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Learning By Doing: A Hands On Approach To Teaching Essay Planning

by Jean Rose 16th June 2020

In this article, Jean Rose shares a student-centred activity to kickstart the planning process.

Getting students to plan their essays can be an uphill battle. They don’t want to do it: it hurts. And to an extent, this is understandable. Planning involves a lot of hard thinking as well as serious organisation.

Mature students can be particularly vulnerable to receiving low grades as a result of lack of planning, but the affliction can affect all ages. Some students will have been scared off from planning in the past; some fear it will take too long; some think that it will sap their creativity or that it doesn’t matter at all. They just don’t understand what it’s for or how to do it.

A mature student handing in a first (slaved-over) academic essay believes that hard work in itself will achieve success. So when that essay is returned with a poor grade, the student feels the reason is obvious, and mutters miserably, “I’m no good at this. Perhaps I should give up now.” What’s needed, however, is very clear advice and a bit of hand-holding.

So I eventually devised a system: the students and I would plan an essay on a subject that none of us had studied. Yes, none of us. Going into this session blind is one of the keys to the process, and I wanted the students to feel my pain as well as their own. They needed to see that having a system can activate the brain. And I was convinced that learning by doing would be far more valuable than handouts that would sink into deepest, darkest purdah in bulging ring binders.
  • I began by asking if any of the students had studied the justice system. None had, so I was in business, but I had a couple of alternatives up my sleeve just in case.
  • On the whiteboard, I drew a large rectangle (portrait orientation) to function as a page of A4, and I wrote an essay question at the top of it:
    Britain’s prisons are overcrowded, and few are managing to reduce crime.
    Discuss the proposition that reform of the justice system is essential.
  • Just below this, I wrote ‘Introduction’, and at the bottom, ‘Conclusion’. In between, I spaced out the numbers 1 to 3 on the left. I also assured the students that they were not going to write this essay, and that they should ignore the introduction and conclusion which I would deal with later.
The first stage was to decide on the key words in the question and underline them, and we talked about the importance of the instruction word - ‘Discuss’. Then I kicked off a discussion on areas this essay might cover and we talked about what they knew - or could guess - about the courts, prisons, overcrowding and so on.

They continued in pairs, and. once we were in feedback mode, I listed topics mentioned at the side of the whiteboard. Then I asked the students to choose from the list three topics for this essay, and I wrote one at each of the numbered sections on the plan and underlined them. They chose sentencing, prison education and a building programme.

Next, we focused on the first section – sentencing - and I asked the students to suggest what might be covered here. We decided on the need for a national review of sentencing, the effects of sentence length on prisoners, and the capacity of prisons. I bullet-pointed these items under the section heading. Then we went through a similar process with the other two sections. I was going slowly now because the students needed a super-relaxed atmosphere.

Obviously, any essay will cover several topics, and will need facts (with explanation), argument, and sources (with quotes). So I persuaded the students to come up with one or two ‘facts’ for each of the three main sections and then to suggest a statement of argument for each. I continued to push them gently, and we finally enumerated the places where they would find sources to substantiate their arguments: books, articles, handouts, lecture notes, databases and so on.

“Now you’ve done this, you can plan anything,” I told them, and we had a plenary to chew things over. To embed the new habit, you might get students to submit a plan with each of their next three assignments. Planning helps to prioritise careful thinking, and that should make future essays easier to mark.

Note: the ideas in this blogpost can be adapted for other types of assignment.
Featured image credit: Photo by PublicDomainImages. Avaliable on Pixabay via Pixabay License.