualifications. 


Alexandra Hay teaches social sciences at a secondary school in Staffordshire and is a professional doctorate student at Keele University.