How to write a brilliant psychology essay.
March 5, 2011 at 6:00 pm
A wise man once said “there are three things that are 100% certain in life:
- We will be born
- We will die one day
- Psychology students will have a horrible amount of essays to write during their studies.”
And you know what? He was right!
In this blog post, I aim to provide a few pointers towards writing an essay that will get you a first. Of course, this will likely apply to any college students as well, but you usually require much less work at A-Level standard than degree level.
So, what how exactly do you write a good psychology essay?
Leave yourself plenty of time before your deadline.
Perhaps the most important point, it’s crucial to leave your self time to prepare! Leaving an entire essay until the night before is an almost guaranteed way to drop a few grade points. Granted, some people have the amazing ability to get first’s without any effort, but there’s no harm in getting an early start.
Research around the topic thoroughly
Very often lectures will contain the fundamental research in a given area. For example, you can’t really have a lecture on short-term memory without mentioning Atkinson and Shiffrin’s (1968) Multi-Store Model of Memory, right? The important thing however, is to not stick with what is safe. Sure, lecturer’s know best and include the most relevant research, but copying all of the lecture studies will get you no more than a 2:1 (in the second/third year anyway).
Make sure you use all the sources you have – books, journal articles, eJournal databases (such as Web of Science and PSYCarticles if you have access to them at University), e-books, webpages (make sure they’re credible though!), Google Scholar etc. If you’ve taken the first point into consideration, you should have plenty of time to research the topic thoroughly and pick out studies which support what you need to say. Unless you know your topic inside-out, you’ll probably find it pretty hard to write anything of good quality.
Plan, plan… and plan.
For those who write a lot and are more spontaneous, this may not be as useful. For the majority of people, however, it will be hugely beneficial to sit down and structure the essay before you begin writing. I find sometimes if I don’t plan, I end up writing and find new research which means I’m going back and forth all the time and lose my flow. Of course, some people might prefer this method of adding as you go; it’s by no means a bad thing. Planning can be very worthwhile though, and will save a lot of time in the long run. Plan what you will include in the introduction – what exact is the essay about? Then decide in what order you will include your research, and structure those paragraphs accordingly.
For an essay on schizophrenia, for example, you might begin by explaining what schizophrenia is. Then you might have a paragraph detailing prevalence rates, and research that supports these figures. Next you might look at the aetiology – possibly with a paragraph on each cause (such as biological causes, neurology, pharmacological explanations etc.). Next you might outline the main treatments, before ending on a conclusion of findings.
Be aware of the dreaded word limit.
Something that irks me more than I would ever imagine is that horrible word limit. I’d say most essays range from 1000-2500 words, and it’s very important you are aware of how many yours is. There’s a huge difference between a 1000 word essay and 2000 word one; you’ll be expected to have a lot more research in the latter. It also gives you a good idea of how much time you will need to invest in relation to other assignments, and how much detail you’re expected to include. Try not to overrun the limit; it’s very difficult to cut words out once you’re over. Usually you’ll be given a 10% either way lee-way (1800-2200 for a 2000 word essay), but CHECK with your tutors first.
Make sure you’re answering the question and nothing else.
It’s very easy, especially when you get engrossed in research, to begin including things that don’t really answer the question. If your essay title is “The effects of drugs on neurotransmission“, it is not helpful just to write all about drugs and then about neurotransmission. You need to look at the effects of the drugs, not just them both individually. Similarly, the long term effect of drugs on the heart, for example, is irrelevant to the question. Make sure you really think about what the research is saying before throwing it in an essay. Just make sure everything you include links back to the main topic, and really has a purpose for being there. As mentioned before, words are golden in essays, so make every single one count!
Cite as many studies as you can find.
Although there’s certainly no need to take that too literally, it is useful to back up most (if not ALL) of your points with valid research. When you read what you’ve put, ask yourself if there’s anything you can do to support it. Saying things like “many studies show the effect of X on Y” without naming any studies is just not going to work in your favour. A better statement would be “many studies show the effect of X and Y (Example et al., 2011; Smith and Bloggs; 1995)”. It’s also a good idea to use recent research (within the past 10 years), because it shows you’ve really looked into the area in depth to find relevant research.
It’s also really worth looking at full text journal articles when they’re available. That way, you can read the introduction to their work, which very often includes a lot of research which will also apply to your topic. Then you can access THOSE full text articles, and so on. In a way you’re “article surfing”, and finding lots of quality research along the way.
I have a few friends who’ve actually dropped grade points because of tiny referencing errors, like not putting something in italics. There’s a very strict bunch of guidelines for referencing everything you use – so stick to it! The guidelines are plastered over the internet, and for the lazy amongst you, here are the three main sources you will use and how they are referenced in APA format. Please note some Universities might require you to use another format, but mine uses APA which is what I will describe below. So, here’s how to reference with APA guidelines:
Primary journal sources:
Author, A. B., Author C. D & Author D. E. (Year). Title of the article. Journal title, volume number(issue number), page no.-page no.
Battle, Y., Martin, B., Dorfmanc, J. & Miller, S. (1999). Seasonality and infectious disease in schizophrenia: the birth hypothesis revisited. Journal of Psychiatric Research, 33(6), 501-509.
Books (but not chapters, just the whole thing):
Author, A. B. & Author, C. (Publish Date). Title of book. Location: Publisher.
Tsuang, M., & Faraone, S. (1990). The Genetics of Mood Disorders. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press.
Author, A. (Date Published). Article name. Name of website. [Retrieved] Date, [from] URL of website.
American Psychological Association. (2008). HIV Office on Psychology Education (HOPE). Retrieved June 24, 2008, from http://www.apa.org/pi/aids/hope.html
If there’s a dot there, put it in. If it’s in italics, do it! It takes a few seconds and could be the difference between a 2:1 and 1st depending on the strictness of the markers!
Take pride in the presentation.
I’m guessing you’ve probably been given presentation pointers already by your University, if so – follow them! If not, it only takes a few seconds at the end of the assignment to make sure the fonts are easy to read, the size is appropriate etc. For all my assignments, I put them in Times New Roman, 12pt, line spacing at 1.5 or 2 lines. Make sure to put page numbers at the bottom, and include a header with your student number/ID and the module title. Include a cover sheet as well if that’s what your department asks for.
SPAG is crucial, but you should know that by now…
As if you haven’t heard it enough, spelling, punctuation and grammar are crucial! Simple rules you should have learnt at GCSE or even earlier should still apply now. Paragraphs should be used properly, everything should be spelt correctly and punctuation in the right places. Sentences are meant to be no longer than 25 words. If you can’t spell properly and use the right grammar, it just looks really bad for you when someone comes to mark it. A badly spelt essay just looks… stupid, and you’ll get a grade to reflect that.
I think that’s pretty much it!
If there’s a couple of those pointers that are most important, it’s leave yourself lots of time to research and prepare & research the topic area thoroughly. Lecturers can really tell when someone has explored the topic well, and it will show in the writing. Psychology is an academic study, so use loads of studies to support all your statements. If you do that, you’re pretty much guaranteed a first as long as you write it up correctly, and ALWAYS link back to the question!
If I think of anymore points, I’ll add them in the future!
Thanks for reading,
Entry filed under: Other. Tags: essays, Students.
How to tell if someone is lying… maybe.Attribution.
I taught my first psychology class in 1994 - and I almost always include some kind of paper assignment in each of my classes. Quick math says that I have probably read nearly 2,000 student papers. I think I’m qualified to give advice on this topic.
With a large batch of student papers set to hit my desk on Monday upcoming, it occurred to me that it might be nice to write a formal statement to help guide this process. Here it is.
Tell a Story
If you are writing a research paper, or any paper, you are telling a story. It should have a beginning, middle, and end. Further, it should read how you speak. Some students think that when they are writing for a college professor, they have to up their language and start using all kinds of fancy words and such. Please!!! We are training you to communicate effectively - not to show others how smart you are. We know you are smart - that is how you got into college in the first place!
While there are certain standards of formality that should be followed in your paper, at the end of the day, always remember that you are primarily trying to communicate some set of ideas to an audience. Thus, you should be keen to attend to the following:
- Create an outline and use it as a roadmap.
- Start from the top. That is, think about your actual question of interest - and start there - clearly and explicitly.
- Make sure that every single sentence points to the next sentence. And every paragraph points to the next paragraph. And every section points to the next section.
- Write how you speak - imagine that you are telling these ideas to someone - and always assume that someone is a layperson (just a regular old person - not an expert in the field).
- Make the paper as long as it needs to be to tell your story fully and effectively - don’t let page limits drive your process (to the extent that this is possible).
- All things equal, note that writing a high number of relatively brief sentences is a better approach than is writing a lower number of relatively long sentences. Often when students write long sentences, the main points get confused.
Use APA-Style for Good
Psychology students have to master APA format. This means using the formal writing style of the American Psychological Association. At first, APA style may well seem like a huge pain, but all of the details of APA style actually exist for a reason. This style was designed so that journal editors are able to see a bunch of different papers (manuscripts) that are in the same standardized format. In this context, the editor is then able to make judgments of the differential quality of the different papers based on content and quality. So APA style exists for a reason!
Once you get the basics down, APA style can actually be a tool to help facilitate great writing.
Write a Good Outline and Flesh it Out
For me, the best thing about APA Style is that it gets you to think in terms of an outline. APA style requires you to create headings and subheadings. Every paper I ever write starts with just an outline of APA-inspired headings and subheadings. I make sure that these follow a linear progression - so I can see the big, basic idea at the start - and follow the headings all the way to the end. The headings should be like the Cliff Notes of your story. Someone should be able to read your headings (just like the headings for this post) and get a basic understanding of the story that you are trying to communicate.
Another great thing about starting with an APA-inspired outline is that it affords you a very clear way to compartmentalize your work on the paper. If you are supposed to write a “big” college paper (maybe 20 or so pages), you may dread thinking about it - and you may put it off because you see the task as too daunting.
However, suppose you have an outline with 10 headings and subheadings. Now suppose that you pretty much have about two pages worth of content to say for each such heading. Well you can probably write two pages in about an hour or maybe less. So maybe you flesh out the first heading or two - then watch an episode of The Office or go for a run. Maybe you flesh out another section later in the day. And then tomorrow you wake up and you’ve completed 30% of your paper already. That doesn’t sound so dreadful, now, does it?
No One Wants to Hear Minutia about Other Studies in Your Research Paper!
I’m usually pretty tolerant of the work that my students submit to me. I know that college is all about learning and developing - and I always remind my students that the reason they are in school is to develop skills such as writing - so I don’t expect any 19-year-old to be Walt Whitman.
This said, there are some rookie mistakes that make me shake my head. A very common thing that students tend to do is to describe the research of others in unnecessary detail. For your introduction, you often have to provide evidence to support the points that you raise. So if you are writing a paper about the importance of, say, familial relatedness in affecting altruistic behavior, you probably need to cite some of the classic scientific literature in this area (e.g., Hamilton, 1964).
This said, please, I urge you, don’t describe more about these past studies that you cite than is necessary to tell your story! If your point is that there past work has found that individuals across various species are more likely to help kin than non-kin, maybe just say that! There is a time and a place for describing the details of the studies of others in your own research paper. On occasion, it is actually helpful to elaborate a bit on past studies. But from where I sit, it’s much more common to see students describe others’ studies in painstaking detail - in what looks like an attempt to fill up pages, to be honest!
As a guide on this issue, here are some things that I suggest you NEVER include in your paper:
- The number of participants that were in someone else’s study.
- Information form actual statistical tests from someone else’s study (e.g., The researchers found a significant F ratio (F(2,199) = 4.32, p = 008)).
- The various conditions or variables that were included in some other study (e.g., These researchers used a mixed-ANOVA model with three between-subject factors and two within-subject factors).
With details like these, I say this: Who cares!? Honestly, when you mention the work of others, you are doing so for a purpose. You are citing just enough of their work to substantiate some point that you are making as you work toward creating a coherent story. Don’t ever lose sight of this fact!
I’ve read nearly 2,000 student papers to this point in my life. And I hope I am lucky enough to read another 4,000+ before I am pushing up daisies. As I tell my students, if you are going to develop a single skill in college, let it be your ability to write in a clear, effective, and engaging manner.
Students who write psychology papers often find it difficult. That’s OK - that’s expected. If you are a college student, then don’t forget the fact that college is primarily about developing your skills - and no one expects students to be great writers at the age of 18. Developing your ability to write is largely the point of college.
Students often think that they have to write differently for a college research paper than for other purposes. They think that they have to sound smart and use lots of big words and long sentences. This is not the case. Everything you write has the ultimate purpose of communicating to an audience. Clear, straightforward, and narrative approaches to any writing assignment, then, are most likely to hit the mark.