Guide to Writing a Psychology Essay

Guide to Writing a Psychology Essay

An essay should (usually) be an argument. Pretty much all of the essay titles you will receive on a psychology module will require you to present an argument. Key words that identify this are “discuss”, “to what extent” “critically evaluate”, etc. One of the perennial problems that student essays suffer is that they are overly descriptive. They describe relevant phenomena or theories well but there is little in the way of argument in the essay. To rectify this you need to have in mind the following points.

At the heart of an argument is some question that needs to be addressed or answered. Examples of questions might be “How do children learn language?”, “Can intelligence be measured?” or “To what extent is personality in-born?”. When you see a question such as this it implies that there are a set of what we might call positions on the question. A position is a specific point of view on the particular question. One position might be that children’s language learning is supported by innate knowledge, another might be that children’s language learning is solely the result of imitation of adult speech. There are many different types of position in the everyday world, a gut response to a question can be thought of as a position (“I don’t know why I don’t like George Bush, I just don’t”) to a well-articulated argument (“The invasion of Iraq was wrong for the following reasons…”). In a psychology essay most of the positions you encounter relate to a set of research findings which either support or contradict the particular position. Your task when writing a decent argumentative essay is to decide which particular positions are relevant to the question, and then evaluate each of the positions with respect to the available research findings. Very rarely is this cut and dried. For example it is seldom the case that ALL of the evidence supports Position A and contradicts Position B (in which case we would conclude that Position A is currently the best candidate – see Conclusions). Frequently you might find that some of the evidence supports Position A and some supports Position B. If this is case what can you do? One possibility is that you examine the evidence itself. Sometimes it is the case that the evidence for one position is stronger than for the others. For example Evidence X might have been replicated many times and be from a study involving large numbers of people whereas Evidence Y might be cast into doubt by weak methodology, failure to replicate, etc. At this point in your academic careers we do not expect you to be able to evaluate the quality of evidence expertly, but it might be something you consider when collecting materials.

Here then is a brief description of the process.
Identity what the question is about (e.g., what is the argument that you are expected to write)
Identify the positions relevant to that question.
Identify the evidence relevant to these positions.
Identify the relationship between evidence and the positions (does the evidence support, contradict or have no such relationship with the position).
Identify which of the positions is best supported by the available evidence (see Conclusions)
This is the starting point for writing the essay.
The introduction.

What is an introduction FOR?

An introduction is a piece of writing that occurs at the beginning of and essay. Depending on the length of the essay it will be between half a page and a page (possibly more). For a level 4 essay your introduction should probably be no longer than half a page. Many students neglect the introduction, thinking it a mere appendage that they have to stick on the front of the essay to fulfill some requirement of other. This is false. A properly written introduction is VITAL in helping the reader understand your argument. After reading an introduction the reader should have an idea, in broad terms, what your argument is and what you conclude. This aids the understanding of the rest of your essay. A well-written introduction acts as a map to the ideas and arguments expressed in the rest of the essay and being armed with this map makes navigating those ideas much easier, aiding the clarity of your essay. There is another reason for writing a coherent introduction, it makes sure that you understand your argument yourself! After writing your essay you should be able summarize in a few sentences the particular positions you are evaluating, and what you conclude on the basis of the evidence (e.g., Position A is better supported by the evidence than Position B; vice versa; neither position is satisfactory, etc.). Writing a coherent introduction can help test whether you really understand your own argument if you can’t understand it, it is unlikely that whoever is reading the essay will either and that leads to lower marks.

“Empty” introductions

“Empty” introductions are common in student essays. An empty introduction is one that says little or nothing of any substance about the content of the essay. Below is an example of this.
“In trying to determine how children learn language I first consider the theories relevant to this particular question. Then I evaluate each of these theories in the light of the available evidence, and then present my conclusions.”
This tells you nothing. Of course you are going to present theories, look at evidence and present conclusions, that much is obvious; but which theories, what evidence and what do you conclude? It is bit like saying, in answer to the question how are you going to drive to London, “first I’m going to get in the car, then I am going to drive down some roads until I get there”. No information is being conveyed. Remember your introduction should briefly summarize your argument, not just say what you are going to do in the essay. Better than the above would be:
“In trying to determine how children learn language two theories are discussed. The first is that Skinner’s notion that language is learned by children imitating adults. The second is Chomsky’s theory that language is supported by inborn “rules” of language. In the light of the evidence it seems that Skinner’s theory cannot account for key aspects of language learning (such as overgeneralizations), Chomsky’s theory, on the other hand, accounts for this evidence better. Therefore it is concluded that although not perfect, Chomsky’s theory is the better account of language learning.” See how this provides a summary of the argument? After reading this you know what is generally being discussed, the essay therefore contains few surprises and is better understood: forewarned is forearmed, as they say.

When to write the introduction

Opinion differs on when you should write the introduction, but many believe that it is best to write it last. This is paradoxical because it is usually the first thing that is read after the title. The reason for suggesting it is written last is because it should be a summary of the argument, and you need an argument (presented in the main body) before you can summarize it!

The main body of the essay

The main body of the essay is the bit that resides between the introduction and the conclusions, and it is the heart of the argument. In this you examine the particular positions or theories that you are evaluating stating the claims that each one makes.

What constitutes evidence?

Evidence will usually be the results of research this might be of many types. Experimental research is probably the one you will encounter most frequently although you will also encounter other types of research such as observational research and so on. Generally good research will have been published in an academic journal (see Referencing) it is important to consider as evidence for a position only research that has been published in a reputable academic journal because such research has been reviewed by other academics to ensure its quality. You should not rely on ideas discussed on web sites, in newspapers or on television unless this is information that has previously been published. If in doubt, don’t use it.

Referencing

Referencing is vital. Whenever you state a particular position is it essential that you list the researchers who hold that position AND provide a date for a piece of published work produced by this/these researchers that states that position. For example you might say:
“It has been argued by Chomsky (1986) that language learning is supported by innate psychological rules.”
Similarly when you cite evidence.“Research by Crain and Nakayama (1987) demonstrated that children of four years of age are capable of turning statements into complex questions.”Without references it is unclear whether your argument is based on good research or not, failures to include references within the text will therefore be heavily penalized. Any references used in the text (as above) should be included in the reference section. This is to demonstrate that the research has been published (see above) and therefore has some hallmark of quality.

Conclusions

The conclusions are very important and should be a summary of the argument that you expressed in the main part of the essay. No NEW evidence should be presented here. Try to draw firm conclusions; if one theory is better supported by the available evidence then say so. Further, briefly give your reasons for favoring one particular theory (assuming you do) e.g., that it is more supported by evidence. Finally, outline any shortcoming of the theories you discuss in the main body, e.g., are there any things that they should explain that they do not? If, in the main body of your essay you present a balanced argument (i.e., you don't think either side of the argument is stronger than the other) then you should say as much in your conclusion.

Where should I obtain my material?

There are plenty of places where you can obtain material for essays. We recommend a number of general text books that you might use, but the Learning Centre will also contain books more specific to particular questions (some of these will be listed with the particular lecture and seminar topics). You should use a number of sources for essays and you should go beyond the general books to those more specifically concerned with the topic. It hardly needs mentioning that you need to go beyond the material presented in lectures, but do not ignore it completely as it can serve as a useful guide to the topic and the key arguments. It is worth mentioning the World Wide Web here. While there is a lot of useful information on the World Wide Web you need to be very careful when using it. Here are a few problems that we have noted.

Relying on information that is incorrect. The web has no editor, so there is no-one to point out if a particular person writing on a topic as got it right or not. We frequently find essays in which students have used incorrect information from the web, and as a result they lose marks. Using the web is always a risk, so be sure that the information you use is good (ways of doing this are listed below in Good practice…).
Relying on information that is probably reliable but overly simplified. We find that a number of students use (of overuse) sites from broadcast or print media such as bbc.co.uk or guardian on-line. While the information on these sites is usually reliable (they are under editorial control) quite often the articles are too simplistic to be used in an essay. This is not to say that you shouldn’t use these sites, as a “way in” to a literature they can be helpful but do not rely on them in your essay as it can make the essay very superficial.
Good practice for using the web. This is a big area, too big to go in to here. But generally academic sites (ending with .edu or .ac.uk) are usually better in reliability and detail. There are also a number of on-line journals (see learning centre web pages for more information) which will contain recent scientific papers. Also avoid any on-line articles that do not contain references, for reasons mentioned in the previous section. REMEMBER using the web (unless you are using on-line articles from a reputable journal) is always something of a gamble; you risk losing marks if you chose unwisely.

Writing style

You need to cultivate a writing style that is clear, authoritative and scientifically appropriate. This means the following.

Avoid the P word. For a variety of reasons using the word “prove” (and to a lesser extent, disprove) should be avoided. Psychological evidence never really proves or disproves a theory, it only supports it or contradicts it.
Avoid colloquial phrases. E.g., don’t say “this evidence backs up theory X” say “this evidence supports theory X” (the opposite of supports is contradicts NOT refutes, refutes means “disproves” and for reasons stated above should be avoided.
Try to avoid using personal pronouns such as “I”, “we”, etc. Opinion is divided about this, but in the early stages of your degree it is best to avoid using personal pronouns when making your argument. So rather than saying “I argue” try rephrasing to say “It is argued in this essay” or something. It DOES sound a little stilted but it helps to get the right “voice” for the essay; that of a dispassionate observer who is surveying the evidence to evaluate particular theories. Especially avoid the word “we” as in “we argue” this should be reserved for occasions where more than one person has written the article, a commonplace in academic psychology but not in student essay writing (see plagiarism).
Plagiarism. Plagiarism means knowingly presenting other people’s ideas as your own and it is a hangable offence in academic psychology (not really but there are few worse things that you can be accused of). You should avoid it. Again this is a big topic and there is a separate handout on the Introduction to Psychology Blackboard site giving more details. If you are caught plagiarizing the essay is automatically failed and you will be asked to attend an academic conduct meeting.

Answer the question

It is amazing how many perfectly well-written essays fail because they answer a different question to the one set. Therefore MAKE SURE YOU ANSWER THE QUESTION. Again, if you have written a decent introduction and conclusions you should know whether you have answered the question. But always check this. If, for an essay, you are not sure what the question means then ASK YOUR TUTOR before writing it.
Make sure the essay is the right length. The coursework question sheet will stipulate a maximum page limit for the essay, stick to it. If an essay is too short it is unlikely that you will have covered everything, so consider making it longer. If the essay is too long the parts of the essay that exceed the page limit will not be marked. Since this will usually contain the conclusion and since the conclusion is an important part of the essay you stand to lose quite a lot of marks. In order to make it easy for us to check the length of an essay you MUST adhere to the rubric (font size, line spacing, etc.) if you do not then you will be penalized. The rubric is always clearly stated on the assessment paper for each essay.

Quotations

Should you use quotations you need to enclose them in quotation marks and reference them according to the Harvard style (see separate sheet).
Don’t overuse quotations. Quotations are used for two reasons. (1) when a point is made so well that you couldn’t possibly merely paraphrase it (usually used at the beginning of and essay), (2) when you want to show exactly how a researcher expressed his ideas (perhaps to attack them later on). Generally I would advise you to avoid them totally, or keep them down to a maximum of two or three per essay. Many essays are littered with quotations that the student could easily have rephrased him or her self. Remember the essay is YOUR work, having 10 or more quotations strung together with connecting sentences hardly fulfills this criterion and will therefore lead you to lose marks.

Definitions

Essays frequently contain definitions such as ‘Intelligence has been defined by the Pocket Oxbridge dictionary as “The ability to think and reason logically”. What’s wrong with that? For a start, if you are going to use definitions don’t use general dictionaries. The psychological definition of many concepts is often different to the way that it might be used in the everyday world, and dictionaries are often concerned with the latter type of definition. Use proper definitions from psychology texts or (at a pinch) psychology dictionaries (but beware some of the ones on line – see above section on using the web). Second, although definitions are fine, consider trying to explain what a concept is in your own words rather than just quoting a definition. Frequently you encounter so many definitions that it gets in the way of your argument.