A Level History Introductions To Essays

© Damen, 2002

24. Introduction and Conclusion.

These represent the most serious omission students regularly make. Every essay or paper designed to be persuasive needs a paragraph at the very outset introducing both the subject at hand and the thesis which is being advanced. It also needs a final paragraph summarizing what's been said and driving the author's argument home.

These are not arbitrary requirements. Introductions and conclusions are crucial in persuasive writing. They put the facts to be cited into a coherent structure and give them meaning. Even more important, they make the argument readily accessible to readers and remind them of that purpose from start to end.

Think of it this way. As the writer of an essay, you're essentially a lawyer arguing in behalf of a client (your thesis) before a judge (the reader) who will decide the case (agree or disagree with you). So, begin as a lawyer would, by laying out the facts to the judge in the way you think it will help your client best. Like lawyers in court, you should make an "opening statement," in this case, an introduction. Then review the facts of the case in detail just as lawyers question witnesses and submit evidence during a trial. This process of presentation and cross-examination is equivalent to the "body" of your essay. Finally, end with a "closing statement"—that is, the conclusion of your essay—arguing as strongly as possible in favor of your client's case, namely, your theme.

Likewise, there are several things your paper is not. It's not a murder mystery, for instance, full of surprising plot twists or unexpected revelations. Those really don't go over well in this arena. Instead, lay everything out ahead of time so the reader can follow your argument easily. Nor is a history paper an action movie with exciting chases down dark corridors where the reader has no idea how things are going to end. In academic writing it's best to tell the reader from the outset what your conclusion will be. This, too, makes your argument easier to follow. Finally, it's not a love letter. Lush sentiment and starry-eyed praise don't work well here. They make it look like your emotions are in control, not your intellect, and that will do you little good in this enterprise where facts, not dreams, rule.

All in all, persuasive writing grips the reader though its clarity and the force with which the data bring home the thesis. The point is to give your readers no choice but to adopt your way of seeing things, to lay out your theme so strongly they have to agree with you. That means you must be clear, forthright and logical. That's the way good lawyers win their cases.

A. How to Write an Introduction.
The introduction of a persuasive essay or paper must be substantial. Having finished it, the reader ought to have a very clear idea of the author's purpose in writing. To wit, after reading the introduction, I tend to stop and ask myself where I think the rest of the paper is headed, what the individual paragraphs in its body will address and what the general nature of the conclusion will be. If I'm right, it's because the introduction has laid out in clear and detailed fashion the theme and the general facts which the author will use to support it.

Let me give you an example of what I mean. The following is an introduction of what turned out to be a well-written paper, but the introduction was severely lacking:

The role of women has changed over the centuries, and it has also differed from civilization to civilization. Some societies have treated women much like property, while others have allowed women to have great influence and power.

Not a bad introduction really, but rather scant. I have no idea, for instance, which societies will be discussed or what the theme of the paper will be. That is, while I can see what the general topic is, I still don't know the way the writer will draw the facts together, or even really what the paper is arguing in favor of.

As it turned out, the author of this paper discussed women in ancient Egypt, classical Greece, medieval France and early Islamic civilization and stressed their variable treatment in these societies. This writer also focused on the political, social and economic roles women have played in Western cultures and the various ways they have found to assert themselves and circumvent opposition based on gender.

Given that, I would rewrite the introduction this way:

The role of women <in Western society> has changed <dramatically> over the centuries, <from the repression of ancient Greece to the relative freedom of women living in Medieval France. The treatment of women> has also differed from civilization to civilization <even at the same period in history>. Some societies <such as Islamic ones> have treated women much like property, while others <like ancient Egypt> have allowed women to have great influence and power. <This paper will trace the development of women's rights and powers from ancient Egypt to late medieval France and explore their changing political, social and economic situation through time. All the various means women have used to assert themselves show the different ways they have fought against repression and established themselves in authority.>

Now it is clear which societies will be discussed (Egypt, Greece, France, Islam) and what the general theme of the paper will be (the variable paths to empowerment women have found over time). Now I know where this paper is going and what it's really about.

B. How to Write a Conclusion.
In much the same way that the introduction lays out the thesis for the reader, the conclusion of the paper should reiterate the main points—it should never introduce new ideas or things not discussed in the body of the paper!—and bring the argument home. The force with which you express the theme here is especially important, because if you're ever going to convince the reader that your thesis has merit, it will be in the conclusion. In other words, just as lawyers win their cases in the closing argument, this is the point where you'll persuade others to adopt your thesis.

If the theme is clear and makes sense, the conclusion ought to be very easy to write. Simply begin by restating the theme, then review the facts you cited in the body of the paper in support of your ideas—and it's advisable to rehearse them in some detail—and end with a final reiteration of the theme. Try, however, not to repeat the exact language you used elsewhere in the paper, especially the introduction, or it will look like you haven't explored all aspects of the situation (see above, #7).

All in all, remember these are the last words your reader will hear from you before passing judgment on your argument. Make them as focused and forceful as possible.


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

Posted 07 May 2003 - 12:23 AM

Essay Writing at AS Level

September. There they are. Your bright-eyed, bushy-tailed new AS Level set. Raring to go on their new course. Successful at GCSE, they have all the self-belief of the young. Within weeks they face their first ‘proper’ essay and with it the first big hurdle of their course. You give the work back. The disappointment in their faces as they read their grade and your comments is very real.

If this strikes a chord with you, then I hope you will join in this discussion and contribute to a pooling of ideas and strategies for helping the AS candidate to learn how to write “a good essay”. It is not my intention to lay down a definite guide to the subject. I have no particular expertise and I certainly don’t feel that I have all the answers. Nor, intentionally, is this a complete 'view from the classroom' for I hope that many others will contribute their ideas and experience to this discussion.

What is it exactly that the new AS student finds so difficult? For many it is understanding the demands of different types of questions. What exactly is meant by “Assess the reasons for …..”, “Consider the view that ….”, “What best explains ….”?

What do we mean precisely when we demand that a student should be “more analytical”? Learning how to “focus sharply on the question” is possibly an even bigger hurdle. Others, particularly the weaker ones, find it incredibly difficult to structure an essay logically. Of course the traditional A Level candidate faced all these problems too, but there was then a longer period of time to build the art of writing a good essay. An AS candidate may well be facing the first Unit’s exam after only four months’ teaching and so it becomes imperative that the problems are addressed early in the course.

As with the development of all the skills of the historian, the real solution to this problem is to begin developing essay writing skills during KS3. Essay writing frames, making ‘big points’ supported by ‘little points’, the use of the ‘beefburger’ analogy and so on all help to build the skills slowly. But what if your AS candidates have not experienced this gradual development of skills?

It helps to have a variety of strategies aimed at different learning styles. Card sorting activities which involve putting reasons into an order of importance (or ‘Significance Stairway’) help students to visualise relative importance and is effective in helping students to see how to structure an essay effectively. Similarly activities which involve sorting factual information according to given criteria seems to help those who find it hard to decide what support they can provide for their generalised assertions.

For those who find it hard to understand what is meant by “focusing sharply on the question” and who still fail to relate what they write directly to the question being addressed I have found it useful to provide both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ examples and to get them to highlight those sentences which link the point being made directly to the question. The absence of highlighting in the ‘bad’ essay seems to drive the point home and the ‘good’ example demonstrates how “sharp focus” can be achieved.

Many of us will be very familiar with the “A good essay is like a good beefburger” analogy. Whilst I think my own students probably think I am mildly mad to pursue the idea with sophisticated 16 and 17 year olds, it definitely works! If anything, it helps to drive home the importance of a good introduction and the need for an overall conclusion if the ‘burger’ is not to fall apart. Encouraging them to think of each paragraph of their essay as a ‘mini-burger’ which opens with a point linked directly to the question and ends with a concluding link has also proved effective.

A similar idea involves the idea of P.E.E.L.-ing each paragraph where P means ‘make your Point’, then ‘Explain’ and back it up with ‘Evidence’. Finally ‘Link’ your paragraph so that it flows logically on to the next one.

Where understanding the demands of particular types of questions are concerned I have found it helpful to use different coloured pens on the whiteboard to distinguish between the ‘instruction’ and the ‘topic’ of the question. ‘Unpacking the question’ so that they learn to identify the sub-questions which need to be addressed in their answer also proves helpful, though there are some who never really seem to grasp this. When using a particular question wording for the first time (eg “Assess the reasons for …”) I found it helps to discuss this in the context of a more familiar situation first. Mine is an all boys school, mad about rugby, so that “Assess the reasons for the first XV’s victory/defeat last Saturday” is something they all can relate to. From there it is easier for many of them to see how to tackle the History question.

I would stress again that I have no particular expertise in this field and I certainly don’t feel I ‘have all the answers’. Indeed I am very much aware that I don’t! What I should like to encourage is contributions from others with hands-on experience teaching AS Level students.

What problems do your students face when writing essays? How do you address their difficulties? What strategies have you found particularly helpful?

Over to you ……

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