Research and Reflection
Generally, essays require students to think about issues and read the work of others on topics of interest to them. One of the main criteria whereby essays are evaluated is that of research and reflection.
Usually most written assignments will require students to reflect upon the topics at hand, describing the personal relevance, engagement, effects, and importance of each topic. Likewise, these assignments require students to consider not merely their own thinking but also the thinking of others, particularly others whose writing has been published, comparing and contrasting their own work with that of the others they have read. Both research and reflection are important to the essay, though the exact ratio of research to reflection may vary from one assignment to another. Research assignments may require students to begin work by finding out what has already been written on a topic or by performing some field research either in a given situation or on a given body of data. After this period of research, students consolidate their findings and assess the results. Assignments that focus upon reflection as a starting point will require students to assess their own experience or background as the basis for writing. In some assignments, this assessment is not merely the starting point, but also the finished product for the assignment. In other assignments of this type, students are required to build upon their initial and focal assessment by searching the library and online to find scholarly confirmation of their initial impressions.
On any one topic, there is usually a considerable body of work and essay lengths usually prohibit exhaustive inclusion of everything that students find on any topic. Therefore, a major skill concerns the use of research and the ability to reflect upon the mass of information available in order to present the most important ideas in what is written for the assignment. There are five qualities that good research and reflection exhibit, the scope of the research, the sources used, quotes and ideas used, the quality of reflection evident, and the understanding displayed; these are discussed below.
Scope of research
The scope of research criteria evaluates how diverse the topics within the issue were and the sources of research. If the total discussion available to students were represented as a circle, a broad scope of research would entail that students considered the entire circle, as opposed to only limited parts or spotty areas within the circle. Work worthy of an exceptional mark would have surprising diversity, while competent work would have a broad range of sources. Inadequate work would have few sources drawn upon or sources in only a limited topic range.
If students only consider part of a topic and not the whole topic of discussion, they may fail to have a proper scope of research and may lose marks because of this, However, there are several other factors that can affect grades in this area, as well.
Use of sources
Once sources throughout a broad range of consideration are identified, it is important to use those sources well. The use of sources indicates how students are making use of named sources in their work. Excellent work discerns both positively and negatively regarded research, using and critiquing these diverse positions with understanding and insight. Relatively competent use of sources presents the ideas found that relate to subject areas, but reflects a more dependent use of these ideas, without the creativity and relative independence of the more excellent scholar. Inadequate work in this area either presents only a single line of argumentation without critical examination, or provides sources for only a portion of the topics or issues considered, leaving gaps in the discussion.
Coverage of a broad scope of discussion and proper use of diverse sources lays down a good foundation for excellent written work. However, there are still some other factors that are relevant to students’ marks for research and reflection.
Use of quotes
One of the main differences between inexperienced writers and their more experienced colleagues is that better writers know when quotes are necessary in using the ideas of others. One of the marks of well educated scholars is that they know when to summarize the ideas found in research in their own words and when it is best to use the original authors’ own words in a quote. Excellent writers work hard to find the right way to fit the right sort of quotes into their own work with careful explanations and evaluations both before and after each quote. They make it clear why the quote is necessary for them to use in their own work. Competent work in this area will use quotes accurately and for the right reasons, but may lack the sophistication of more excellent work, or may “miss the mark” with a quote sometimes. Inadequate work with quotes sometimes presents the quotes without commentary, often leaving the reader to figure out the relevance and value of quotes used. In addition or as an alternative, inadequate work often depends so fully upon other authors’ work that one may rightly wonder whether the present student understands any more of the issue than how to quote other scholars. It is exactly at this point that the next factor of evaluation becomes most relevant.
Evidence of reflection
One of the main educational goals of essay writing generally is to provide an opportunity for students to think seriously about an issue that interests them. Excellent writers know how to show that they have done some independent thinking about the topics they discuss, rather than merely “parroting” the ideas of experts on subjects. Competent work in this area may demonstrate reflection only on some of the essay’s sub-topics, or only superficially at times. At other times, writers may have difficulty maintaining constant intensity throughout their examination of a topic. Thus, they may explore one or a few topic areas thoroughly and leave others out completely or mostly. In such work, it is evident that the writer thought a lot about the topic, but did not think about it “evenly.” Inadequate work in this area will leave the reader wondering what the writer thought about beyond what was read and the research that was found. It will often appear in inadequate work that the writer was merely reporting the ideas of others and made no significant contribution to the writing other than the merest juxtaposition of multiple scholars’ works.
Understanding of topic
As well as reflection, opportunity is provided in written work for students to demonstrate the level they understand an issue or topic. Excellent writers are keen to demonstrate what they understand by combining careful use of direct quotes with discerning paraphrases of the work of experts that they have researched on the topic. Competent students will often understand part of what they discuss of the ideas of others, but miss certain key nuances of what they study or jump to wrong conclusions by thinking they understand more than they actually do. Inadequate work in this area makes no real attempt to understand the topic or any of its subtleties, preferring merely to provide a record of what seems to be a coherent body of work on a topic done by others.
So far, the discussion has been concerned with factors within the broad criterion of research and relevance that affect the evaluation of essays. This is an important criterion, probably the most significant aspect of the evaluation of an essay. Of only slightly less importance is the issue of the clarity and overall argument presented in the essay. It is this criterion that will be discussed next.