Take the agony out of essay-writing

Harry Dodds

Thought you'd put all that research and those footnotes behind you when you finished your degree? Think again. Harry Dodds refreshes your technique

It's been a while since you graduated and you're out of the habit of writing anything, let alone academic papers. Many trainees feel uncertain whether they've held on to the skills that they once had, but it's quite easy to revive them.

Written assignments are required by almost every graduate teacher programme (GTP). That's because assessors want to know that potential teachers are able to think afresh about what they're learning, discarding their preconceptions and articulating their new knowledge and understanding.

Assignments may look daunting, but they are always rooted in experience, asking you to reflect on what you have done in the classroom, and to contextualise it in terms of your growing professional knowledge and of broader research. They ask you to relate the practicality of your work to the theoretical background that informs it.

A well-specified assignment will ask you to explore much evidence, and to express your understanding clearly and coherently, relating it to your own professional development as a teacher and as a learner. It will also be explicitly linked to a number of the qualified teacher standards, and provide evidence that you have met them.

Give yourself plenty of time. You'll be under pressure in the classroom, but that's no excuse for leaving your assignment to the last minute. What's more, if you know what's expected of you, you will be better placed to gather evidence from your everyday activities.

Read the marking criteria before you start thinking and researching.

Knowing what is expected of you will focus your efforts. Discuss it with your mentor and with other experienced teachers. They will help you keep in touch with the real world. Keep away from cynics, though - what you're doing is worthwhile.

Research thoroughly. Give as much attention to ideas that you don't like as to those that you do. Argue with both - use texts to help define your understanding, and to make the ideas your own.

Relate new ideas to experience - do they ring true in terms of what happens in your classroom? Do they offer pointers to what should be happening there? Ask yourself how these ideas will make your pupils' learning more effective and discuss the answers in your essay.

Write for yourself, rather than for your assessors. The value of the assignment lies in the difference the process of writing makes to your understanding of your classroom practice. Its value as evidence to your assessor of your competence, although important, is secondary to what it does for you as a learner.

Be mindful of your reader all the same. Aim for clarity, and keep your style simple. Use technical vocabulary when you have to, but make it clear that you understand it.

Structure your assignment carefully. Define your understanding of the title. Arrange your argument logically - use mind-mapping, outliner or story-boarding, whichever best suits your style, to help writing flow logically and to make connections between your findings.

Always support your points with evidence. Let your conclusion sum up your new understanding. Because you have to take that back in to the classroom, show how it will be valuable to you as a teacher.

Pay attention to the conventions of academic writing. Be objective, but be forceful about expressing your personal experience and understanding. Be clear about how you are expected to reference quotations and preparing a bibliography.

Your college or designated recommending body, which administers the GTP, should offer guidelines about this, but, if they haven't, use the Harvard System. Use Google as your search engine, enter Harvard Referencing, and choose a guide that seems readable. Leeds Metropolitan University's advice is as good as any. Write your draft, then leave it for at least a day before you finalise it.

When your assignment has been marked, don't focus on the grade - ask yourself what you can learn from the comments.

Leeds Metropolitan: www.lmu.ac.uklsslsdocsharvfron.htm

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Harry Dodds

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