Essay Writing Guide for Psychology Students
Saul McLeod published 2014
Before you write your essay it's important to analyse the task and understand exactly what the essay question is asking. It is possible your lecturer will give you some advice - pay attention to this as it will help you plan your answer.
Next conduct preliminary reading based on your lecture notes. At this stage it's not crucial to have a robust understanding of key theories or studies, but you should at least have a general 'gist' of the literature.
After reading, plan a response to the task. This plan could be in the form of a mind map, a summary table, or by writing a core statement (which encompass the entire argument of your essay in just a few sentences).
After writing your plan conduct supplementary reading and refine your plan and make it more detailed.
It is tempting to skip these preliminary steps and just write the first draft while reading at the same time. However, reading and planning will make the essay writing process easier, quicker, and ensure a higher quality essay is produced.
Now let us look at what constitutes a good essay in psychology. There are a number of important features.
- A Global Structure - structure the material in a way that allows for a logical sequence of ideas. Each paragraph / statement should follow sensibly from its predecessor. The essay should 'flow'. The introduction, main body and conclusion should all be linked.
- Knowledge and Understanding - recognise, recall and show understanding on a range of scientific material that accurately reflects the main theoretical perspectives.
- Critical Evaluation - arguments should be supported by appropriate evidence and/or theory from the literature. Evidence of independent thinking, insight and evaluation of the evidence.
- Quality of Written Communication - writing clearly and succinctly with appropriate use of paragraphs, spelling and grammar. All sources referenced accurately and in line with APA guidelines.
Each paragraph should comprise a main theme which are illustrated and developed through a number of points (supported by evidence).
In the main body of the essay every paragraph should demonstrate both knowledge and critical evaluation.
There should also be an appropriate balance between these two essay components. Try to aim for about a 60/40 split if possible. Most students make the mistake of writing too much knowledge and not enough evaluation (which is the difficult bit).
It is best to structure your essay according to key themes. Themes are illustrated and developed through a number of points (supported by evidence). Choose relevant points only, ones that most reveal the theme or help to make a convincing and interesting argument.
Knowledge and Understanding
Remember that an essay is simply a discussion / argument on paper. Don't make the mistake of writing all the information you know regarding a particular topic.
You need to be concise, and clearly articulate your argument. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences.
Each paragraph should have a purpose / theme, and make a number of points - which need to be support by high quality evidence. Be clear why each point is is relevant to the argument. It would be useful at the beginning of each paragraph if you explicitly outlined the theme being discussed (.e.g. cognitive development, social development etc.).
Try not to overuse quotations in your essays. It is more appropriate to use original content to demonstrate your understanding.
Psychology is a science so you must support your ideas with evidence (not your own personal opinion). If you are discussing a theory or research study make sure you cite the source of the information.
Note this is not the author of a textbook you have read - but the original source / author(s) of the theory or research study.
Bowlby (1951) claimed that mothering is almost useless if delayed until after two and a half to three years and, for most children, if delayed till after 12 months, i.e. there is a critical period.
Maslow (1943) stated that people are motivated to achieve certain needs. When one need is fulfilled a person seeks to fullfil the next one, and so on.
As a general rule make sure there is at least one citation (i.e. name of psychologist and date of publication) in each paragraph.
Remember to answer the essay question. Underline the key words in the essay title. Don't make the mistake of simply writing everything you know of a particular topic, be selective. Each paragraph in your essay should contribute to answering the essay question.
In simple terms this means outlining the strengths and limitations of a theory or research study.
There are many ways you can critically evaluate:
- Methodological evaluation of research -
Is the study valid / reliable? Is the sample biased or can we generalize the findings to other populations? What are the strengths and limitations of the method used and data obtained?
Be careful to ensure that any methodological criticisms are justified and not trite. Rather than hunting for weaknesses in every study; only highlight limitations which make you doubt the conclusions that the authors have drawn – e.g. where an alternative explanation might be equally likely because something hasn’t been adequately controlled.
Compare or contrast different theories -Outline how the theories are similar and how they differ. This could be two (or more) theories of personality / memory / child development etc. Also try to communicate the value of the theory / study.
- Debates or perspectives -
Refer to debates such as nature or nurture, reductionism vs. holism or the perspectives in psychology. For example, would they agree or disagree with a theory or the findings of the study?
What are the ethical issues of the research? -Does a study involve ethical issues such as deception, privacy, psychological and physical harm.
- Gender bias -
If research is biased towards men or women it does not provide a clear view of the behavior that has been studied. A dominantly male perspective is known as an androcentric bias.
Cultural bias -Is the theory / study ethnocentric? Psychology is predominantly a white, Euro-American enterprise. In some texts, over 90% of studies have US participants, who are predominantly white and middle class. Does the theory or study being discussed judge other cultures by Western standards?
- Animal Research -
This raises the issue of whether it’s morally and/or scientifically right to use animals. The main criterion is that benefits must outweigh costs. But benefits are almost always to humans and costs to animals.
Animal research also raises the issue of extrapolation. Can we generalize from studies on animals to humans as their anatomy & physiology is different from humans?
The PEC System
It is very important to elaborate on your evaluation. Don't just write a shopping list of brief (one or two sentence) evaluation points. Instead make sure you expand on your points, remember, quality of evaluation is most important than quantity.
When you are writing an evaluation paragraph use the PEC system.
Make your Point.
Explain how and why the point is relevant.
Discuss the Consequences / implications of the theory or study. Are they positive or negative?
(Point) It is argued that psychoanalytic therapy is only of benefit to an articulate, intelligent, affluent minority.
(Explain) Because psychoanalytic therapy involves talking and gaining insight, and is costly and time-consuming, it is argued that it is only of benefit to an articulate, intelligent, affluent minority. Evidence suggests psychoanalytic therapy works best if the client is motivated and has a positive attitude.
(Consequences) A depressed client’s apathy, flat emotional state and lack of motivation limit the appropriateness of psychoanalytic therapy for depression. Furthermore, the levels of dependency of depressed clients mean that transference is more likely to develop.
Using Research Studies in your Essays
Research studies can either be knowledge or evaluation.
- If you refer to the procedures and findings of a study, this shows knowledge and understanding.
- If you comment on what the studies shows, and what it supports and challenges about the theory in question, this shows evaluation.
Writing an Introduction
It is often best to write your introduction when you have finished the main body of the essay, so that you have a good understanding to the topic area.
If there is a word count for your essay try to devote 10% of this to your introduction.
Ideally the introduction should;
Identify the subject of the essay and define the key terms.
Highlight the major issues which “lie behind” the question. Let the reader know how you will focus your essay by identifying the main themes to be discussed.
“Signpost” the essay’s key argument, (and, if possible, how this argument is structured).
Introductions are very important as first impressions count and they can create a halo effect in the mind of the lecturer grading your essay. If you start off well then you are more likely to be forgiven for the odd mistake later one.
Writing a Conclusion
So many students either forget to write a conclusion or fail to give it the attention it deserves. If there is a word count for your essay try to devote 10% of this to your conclusion.
Ideally the conclusion should summarize the key themes / arguments of your essay. State the take home message – don’t sit on the fence, instead weigh up the evidence presented in the essay and make a decision which side of the argument has more support.Also, you might like to suggest what future research may need to be conducted and why (read the discussion section of journal articles for this).
Don't include new information / arguments (only information discussed in the main body of the essay).
If you are unsure of what to write read the essay question and answer it in one paragraph.
Points that unite or embrace several themes can be used to great effect as part of your conclusion.
The Importance of Flow
Obviously, what you write is important, but how you communicate your ideas / arguments has a significant influence on your overall grade. Most students may have similar information / content in their essays, but the better students communicate this information concisely and articulately.
When you have finished the first draft of your essay you must check if it 'flows'. This is an important feature of quality of communication (along with spelling and grammar).
This means that the paragraphs follow a logical order (like the chapters in a novel). Have a global structure with themes arranged in a way that allows for a logical sequence of ideas. You might want to rearrange (cut and paste) paragraphs to a different position in your essay if they don't appear to fit in with the essay structure.
To improve the flow of your essay make sure the last sentence of one paragraph links to first sentence of the next paragraph. This will help the essay flow and make it easier to read.
Finally, only repeat citations when it is unclear which study / theory you are discussing. Repeating citations unnecessarily disrupts the flow of an essay.
The reference section is the list of all the sources cited in the essay (in alphabetical order). It is not a bibliography (a list of the books you used).
In simple terms every time you cite/refer to a name (and date) of a psychologist you need to reference the original source of the information.
If you have been using textbooks this is easy as the references are usually at the back of the book and you can just copy them down. If you have been using websites then you may have a problem as they might not provide a reference section for you to copy.
References need to be set out APA style:
Author, A. A. (year). Title of work. Location: Publisher.
Author, A. A., Author, B. B., & Author, C. C. (year). Article title. Journal Title, volume number(issue number), page numbers
A simple way to write your reference section is use Google scholar. Just type the name and date of the psychologist in the search box and click on the 'cite' link.
Next, copy and paste the APA reference into the reference section of your essay.
Once again remember that references need to be in alphabetical order according to surname.
Writing Skills for Psychologists
Essay Writing Guide
How to reference this article:
McLeod, S. A. (2014). Essay writing guide for psychology students. Retrieved from www.simplypsychology.org/psychology-essay.html
argument essay step method
As with the Issue essay, there are five steps to scoring a “6” on the Argument essay. Here’s a preview, along with the amount of time you should spend on each step on test day.
|Step 1:||Understand the Topic and Find its Conclusion.||1 minute|
|Step 2:||Identify the Topic’s Assumptions.||5 minutes|
|Step 3:||Create an Outline.||4–6 minutes|
|Step 4:||Write the Essay.||15 minutes|
|Step 5:||Proof the Essay.||3 minutes|
Now let’s go through each step in slow motion.
Step 1: Understand the Topic and Find Its Conclusion (1 minute). The first thing you must do before you can even think about your essay is read the argument topic very carefully. Let’s look at our sample again.
Studies show that as we’ve become more technically advanced, our health has deteriorated rapidly. Heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and virtually every major ailment are far more common today than they were thirty years ago. The primary reason for this deterioration is the sedentary lifestyle associated with today’s high-tech jobs. Clearly, our health will continue to decline as long as we persist in our technological advances.
As you read the argument topic, ask yourself, “What’s the author’s point?” This will help you identify the topic’s conclusion. As we previously discussed, look for the conclusion in the first or last sentence. Here the conclusion is the last sentence: Clearly, our health will continue to decline as long as we persist in our technological advances.
Figuring out the conclusion will help you with Step 2, identifying the topic’s assumptions.
Step 2: Identify the Topic’s Assumptions (5 minutes). The assumptions you identify will provide the foundation for the three reasons you employ for why or why not the argument’s conclusion works.
As we discussed earlier, assumptions are additional beliefs the author must have to reach the conclusion. Assumptions are never stated; you’ll have to read between the lines to figure them out. As you read the argument, ask yourself, “What else must the author believe? What’s stated in the premises but not the conclusion? What’s stated in the conclusion but not the premises?” The answer to these questions will lead you to the assumptions. Coming up with assumptions can be time consuming, and you don’t want to waste time thinking of more assumptions than you have to. Just pick three, which you’ll then discuss in the three Act II body paragraphs.
We came up with these assumptions:
- Past and present trends are indicative of the future.
- Advances in medicine won’t counteract the effect of a sedentary lifestyle.
- Diet is not as important as exercise in determining health.
Could we have thought of others? Yup, we sure could have. But you have just 30 minutes to craft and write the Argument essay, so choosing three ensures you have what you need to craft your essay.
You can and should use the topics in the argument pool of the GRE website to practice spotting the kinds of assumptions these arguments contain. Practice with these sample topics by weeding out their assumptions and then thinking through how you would exploit those assumptions in your essay. For example, you might show how the assumption you noticed is questionable, thus weakening the argument; or, conversely, you may come up with a specific instance in which the assumption doesn’t apply, thus highlighting a circumstance in which the argument is more valid.
Step 3: Create an Outline (4–6 minutes). Don’t forget that the essay graders reward conformity. Use our three-act Argument essay template to create a map of your essay that will please the essay graders. You need an intro (Act I), three hearty body paragraphs (Act II), and a conclusion (Act III). Creating an outline reinforces this structure, makes sure you conform to this structure, and helps you organize your essay appropriately before you begin writing. Here’s a summary of our template before we begin.
|I||Set the stage||Thesis statement: Three examples: 1. 2. 3.|
|II||Tell the story||Topic sentence for example 1: Explanation for example 1:|
|Topic sentence for example 2: Explanation for example 2:|
|Topic sentence for example 3: Explanation for example 3:|
|III||Wrap it up||Recap thesis: Expand your position:|
Get familiar with this template now so that you don’t even need to think about it come test day. It will just be automatic. As you fill in the outline, remember that what matters is that you convey your ideas clearly to yourself. Don’t worry about being articulate or even comprehensible to anyone other than you. Just make sure that you’ve got down the raw material that will become your thesis statement, topic sentences, and concluding statement when you write your essay.
Here’s a sample outline we’ve written based on the topic and assumptions we’ve already discussed.
|I||Set the stage||Thesis statement & topic’s conclusion: Argument weakened by three unstated assumptions; argument claims that our health will continue to decline as long as we persist in our technological advances Three reasons: 1. medical advances 2. diet vs. exercise 3. past/present → future|
|II||Tell the story||Topic sentence for reason 1: Assumes advances in medicine won’t counteract effect of sedentary lifestyle Analysis of reason 1: Consider implications if this weren’t true: Medicine could advance as high–tech does. If so, might have more effect than exercise; could be good|
|Topic sentence for reason 2: Assumes diet not as important as exercise in determining health Analysis of reason 2: Consider implications if this weren’t true: Diet could improve as exercise declines. If diet is determining factor, health won’t decline|
|Topic sentence for reason 3: Assumes past and present trends indicative of the future Analysis of reason 3: Consider implications if this weren’t true: Even though tech. has improved and health has declined so far, this doesn’t necessarily mean anything about future; example of how tech has improved???|
|III||Wrap it up||Recap thesis: Conc (health in jeopardy) relies on these three questionable assumptions; argument doesn’t really work Expand your position: Author needs to address these issues to strengthen the argument and more evidence|
We wrote our outline in a note-taking style, using abbreviations. When we couldn’t think of an example for the third paragraph of Act II, we wrote ??? to remind ourselves to think of something later. Feel free to do the same on your own outline. Write just enough in the outline to remind yourself of what you want to write in the essay. If it helps you to write in complete sentences, great— do that. But don’t feel obligated, since no one but you will ever see your outline.
Developing the Reasons. As you can see from our template, each Act II paragraph identifies and analyzes an assumption that underlies the topic’s conclusion. Your critique of these three assumptions forms the basis of the argument set forth in your thesis statement. Each paragraph will need to carefully consider what would happen to the argument’s conclusion if the assumption under discussion were false.
We might have also chosen to structure our essay around additional information that would be necessary to evaluate the argument’s validity or specific restricted contexts in which the argument might carry more weight. When outlining your response, try to settle on points that will be easiest for you to defend.
Step 4: Write the Essay (15 minutes). Once you have the outline down, the essay naturally flows from there. All you’ll need to do is flesh out your ideas. If you’ve written a thorough outline according to our template, you only need to add about ten more sentences. After all, your outline should already contain a basic version of the argument’s conclusion, rough topic sentences for the three supporting reasons you will develop, and a conclusion that wraps it up.
As you write, remember your old friends, the cast of characters (see chapter 11 for a full explanation of these fundamental writing elements):
- An Argument
- Varied Sentence Structure
- Facility with Language
It should be pretty clear by now that the argument you make in your Argument essay should be related to the topic’s conclusion. Basically, you’ll be arguing that either the conclusion works or it doesn’t work. Your thoughts during the crucial Step 2 will form the backbone of your essay’s Act II. Make sure that every sentence in the essay serves the greater goal of showing how your thesis depends on each reason you develop and analyze.
Remember that your evidence will come from your understanding of the argument’s assumptions. Unlike the Issue essay, which is based on examples you think up, the Argument essay relies on evidence taken directly from the topic given by the test makers. In our sample essay, we’re arguing that the conclusion is weakened by its three unstated assumptions.
Try to jazz up your writing with varied sentence structure and a few polysyllabic words. Instead of writing sentences that rely on the subject-verb, subject-verb pattern, try to shake things up by using a mix of dependent and independent clauses. Now’s not the time to experiment with semicolons or fancy vocab, though. Use only the words and punctuation that you absolutely know how to use correctly. Above all, state your points clearly and coherently: Making an articulate argument is the surest way of demonstrating your facility with language to the essay graders.
Don’t panic if you start to run out of time. Ignore the clock, take a deep breath, and say “So long” to the third Act II paragraph. You can still get a pretty good score with a strong Act I, two Act II paragraphs, and a thoughtful Act III. Three Act II paragraphs is definitely the strongest and safest way to go, but if you just can’t get through three, take your two best assumptions and go with them. Just be sure to include an introduction and a conclusion in both essays you write for the GRE.
Step 5: Proof the Essay (3 minutes). Proofing your essay means reading it over one last time to fix typos, correct grammar errors, check spelling, and just make sure that everything looks okay. If you don’t have a full three minutes after you’ve finished writing the essay (Step 4), spend whatever time you do have left proofing. Read over your essay and search for rough writing, bad transitions, grammatical errors, repetitive sentence structure, and all that stuff that often spells the difference between a score of “4” and a score of “6.”
That said, if you run out of time, skip this step. The test makers instruct the essay graders to look for patterns of errors, so the occasional misspelled word or awkward turn of phrase won’t kill you.
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