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
Wondering how to answer your AQA psychology essays for the 12 and 16 marker questions? If you’re studying AQA A level psychology from 2016 onwards, in this post I’ll be answering that exact question and breaking essay writing down.
At AS level your essay questions can be up to 12 marks while at A level and in your second year of study they can be worth up to 16 marks. So the question is how do you write them? Let me answer this for you.
AS 12 Marker Essay Questions For Psychology
The marking doesn’t actually show you how the 12 marker AS essay questions are split. In the old specification it use to state that this was 6+6. This meant 6 was for theory and 6 was for evaluation. Now however it simply states that the mark allocation is 12 marks in total and they leave it to you to distribute this based on your own judgement. My advice is to treat this as a 6+6 split although if you had to focus more on one I would say evaluation tends to be more important and you want to try include more of that where you can.
A level Psychology 16 Marker Essay Questions
Again you won’t be told how your 16 marker questions are split either and it will simply state 16 marks in total in the exam itself. I have however heard the actual mark allocation is split 6+10!
This means 6 marks are for theory (AO1) and 10 marks will be dedicated to evaluation points (AO3).
Structuring Your AQA Psychology Essays
There’s two popular ways of how you structure essays. I’ll mention the one I like but it’s totally up to you which one you choose.
- The first method is using PEEL. This stands for Point – Explanation + Evidence – Evaluate – Link-back.
- The second method is using my own which is still following the PEEL format but instead splits this writing theory first followed by evaluation. This is basically writing all your points and explanations first for the entire essay (P+E), leaving a line of space and then writing all your evaluation (E+L)
PEEL Essay Writing
Here I’ll cover the PEEL method of essay writing for AQA psychology. Lets cover what each letter is asking you to do firstly.
Point: Here you make your point. What is it you’re trying to say? Make sure it’s clear and relevant to the question that is being asked.
Explanation + Evidence: This involves stating your explanation or theory elaborating on your point. This is where you will score the bulk of your AO1 marks so be sure to make sure its detailed, varied and uses appropriate terminology. You have no time or space to write waffle as it all needs to be directly to the point and concise.
Research studies can score AO1 marks as long as the question does not ask for an explanation, outline or model. If the question asks you to discuss “research into XYZ” then “research” can include theories and studies. Be sure to read the question carefully on the wording of this as it catches a lot of students out. Here you will also link to your evidence and research studies to backup your point and explanations. If you’ve just explained how the working memory works for example you now throw in evidence for this explanation that either backs it up or refutes it. It’s important you trigger your evaluative commentary by writing statements such as “this supports the explanation/theory because” or “this shows clear weaknesses/undermines/refutes the theory because”. This will help examiners know whether its AO1 or AO3.
Evaluate: Here you can evaluate the study or explanation for strengths and weaknesses but its imperative that you then link back to what the implication is for the theory, model or explanation (see link-back below for more details on this).
Here’s a quick cheatsheet on general evaluation points – but remember to always end each by linking back!:
Link-Back: Using evaluative comments to highlight what the impact is on the theory commenting on how it is either supported or undermined. If there is other concerns this raises then highlight these to score evaluative commentary marks. You can also use issues, debates and approaches too so throw them in where they are appropriate.
My MethodMy own method follows the PEEL format but its a little different as previously stated. The idea is you simply split all your theory and evaluation points into two different sections rather than interweaving them as the PEEL method states. The reason I’ve always used this method is it makes it easier for the examiners to see exactly where all your theory is and where your evaluation is.
Take a look at the image on the right for example. In green you have all the AO1 (theory, explanation,outline etc) and then after a line of space I would do all my evaluation in blue (AO3). This would involve all my evidence, evaluation and link-backs to the theory.
My thinking behind this method is it becomes much easier to remember your essays but also I believe examiners prefer this method as it makes their lives easier. Think about it – they sit marking hundreds of essays no doubt frustrated after the 20th one and if you present an essay that makes their life easier, they can see where all your marks go and no doubt they will find marking your work much easier too then. A happy examiner is a generous examiner maybe?. I can only go on my experience and this technique helped me score 100% twice in my exams (as well as many other students) so it’s why I tend to favour it. Ultimately however it’s your choice as most teachers advocate the peel method of essay writing.
Breadth vs Depth
A common question I’m asked is how much do I write? Is there a word count? Although some people may sometimes offer a rough estimate your best way of knowing how much to write is by looking at what the mark allocation is for the question. A 12 mark question is looking for at least a detailed page of writing and a 16 mark question is looking for at least around 2 pages (to play it safe).
The examiners however will be looking to see variety in how much you know (breadth) and how detailed your knowledge is on the topic (depth). If you write a lots of varied points on the subject this shows good breath. If you are able to explain in detail a topic and the intricacies, using appropriate terminology and make good links this shows depth. One can usually compensate for the other to a degree so if you don’t write a huge variety of information, provided its detailed you can make up for this through your depth. This also works vice versa too so keep this in mind.
Use specialist terminology – instead of saying “the front of the brain, try refer to the actual name such as “the prefrontal cortex” for example.
Issues and Debates Score Easy Marks
You have a whole new section in this new psychology specification focusing on issues and debates. They can score easy marks as part of your evaluation so whenever you feel like you’re able to throw them in, do it as it all adds to your evaluative commentary. Heres a neat trick to remember a bunch of issues and debates; just remember the word GRENADE.
- G=Gender bias
- R=reductionism (only apply this to biological explanations as it wont score marks for anything else)
- E=Ethical Issues
- N=Nature vs Nurthure
- A=Animal studies
- D=Determinism (again best applied only with biological explanations)
- E=Ethnocentrism (also known as cultural bias)
Hope this helps? If it does leave a comment below and show your support and share it with your classmates.
- Student samples: Age bias, lack generalisation to wider population.
- Laboratory studies: Lack ecological validity due to artificial settings, demand characteristic’s possible as participants know they are being observed, lack external validity if the setup can not be applied to the real world. Strengths however: Easy to replicate and check reliability, more control over the experiment to measure the effect of the DV and limit extraneous variables from affecting results.
- Lack of internal validity: Anything that suggests you are not measuring what you want to measure can be argued to affect the results as they lack internal validity. This could include personality variables or confounding variables that are actually affecting the results and not the DV (dependent variable)
Lack of mundane realism: Do the tasks lack realism? If they are not indicative of real world situations then lack of mundane realism can be used as a criticism. For example a lot of research into the memory models were not really testing how memory is used in everyday life.
- Gender bias: Only men or women involved? The findings may suffer from gender bias if they can not be applied across both genders. Was age a factor perhaps? What is the implication on the theory/point if this is a factor?
Cultural bias: Is the study based on the values of one country? Is it based only in one country without considering others and how they may differ? Then you can argue cultural bias.
- Correlational research: A lot of research is correlational and this can be used as a weakness e.g. people who are more violent play a lot of video games. Someone may argue that video games therefore cause basis of your argument for correlational research because you cannot establish cause and effect; just because two things are linked, it doesn’t mean one is causing the other and there could be a third variable involved.
- Case studies: You can’t generalise the findings based on one case study; this may be due to individual differences, personality variables, upbringing, culture etc (this is a weakness then). Case studies do however provide lots of information or allow you to study something that may normally be difficult or you are unable to recreate in the laboratory which is a strength.
- Longitudinal studies: Allow you to see how a variable can affect people over time (strength) however outside influences may even factor in (also known as extraneous variables).
- Animal studies: You can generalise the findings of animals to humans due to differences in anatomy (weakness) – Animal studies however allow you to draw theories and conduct research which would be unethical to conduct on humans. The harm caused to animals however will always raise ethical issues which you can highlight.
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