How to Improve your Essay Technique

My A2 students have completed their first mock exam under timed conditions. Usually when I set essays for homework students can use their notes and do not complete under time restraints. This is because I want students to develop the right essay writing technique before making things more difficult. However a college wide mock exam meant my students had to finally bite the bullet and complete their first exam paper (questions written by me since there are no previous questions to go on).

  • Task: Answer two from four questions
  • Topics: A2 DCT Pluralism and Gender
  • Time: 40 minutes per question
  • Expectation: Focus on answering the specific question and evaluate everything
  • Help: Students were allowed to use their DCT revision pack notes to support them (Just click on Revision Pack if you would like your own copy of the 55 page pack for a small price)

So what where the questions:

  1. To what extent does an exclusivist view point represent the true Christian message?
  2. Evaluate the view that Christians should have a mission to those of no faith.
  3. To what extent has secular views on gender equality undermined Christian gender roles?
  4. Critically assess the view the Christianity is inherently sexist.

The marking process:

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Examiner’s Report 2016: What can we learn?

There isn’t a lot to go by as far as guidance on the new spec exam technique, so last night I read through the Exam Report (accessible here: OCR Exam Report) in hopes of some clarity.

What can we learn?

  1. Link everything back to the question – this comment is throughout the report. In many cases students use other names or ideas and go off topic. Everything must be linked back to the question to make it clear why it is relevant. My tip for developing this: One technique I absolutely swear by is highlighting key words in an essay answer. Whenever students complete an essay for homework (or in timed conditions for mock exams) before I collect them in, I pick some random words in the question (often words I think they will have ignored such as ‘no such thing’ ‘transcendent creator’) which they then have to highlight in their answer. Result: students notice very quickly if they have answered the question or not. Usually students say ‘oh I used different words does that count?’ – answer ‘no’.
  2. A02 needs to be supported by philosophical arguments, names or examples – it is not surprising that A02 is where students lost the most marks as this is the hardest technique to master. My tip for developing this: students learn lots of names and arguments as part of the course but do they use them to there full advantage? Just like above I get students to highlight their critical words (‘interesting’ ‘credible’ ‘vague’), use of names, use of examples to see which colour is missing – self assessment for improved writing.
  3. Students’ recall of names/ arguments was sometimes incorrect.  This is understandable when students are under exam duress and tight time conditions so the report does say that “content was still credited” but students need to recognise that correct content is still key to a top mark essay. My tip for developing this: focus on testing content as well as evaluation. Every week I set a short test (Key Knowledge Test) based on the previous topic. This test is out of 15 (25 for A2) and focuses on key words and arguments not evaluation. Students must revise for these tests as part of on-going revision and then peer mark in class to save adding to workload (I then collect in and make a note of scores) Note: there are also many electronic quiz apps that can be used for this – I’m just old fashion and like paper in their folders to revise from.
  4. Don’t overuse rhetorical questions – these are not good enough A02 on their own. Students need to raise points using rhQ but then explore what the question implies in regards to the question.
  5. Avoid listing names – I call this ‘name dumping’. It is not enough that students have learnt the philosophers names and arguments they must do something with the information – evaluate it, link to question etc.
  6. Running out of time – this is also not surprising. The report emphasizes that it is “depth as much as breadth” but we all know students still have to cover the basics of an argument to be credited the marks. My tip for developing this: give students 35 minutes rather than 37, only a tiny difference but this means that in the exam that extra 4 minutes, with adrenaline and lots of revision – they are less likely to run out of time.
  7. Interwoven evaluation – “these tended to be the stronger candidates” – the report goes through two ways that students evaluated: evaluation was interwoven into answers or followed the part a) part b) structure of the old spec. Whilst the report said that the part a) part b) structure was credited the marks for evidence of A01 an A02 the higher marks often went to students who integrated the evaluation. My tip for developing this: do not leave A02 until the end of a topic otherwise students will associate A02 coming after A01 not as part of it. I integrate A02 throughout a unit. Students always prepare and answer essays at the end of a unit to integrate all information but A02 can be taught throughout (see The Four Steps to Teaching A01 & A02 Effectively).
  8. Little mention of other thinkers in Ethics – now this one stopped me. On the one hand the report comments on how students seemed to misuse names and go down tangents in Philosophy (e.g. talking about Irenaeus more than Hick) but then not enough reference to other scholars in Ethics. I know from looking at a few papers recalled from the exam my students often used names linking with euthanasia (in the NL Q) but few scholarly names in relation to NL and Kant. What I have learnt: This is definitely an area I will be adding into my lesson plans this year – Student research task: find scholars who have commented or follow NL, SE, Kant and Util and also point them towards books such as Vardy and Mackie.
  9. Linking in other topics was often done successfully e.g. life after death (DCT) in with the Soul (Philosophy) or Situation Ethics to Bonhoeffer (DCT) – this is one possibility to help solve the above problem. What I have learnt: this year as part of student’s revision (both in AS and A2) I am going to get them to create a spider diagram in A3 to link topics together.
  10. Comparing ethical theories to one or two other ethical theories e.g. linking SE or Util into NL essay – I think this is risky territory. In 37 minutes students have to explain a theory and evaluate fully (to answer the question asked), this leaves very little time to compare to another theory, which has to be briefly outlined and used for evaluation in relation to the theory in question. It is do-able by all means but very tricky. So for example students can compare the ethics of SE to NL to say which is better or worse but I would only recommend this for my highest ability students, who have control over their writing. Otherwise students have a tendency to go off on a tangent and forget the point they are trying to make. The idea of students comparing to two other ethical theories is a total no go!

Biggest misunderstandings:

Continue reading “Examiner’s Report 2016: What can we learn?”

Panic “My Exam is Tomorrow!” Must Read for New Spec Philosophy

This morning was my last lesson with my students before the first external exam. What was my lesson plan? Hammer out as many points for the philosophy exam as possible. What was the result? Well put it this way I think I must have sweated off a stone! Here is a summary of what I can see as the final pointers to remember for the exam tomorrow:

Evaluation panic you can always use:

  • God of Gaps: Having a gap in knowledge and filling it with God. This could even be used more creatively with Plato and Aristotle e.g. what sustains the four causes (potential to actual) = Prime Mover. Prime Mover is used to fill a gap in knowledge
  • Leap of Logic: Drawing conclusions with limited or no logic/ evidence
  • Reductio ad Absurdum: reducing logical statements to illogical conclusions (e.g. design in world = God designer)
  • Burden of Proof: whoever is making the claim must back up with proof. So does Plato provide enough proof for WOF – yes/ no discuss in answer
  • Ockham’s razor: go with the simplest solution E.g. St Theresa had a vision or was it just caused by malaria? What is the simplest solution?


  • You must use critical words throughout your answer to emphasize your evaluation (see to help: “But how can I tell the difference between description and evaluation?”). If you don’t use critical words you are only stating perspectives not evaluating them. And you cannot ‘name dump’ e.g. “Stephen Fry questions how can God exist when he allows children to die of cancer. This is a convincing argument.” This is not evaluation! You must use the special word of ‘because’.
  • I recommend that my students do not use ‘I think’ as it does not read academically. Instead channel your views/arguments but use other language such as ‘one might argue’
  • Don’t forget you get a lot of marks for evaluation (around 14 marks). Have you put 14 different evaluative points in your essay using critical words with ‘because’? Have you defended against the criticism and then weighed up whether the original criticism or defence is stronger?


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New Spec Philosophy Revision

I never actually thought I would finish the spec in time for revision, so with a week spare before the external exams start, I am now frantically putting together revision lessons that will cover the topics quickly and efficiently, whilst still covering all the key must know elements with exam practice (I think I now need caffeine on a drip!)

This is how I am going to do it.

Lesson Plans:

(Follow same structure for Philosophy, Ethics and Christian Thought)

Student lead:

Give students out an A3 blank sheet. Fold into 3 columns. Label: Good to go I know, Sort of know, Panic: No clue.

Using revision packs work through each section on ‘Must Learn Information’ (just OCR spec requirements found on OCR website) and using post – it notes students to fill in each bullet point and stick it in relevant column.


 Then using text books, research and write notes in ‘Text Book Notes’ section (revision packs) starting with Panic: No clue areas.

Fill in glossaries and quizzes for each section.

Continue reading “New Spec Philosophy Revision”

Revision Packs

All revision packs are now available (including the newly added DCT pack) 🙂

New spec:

rev pack1        ethics   DCT pack


Legacy Spec for Re-Sitters:

legacy philo          legacy ethics


A2 Legacy Spec:

rev pack    rev ethic


I am currently warming up my crystal ball for my A2 predications and will post them shortly. I will not be making any predications for the New Spec (as I have absolutely no clue!) However I have written the potential question sections in each booklet so I guess they might count as my predictions. Best way for AS re-sitters to predict questions/ themes is just to study past questions (found in the above packs) and see which part of the spec hasn’t had a question in a while – that’s how I do it 🙂

Realistic Revision for New Spec

How is it that time already!! With a whirlwind new spec approaching the finish line, legacy A2 students flying the nest and legacy AS re-sits (to boost those grades) it just all feels a little too much.

The New Spec Philosophy exam commences in five weeks. The exam timetable (not that you need reminding) is:

  • Philosophy: 18th May
  • Ethics: 25th May
  • Christian Thought: 9th June

What this means is that students need to stagger their revision. My advise is start at the beginning and use the Easter ‘holidays’ (I use the term ‘holidays’ loosely because this near to an exam is not really a holiday – plenty of time in summer for that!) to focus on revising all of Philosophy and starting Ethics (e.g. first three topics).

I am not setting my students flipped learning or reading packs for the last two Christian Thought topics that I have left to cover. This is because I am a control freak (there I’ve said it)! If they cover it with me, I know then it is covered! Also the DCT exam is not for another 9 weeks!! That is plenty of time to revise Christian Thought and teach the last two topics. Yes it means that the students have less revision time in lesson but what is easier – students teaching themselves  a topic or revising material already covered in class. My answer = revise on your own and teach new materials in class. I am also going to set my students a full philosophy mock exam when they return after Easter – with three new questions under the 1.15 time constraints with no notes or help. This will really bring home the reality of the exam, with time to spare to do something about it!

So what is the best way to revise the new spec? cover.JPGMy solution is always the same: key words, quiz questions, planning potential answers, text book notes and spec analysis. These cover all the main elements needed. If students know their key words and spec requirements = C grade, if they can plan potential answers this will help ease the pressure off the exam and if they do a little wider reading this will support higher grades.

Yes there is a lot for students to remember (20 topics in total) but the exams are over a four week period. With support, essay practice, minimizing materials to ‘Must Know Information’ and a bit of hard work – it can be done!

If you would like a copy of the revision packs, which include summary sheets, glossaries, potential questions, click on the images below (for a small charge):

rev pack1


DCT now available:

DCT pack

I’ve also put together something for the Legacy A2 students which might help:

rev pack  rev ethic

I also have in the works a blog looking at students work that compares Kant and Util to Business, so I will post that asap and I have set my students the challenge of their first DCT essay over Easter (to compliment their revision of course) so will post feedback on that.

Between planning, marking and blogging you would think I wouldn’t have time for that cheeky glass of vino ;-)!!