An Essay on Essay Writing

by Sam

Essay writing is a key skill in higher and further education. Speaking from a student's point of view, it is not just about what you write but how you write and express yourself - a degree of skill in English is definitely needed.

I never really felt like I was prepared for the standard required for writing at University. When I studied for my GCSEs I never had to produce an extended piece of writing, with the exception of my English language coursework and literature exam. Even then I followed a set writing structure, which wasn't particularly complicated or creative. I never received any lessons at school on how to structure an academic essay.

When I went to sixth form college, some formal academic writing was required, although it was still quite limited. In my Geography and Politics A Levels, I had to write long answers to questions, but they tended to be merely descriptive and didn't involve structuring an argument. I also had to produce a piece of English Language coursework in my second year, but again that was limited in its critical analysis. At university however, structuring an argument and presenting it in essay for is a key skill: a critical aspect of coursework.

Referencing is also a key part of University essay writing: I first came across it towards the end of my time at college when I had to write an article investigating the differences in dialogue in maths classrooms. Even then, the teacher showed me a program on the computer that did it (Refworks, which is a lifesaver) and I didn't really learn how to form them myself.

All of this made writing essays at University quite a daunting prospect as I had never actually done anything like it before, so I really struggled with them initially. Even now, halfway through my degree, I do find it hard to write long pieces of work which can be up to 5000 words and beyond. The University - to its credit - have provided us with support in teaching us how to write essays, referencing workshops and a dedicated service at the Library which proof-reads your essays and provides one-one sessions.

However, I wish that I had sessions on how to write essays at school and had proper practice of doing this before coming to University. I was lucky to study English Language at A Level which did help me out with my degree: but not every young person does this. Studying History at A Level is quite useful practice for doing a degree as you do write a lot of essays, although naturally they are not as complicated as University ones.

When you are at University the essays tend to fall into 2 categories: critical (analysing and evaluating sources and coming to your own conclusion) and reflective (relating what you have done in a job/placement to theories). The essays I did prior to going to University were often quite descriptive and just required me to regurgitate facts. They were really a test of memory rather than my analysis skills.

All of this is why I think we need to introduce essay education in schools at GCSE-level, and that the curriculum should include more academic essay writing on extended pieces of analytical content. It would prepare youngsters for going to University and would have the supplementary benefit of increasing their English skills. Even students who are not going to University would benefit from this, as essay writing is all about forming critiques and expressing them effectively, a desirable transferable skill. Interestingly, Gove's reforms seem to be going this way.

There are a number of ways in which all this could be implemented. Perhaps the most obvious would be to incorporate this into English lessons by having a module on how to write academic essays. Making the English curriculum more essay-based could also be a possible solution. Integrating this into study periods and PSHE/Citizenship could also be a possible way of doing this.

Some people might argue that not all students will want this academic stimulation. My answer would be that some sort of essay education is guaranteed to help them in the long run. Even for students going down the vocational route, their careers will demand the writing of assessments and reports at times.

Hopefully this will give you food for thought and make you aware of the issue of essay writing, which isn't the most publicised. Whatever your opinion, it is clear there needs to be some discussion on the subject.

Sam is a second year student at the Lancaster campus of the University of Cumbria. He is training to be a secondary maths teacher and has worked in schools on numerous work and volunteer placements as a teacher and teaching assistant. This article draws on his student's perspective and experiences of education.