Five tips on improving student essay writing

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Excellent advice from Dr Dave Brown on how to help students improve their essays. Dave teaches
A-level students but his advice is useful to all of us. We really should spend more time thinking how to help students write better essays.

The general view of most teachers is probably that essay writing is a dull, unwanted, tacked on obligation that one has to engage in.

In many ways the essay can seem like the most neglected area of History teaching. 

The key areas that dominate pedagogical discussions at this moment in time would rest predominately on ideas of how we define curriculum intent, widen the curriculum to increase representation, how we can make history lessons learn more exciting or more relevant to the students’ local area or how one can increase the substantive knowledge of our students. 

There is no doubt that these are all worthy aims, but the actual thing that our students – particularly at A-level – will be judged on is often neglected. 

There was a strong push around 20 years ago from Byrom, Counsell and Riley to support extended writing at Key Stage 3, yet this does not appear to have encouraged a longer-term focus, particularly at A-level.

The exam itself, and how to write for it, is still commonly viewed as the domain of the exam boards – the final wearisome, performative aspect the students have to go through in order to achieve their grade. That, in many ways detracts from the more exciting parts of history. 

This is despite the fact that writing history in a specific manner is what historians do. 

It is often not apparent to students that historians are given a brief by the publisher or journal editor when writing a book or an article.

This will be a specific brief on writing style, chapter length, specific focus and anticipated audience that they are writing for. 

Academic historians do not just learn substantive knowledge about their favoured areas of study and then free form their writing in a Jack Kerouac fashion. 

The ability to articulate one’s argument within the confines of a specific question to a particular style is in many ways what sets history as an academic discipline apart from History as a general-interest topic that is shared by the wider population.

Hopefully, these five tips can help to centre essay writing a bit more in the discussion on improving student History and provide some practical tips on embedding it more successfully in the curriculum.

1. Give time to the essay when planning

When you start looking at your scheme of work and discussing the structure of lessons for a particular curriculum, how much time are you giving to where the essays will fit and what you want to get out of them?  I believe this needs to be a central part of planning.

Even before you get to the essays themselves, teachers should be aware of particular patterns that might have emerged from previous results. 

Are there any specific areas of essay writing that students have underachieved on? How do you want to progress the students’ essay-writing skills ie for A-level, what would be the overall outcome you would want students to have at the end of the second year and how will the students incrementally build up their skills to achieve this? 

Every year when I am designing the scheme of work, my team and I discuss the particular essay-writing skills we feel the students need to focus on and how each essay practice from first to second year builds this up cumulatively. 

Based on this, we may change where we place essays in the scheme of work, the type of question we are asking, how we might structure the process of teaching essay-writing approaches and whether we’re happy with both the essay questions we used previously and the model answers linked with them. 

These conversations should be intrinsic to curriculum planning.

2. Teach the process of planning the essay

What process should a student goes through in their mind when they look at the essay question under pressurised exam conditions? 

Do your students have a really clear framework on this? While exam structure and particular vocabulary are important to understand, what I am talking about here is more the metacognitive process a student performs when they look at the essay question.  How clear are you on this?

Through trial and error we have developed a set of steps for students to move through in their essay planning :

1. Read the question and work out the conceptual focus, topic and chronology.

2. What structure works for this question?

3. What would your argument be?

4. Criteria for your argument.

5. What examples would you put in?

Through recorded live modelling on specific questions, we demonstrate exactly what this process looks like and what the exact thought process should sound like, repeating it constantly through the two years. 

“If you are having to stop writing and go back over your plan it’s the equivalent of a builder drawing the architectural designs as they build.” 

Essentially, when they look at the question I want the students to internally model the exact thinking process I have articulated out loud when I demonstrate how to approach specific essay questions. 

The planning of the essay and the way students go about it is the most important part of the essay writing; get this wrong and all the knowledge the students have built up over the two years of A-level is not going to be applied in a successful manner.

It’s therefore critical they understand the exact thinking process they need to ensure they understand the questions and can approach them with confidence.

3. Give more time in lessons to essay writing

This doesn’t mean writing more timed essays.  Instead, consider how much time students have in class to plan or write parts of essays in timed conditions. 

We have added more over the years, reducing some of the factual content that can be gleaned outside of the class and replacing it with more activities where students have the opportunity to actively engage with essay questions linked to the subject they are studying. 

Everything we teach is directly related to essay questions we think might potentially come up in the exam. 

As I constantly say to my students, think about what you are learning and how it might be used in probable exam questions. 

For instance, our A-level unit on Germany is a breadth study. Even the short term questions cover 12 years or more. 

Therefore, there’s no point learning about hyperinflation in depth.  Instead, we encourage students to consider how to relate hyperinflation to more long term issues within the Weimar Republic, such as the political impact of hyperinflation rather than focus on more detailed causes of hyperinflation itself. 

In class we spend a lot of time looking at potential essay questions after we have learnt content, giving the students 10 minutes to work out plans and sometimes more time to write an introduction or an introduction and first paragraph and so forth.  All under timed conditions. 

This enables you to see where students’ misconceptions on both the topic and its relation to potential essay questions are arising and what you may need to explain again.

It also allows students to become more familiar with the types of questions your exam board asks, the language they use and what this means in terms of how the board expects the question to be approached. 

As I like to say, all learning is active, in the sense that students are never learning factual information without thinking how to relate it to precise enquiry questions that may arise in the exams, and making them increasingly comfortable with doing this under timed conditions.

4. Write essays yourself

Ask yourself, when was the last time you wrote an essay under timed conditions?

I spent so long advising both students and teachers on how to write essays, yet I hadn’t actually tried the process out for myself.

Doing the essay questions I set for my students in timed conditions beforehand has been somewhat of a revelation. 

It demonstrated that some of the advice I had given on precise timings were wrong; if I couldn’t plan out the answer in the time I was saying students should take, how could they?

It also helped me better explain the process of planning to the students and how absolutely crucial it is to constructing a successful answer. 

History Resource Cupboard KS3

It also really hammered home to me how contrasting the planning is from the actual writing in terms of cognitive tasks. 

As I say to my students now, take your time to plan as the writing aspect is actually a different mental process. 

If you are having to stop writing and go back over your plan it’s the equivalent of a builder drawing the architectural designs as they build. 

Doing the question also enables you to see what the precise difficulties might be with that specific question, where misunderstandings could arise and how you might be able to improve your explanations to students on how to improve their approach to essay writing. 

Additionally, it’s helped me to better comprehend why some students might be finding it difficult to finish their essays under timed conditions and how I better assist them to ameliorate their approach to exam technique. 

Finally, I’ve also discovered that there’s a strange empathy that you can develop between yourself and the students in the sense that you’re not just explaining the question to them, you’ve actually done it yourself. 

When I talk to my students about how intense it is and how much my hand hurt at the end, they seem more willing to listen when I explain how they might have approached the question. 

It’s hard to actually nail this down precisely but there seems to be an intangible link that can be made to the fact the teacher has actually experienced the quite stressful task of writing under timed conditions that our students undertake on a fairly regular basis. 

Consider how to structure feedback

This is something that we are constantly focused on.  When was the last time you read the latest research on feedback?

What exactly do you want your feedback to achieve and how do you engage the students in comprehending precisely what the feedback you have given means and how to action this for the next essay? 

I’m sure I’m not the only teacher who’s been frustrated by seeing students make the same errors over and over again despite the masses of feedback I’ve provided.  A good place to start is the work of Dylan Wiliam.

I particularly like this quote: “Feedback is only successful if students’ learning improves – and this depends on their capacity to understand it and inclination to accept and act on it. 

“It’s got an interpersonal, motivational element that can’t be brushed aside. 

“Giving feedback isn’t a purely technical, objective task – although it does have to suggest actions students can actually take rather than offering a nebulous retrospective critique.”

One of the biggest pieces of advice I have taken from Wiliam is not to treat feedback like an autopsy, but think of it in terms of a doctor’s checkup. 

What’s the problem and how can it be addressed?  To do this he recommends doing feedback in the form of three key questions to get students to engage and discuss their own work, as opposed to being told by the teacher directly how to improve. 

We’ve found this really helpful in making feedback much more active for the students and encouraging better student-led dialogue on what they are finding difficult with their essay writing and what they can precisely do to improve in subsequent essays.

Additionally, it’s important to consider feedback in relation to what you want to see in the development of the students’ essay writing. 

In our first year we take three 90-minute lessons for each essay.  The first lesson takes the entire time to look at the essay question, discuss what it means and plan for the essay. 

In the second lesson the students write the essay in timed conditions using this plan and then watch the video modelling how the teacher approached the question themselves. 

Using this, the students rewrite the essay and hand in the improved version for feedback. 

The third lesson in the sequence happens after the teachers have marked the essay and written the three questions to help the students build their understanding of how to answer the feedback and develop their comprehension of what is precisely required. 

As the students progress the theoretical training, wheels are gradually taken off so that in the second year they are planning and writing the essay questions without prior assistance and are more confident in approaching the feedback. 

For our A-level students, the first year is also less focused on essay writing in terms of lesson time (the type of activities set out in point three) than the second year. 

There is a lot of evidence that students are only ready to really engage in the skills aspect of history once the knowledge is deeply embedded. 

My overall point would be to not just think of feedback in isolation. 

Consider how it works in relation to the sequencing of essay questions and what you want to achieve over the entire course – eg the two years of A-level and how the whole process fits together in terms of questions, skills and feedback to get your students to where you want them to be. 


In summary, teaching extended exam writing is a critical part of History. 

It shouldn’t be viewed as an unwanted extra, but an integral part of what we do as History teachers.

To teach this important skill effectively it takes time to understand how you want to structure and develop student writing over the course, but the outcome of producing students who can write effective history linked to specific enquiry questions is worth the effort.

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