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An analytical approach

By setting essays as an important mode of assessment, universities are not simply aiming to assess the ability of students to understand and recall information. Essay tasks are intended to assess your ability to:

  • analyse concepts and arguments
  • synthesise ideas and evidence drawn from different sources
  • construct consistent and well-supported arguments
  • discuss an issue in a balanced way
  • evaluate the ideas and arguments of others
  • make judgements and express informed opinion.

Lecturers often complain that students tend to write essays which demonstrate lower level thinking skills, whereas what they are seeking is evidence of more complex thought.

Cognitive level of your response

From simplest to most difficult, the six key 'cognitive domains' (or thought processes) are:

  1. recall
  2. comprehension
  3. application
  4. analysis
  5. synthesis
  6. evaluation.

It is important that your essays do not simply describe or reproduce key facts, or only outline the perspectives of various writers, but that they go beyond that, introducing elements of analysis, synthesis and evaluation.

What you need to do

When you plan an essay, and as you are in the process of writing an essay, check whether you are addressing levels 4 to 6, or only the first 2 or 3 of the 'cognitive domains' listed above.

Adapted from Greentham, B 2001, How to write better essays, Palgrave, Houndmills, pp. 63-64.

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