Students enrolled at university are expected to demonstrate their knowledge in a variety of ways: in writing (essays, research reports, exams), visually (charts, diagrams), verbally (tutorial presentations) or multi-media presentations.
The most common form of presentation of information is the written form, usually an essay or report.
What is an academic essay?
An academic essay is a well researched and logically structured answer to a particular question, or questions. The answer is sometimes presented as an argument or point of view. The answer to an essay question is formed by reading about the information or ideas relevant to the topic and applying the skills of critical thinking (see ‘Critical Thinking’ in Section A of this booklet). The answer should include reference to acknowledged authors.
The essay writing process
Below is a chart that illustrates the essay writing process. Writing an essay is not a linear process. This means that it does not occur in a straight line – you do not simply move from one step on to the next. You often revisit some of the earlier steps. Writing an essay means moving backwards and forwards between the different steps in the process until you feel satisfied with the final result.
Modified from Unilearning 2000
Why write essays?
Essays are your opportunity to explore parts of your course (theories, issues or texts) and, in some cases, relate these to a particular situation.
Essays are used as an assessment tool to evaluate your ability to research a topic and construct an argument, as well as your understanding of subject content. This does not mean that essays are a 'regurgitation' of everything your lecturer has said throughout the course or just a summary of the relevant texts.
Different types of academic essays
It is important that you understand the differences between the types of essays you might be required to write. The three most common types of essays are:
descriptive - a summary of the evidence (referenced from texts);
analytical – restructures the evidence to show relationships that exist in the evidence. Uses other sources to support the argument being presented.
persuasive - evidence is used to develop and support an argument or thesis (the position you have taken on a topic).
While all essays have an element of description, in the majority of university essays you will be required to analyse the issues rather than simply describe them. Persuasive essays are usually considered to show the highest level of academic understanding.
Understanding what the essay topic/question means
Understanding what the essay question/topic means and what it is asking you to do are important for the essay writing process. Making an error here will mean your essay will probably fail to meet your marker's expectations.
Essay questions can have a number of different parts. For example:
a statement of fact or a quotation to direct the student to the topic
a question (or several questions)
instructions to the student
guidelines for the scope of the essay
Look at the sample essay question below to see how the above 4 points are included.
Punishment is often used by people trying to change the behaviour of children.(1) What are some of the positive and negative results of using punishments? (2) Based on the evidence you present, make your own conclusions about whether punishment is a useful strategy for altering children's behaviour. (3&4)
Rephrasing the question
A great help in analysing an essay question is to rewrite it into your own words. This is a good way of ensuring that you fully understand the question and can be a good starting point for writing a draft introduction. When rephrasing, be very careful that you keep the original meaning of the question; otherwise you may end up with an essay that doesn't answer the question. If you are in real doubt about the meaning of an essay question, check your understanding of what it means with the lecturer concerned.
Here's an example:
Advertisers spend millions of dollars to get famous people to talk about their products. Review some of the psychological research evidence on what makes a person an effective source of persuasive messages.
Psychological research evidence documents the factors which make some famous people good as a source of persuasive messages. Review this evidence.
Analysing the essay question
Directive Words are words in the essay topic that give you a clue about the way you are expected to answer the question. Below are some definitions of directive words.
Show the meaning of something, by breaking it down into its separate parts and examining each part in detail
Present the case for and/or against a particular idea/topic/point of view
Look for similarities and differences between ideas/topics
Investigate and explain the nature and relative importance of the different parts, definitions or concepts of a question and explain why they are interrelated. Also discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the definition and concepts
Give your judgement about the merit of theories or opinions about the truth of facts, and back your judgement by a discussion of the evidence
Investigate or examine by argument, sift and debate, giving reasons for and against
Make an appraisal of the worth of something, in the light of its apparent truth or usefulness; include your personal opinion
Present in depth and investigate the implications. Draw conclusions
Make plain, interpret, and account for in detail.
Explain and make clear by the use of examples, or by the use of a figure or diagram
Show adequate reasons for decisions or conclusions
Highlight main features without going into considerable detail
Give a concise account of the chief points or substance of a matter, omitting details and examples
Adapted from Marshall & Rowland (1996). A guide to learning independently.
Melbourne: Addison Wesley Longman Australia Pty. Ltd.
It is most important that you remember what the directive word is in your essay tropic and structure your answer around that. If you don’t, you risk failing your essay.
Content Words in essay topics give you a clue about the topic/area you need to be researching and writing about. For example, Content Words might be:
Often words can have more than one meaning. Make sure you use a dictionary to find out the appropriate meaning of the Content Words in your essay topic.
Limiting Words in essay topics provide you with a boundary, or a limit, for your research and writing. In other words they give you a clue about how broad or narrow your research for the topic needs to be. For example, an essay topic might ask you to investigate the experience of first year university students. ‘First year’ are the limiting words. This means you should read and write about first year students only, not second, third or fourth year students. Knowing what the limiting words are can help save you time in researching and helps ensure you answer the exact question. Doing exactly what the essay topic asks is essential in essay writing.
Example of an essay topic:
Fire is a vital influence on Australian biotic patterns. Discuss the adaptations that allow Australian plants and animals to survive in periodically burned landscapes.
Directive Word = Discuss
Content Words = Fire, adaptations of plants and animals
Limiting Words = Australia, periodically burned landscapes
You can probably see how important it is to spend time thinking about the Directive Words, Content Words and Limiting Words before you begin reading and researching. In the example above you could waste a lot of time researching the adaptations of plants and animals in countries other than Australia if you forgot to focus on the Limiting Words.
Understanding the essay topic/question is important because it helps you to have a focus for your reading/research.
For more help with ‘understanding the task’ in essay writing, go to the Library’s e-tutor site ‘Learn how to start researching – topic analysis’ at the following address:http://www.utas.edu.au/library/assist/infolit/etutor.html
RESEARCHING THE TOPIC
A good essay is based on your evaluation of evidence from dependable texts and authorities in the subject area. It is not based solely on your opinion.
The research process is one that should provide you with an understanding of the topic covered in your essay question and enough information to construct an answer to your question.
Before you begin researching, ask yourself:
Do you know what the question means?
Do you know what your essay must do?
Reading broadly (getting the ‘big picture’)
Sometimes when you start reading for an essay you can end up feeling confused by too many facts or too much information. This can happen when you read material that is too detailed, before you have an overall 'picture' of the topic. The early stages of reading in preparation for an assignment should be about getting the 'big picture' of the topic by reading broadly.
Reading broadly will allow you to:
begin to understand the key issues involved in the topic;
see possible answers to the essay question;
get an overview of theories related to the topic;
get an idea of who the most important writers are in the field; and,
decide what issues/books/journals to read in more detail.
To get this big picture, you need to read things like:
your lecture notes (which will probably give you a brief overview of the topic);
an introductory text in your discipline of study, such as Introduction to computing. This will give you a very detailed overview of the full range of topics in your discipline; and,
very general texts.
Reading narrowly (getting the detail)
Reading narrowly is about making sure that the point of view you have developed is an appropriate one. It means you have to search for texts that detail some of the finer issues that you identified as being part of the big picture. To find these more detailed texts, you'll find that the bibliography in the introductory text you read will be a good start. It will point to:
texts that are dependable (because they appear in a standard introductory text this suggests they are dependable)
more detailed texts on the specific topic
texts that relate to the points you still have to research
writers in the subject area who are valued
Remember that you will need to use some of the strategies suggested in the sections of this booklet titled ‘Academic Reading’ and ‘Critical Thinking’ as you carry out this narrow reading.
You will reach a point in reading broadly when you feel that you have an understanding of the overall topic. To move forward, you will also need to have identified the key issues that require more detailed research. This identification of issues to be researched will allow you to read more narrowly and in a way that will help you gather information around important themes.
For example, you may have read broadly for the question:
'When an emergency situation occurs, people watching often fail to help. Research into this phenomenon refers to the Bystander Effect. Explain what this effect is, what causes it and how it can be minimised'
and have decided that the following factors are important in any discussion or argument about this topic:
definition of the Bystander Effect
classic examples of the effect
factors leading to this situation
factors which can minimise it
To gather detailed information, you may need to read:
texts referenced in your unit outline
the library's reference collection
electronic databases and journals
reference lists in your introductory text or relevant books or articles.
Forming an answer
You have read broadly. You have read narrowly. Now you must form your answer to the essay question.
Before you begin to write, you will need to go over your notes, and refer back to the essay question to clarify (make clear) your answer to it. You should state your position (or answer to the question) briefly in writing, in one or two sentences, before you begin to write the essay answer. This will help you to keep your essay focussed. This will also form the basis for the position or thesis statement you need to include in the introduction to your essay.
Taking a position
You may be expected to take a position in your essay assignment (formulate an argument/adopt a point of view) and support your view. For example, the essay question may be...
Discuss the evidence of both sides of the controversy surrounding Euthenasia.
At some point in your research, you should begin to clearly see what position you can legitimately argue in regard to the essay question. As you gather information, you will need to make sure that your view is a valid (appropriate) one. You should also understand and evaluate any other possible views. You will need to gather enough evidence to successfully support the view you decide on.
An essential part of planning an essay is making a list of key points related to the topic. Once you have researched the topic, you can produce a list of ideas. These do not have to be in any logical order. They are just the key ideas from your early research.
Here is a list of key points based on the following essay topic:
'Fire is a vital influence on Australian biotic patterns. What adaptations do Australian plants and animals have to survive in periodically burned landscapes?'
The position taken on the topic is that:
Fire serves a number of purposes in maintaining certain species of flora and fauna.
The list of key ideas include:
Different species of flora react differently to fire;
Fire maintains biodiversity;
Plants are more susceptible to fire than animals;
Plants adapt to regular fire because they are immobile;
Plants that adapt to fire dominate fire dependent environments;
Some plants survive fire;
Some plants die but reproduce after a fire;
Stage of growth determines survivability;
Number of fires in a plant's life-time determines survivability;
Underground storage methods (underground buds, root buds and rhizomes);
Orchids only bloom after fires;
Some animals flee or burrow;
Some animals need fire for their habitat;
Some animals clear area around colony;
Some animals attracted to fire where female lays eggs in charred trees;
Seed regeneration when closed over foliage is cleared through fire; and,
Animals like new growth.
Organising your material
Now you have a list of points, you will need to organise your material to form an 'organising chart'.
Find the logical groupings in your list of key points and organise them into categories
Label these categories with headings (for example The role of fire); and
Develop an organising structure, or taxonomy (see below) to show the groupings and their headings. This is the basis of the structure of your essay.
STRUCTURING AN ESSAY
In other sections of this booklet you have been introduced to the different ways that cultures approach knowledge and learning. One of the ways cultures differ is in the ‘pattern’ or ‘structure’ of their writing. Some cultures, for example, will spend a lot of time at the beginning of a piece of writing providing background information for the reader. They might use many examples and stories in their writing. They might wait until the very end of the piece of writing to state their point of view.
In Western universities the ‘pattern’ or ‘structure’ of writing is quite different to the one described above. At the beginning of the essay (the introduction) only a small amount of background information is given, and the writer’s point of view is stated quite clearly. This means that the reader knows exactly what they will find in an essay simply from reading the introduction –there should be no surprises! The rest of the essay is spent providing evidence to support the writer’s point of view.
There are clear ‘rules’ and guidelines for the way essays need to be structured in a Western university. It is most important that you learn what this structure is and follow it precisely. You will need to do this to be successful in essay writing at UTAS. This section is designed to help you understand what that structure is.
What does an essay in a Western University look like?
Quite simply, an essay has four parts – Introduction, Body, Conclusion and Reference List. The rest of this section will look at each one of these four parts in more detail. On the next page you will see a visual representation of an essay structure. It is a diagram which shows how the different parts of an essay fit together.
(Modified from James Cook University, 2004)
The Introduction usually consists of 5-10% of the total essay
The function of the Introduction is to serve as a 'map' of the essay, outlining the main argument and points which you will develop in your essay.
The Introduction should start with broad, general points and move to specific points. A good introduction (in the following order):
provides a brief background to the essay topic;
introduces the specific essay topic and links this to the background ;
states the essay's thesis (this means you clearly state your point of view or ‘position’ on the essay question)
briefly outlines how your argument is presented in the rest of the essay (this means that you give the reader a ‘map’ of your essay).
It may contain:
brief definitions of key concepts; and,
any limits to the essay (how you may have narrowed the topic).
The reader should not have to read several pages before finding out what the essay is about, and the key issues or argument should be outlined in the same order as they appear in the body of the essay.
You don't have to support or ‘argue for’ your position in the Introduction (just state what it is). You have the whole essay to provide the evidence.
An example of an introduction
Fire is a vital influence on Australian biotic patterns. Discuss the adaptations that allow Australian plants and animals to survive in periodically burned landscapes.
Fire plays a natural and often vital role in ecosystems across many parts of Australia. Some plants and animal communities are extremely sensitive to the destructive force of fire and within others it is not only tolerated but also often essential for maintaining biodiversity of species numbers. (These two sentences have provided a brief background to the topic). Fire helps to determine the types of flora and fauna found in Australian biotic communities and influences their evolutionary adaptations to survive the impacts of periodic fires. Australian flora and fauna display many adaptive traits that allow them to survive periodic fires. (These two sentencs introduce the specific essay topic and link it to the background). Major adaptations such as underground bud storage and aerial buds allow plants to survive and succeed in periodically burned landscapes, while animals utilise avoidance and other behavioural traits. (This sentence outlines the main argument presented in the rest of the essay).
The body of the essay is where you present your evidence for the position you have taken on an issue. This is a good place to start writing your essay. The body is made up of a series of paragraphs.
Each paragraph within the body of an essay deals with one main point only.
The main point in each paragraph needs to be clearly stated in the form of a topic sentence.
If you read all the topic sentences in the body of an essay, you should be able to get an overall understanding of the argument presented in the essay.
Each paragraph has one topic sentence only. This is usually the first sentence in the paragraph.
The rest of the sentences in the paragraph provide evidence and examples to support the main idea presented in the topic sentence.
There is often a concluding sentence for each paragraph
** You can probably see from the three points above that each paragraph is like a ‘mini essay’ – each paragraph has an introductory sentence, a body of sentences that provide support/evidence/examples and a conclusion.
When you are writing an essay it is like taking your reader on a journey. You want that journey to be easy for the reader, therefore you must be clear about the direction of your ideas. When journeying by car, you can follow road signs. In writing you can use special words (such as therefore, in addition, on the other hand) to signal the direction an argument or idea is going.
An example of a paragraph
There are many animals that are adapted to fire prone environments yet do not necessarily have specific traits to allow survival of fire. (This is the topic sentence). For example, the Ground Parrot of southeastern Australia and southwest Western Australia lives in the coastal heath, which becomes uninhabitable if not periodically burned (Brown et al, 2000). Another fire prone environment specialist is the rat kangaroo, Bettong penicillata, which prefers the Casuarina species as its habitat. This habitat requires fires every seven or so years to be maintained (Anders, 1995). (This is the supporting evidence/examples). Research indicates that certain species that are adapted to these specialised niches would not survive should fire disappear from their area (Chandler et al, 1991). (This is the concluding sentence).
The conclusion usually consists of 5-10% of the total essay.
You should summarise the main points of your essay.
You should restate the thesis (argument/point of view) you presented in the introduction.
Often there is a final, concluding sentence which is linked to/’answers’ the essay question.
Your conclusion should not:
introduce new information
present a different thesis/argument to the one you presented in the introduction.
An example of a conclusion
Most animals living in fire prone areas might be better thought of as opportunistic rather than truly adaptive. In contrast, the previous discussion shows that plants have developed remarkable adaptations to surviving and even encouraging fire. (These sentences summarise the main points of the essay). Whether through adaptations or simply opportunistic behaviour, there are countless examples of animals and plants that live and thrive in fire prone environments. (This sentence restates the thesis). Historical evidence suggests that fires have been shaping the land for many thousands of years and in this time the flora and fauna have evolved to survive and utilise fire. (This is the concluding sentence which is linked to the essay question).
The reference list
At the end of each essay you must provide - on a separate page - a list of all the books, articles, websites etc. that you have used in your essay. Please refer to the section in this booklet titled ‘Referencing’ for further details on how to do this.
For more help with structuring an essay visit the following sites:
UniLearning – Essay Writing
UniLearning – Effective Writing
A SAMPLE ESSAY
In the Essay Writing section of this booklet one essay question (adaptations of Australian plants and animals to fire) has been used to provide examples. That complete essay is printed below.
Essay topic: Fire is a vital influence on Australia biotic patterns. Discuss the adaptations that allow Australian plants and animals to survive in periodically burned landscapes.
Fire plays a natural and often vital role in ecosystems across many parts of Australia. Some plants and animal communities are extremely sensitive to the destructive force of fire and within others it is not only tolerated but also often essential for maintaining biodiversity of species numbers. Fire helps to determine the types of flora and fauna found in an area and influences their evolutionary adaptations to survive the impacts of periodic fires. Research into the effects of fire on Australian biotic communities has provided much insight into the adaptive traits that allow both plants and animals to survive periodic fires. Major adaptations such as underground bud storage and aerial buds allow plants to survive and succeed in periodically burned landscapes, while animals utilise avoidance and other behavioural traits.
Upon germination of a seed, a plant does not move around within its ecosystem, as do animals. This makes them extremely susceptible to fire damage. Plants living in fire prone environments have therefore developed adaptive traits to allow their species to continue after fire has passed through the area. An adaptive trait in vegetation was summarised by Dobzhansky (1965 in Gill, Groves and Noble, 1981, p. 245) as 'an aspect of the developmental pattern which facilitates the survival and/or reproduction of its carrier in a certain succession of environments.'
If fires occur on a frequent basis, such as several times during a species' lifespan, then the plant needs to develop characteristics that allow it to survive the fire; at least until it reaches sexual maturity and can reproduce to ensure the species’ survival. If fire can only be expected once during the plants' lifetime, it is not important if the adult plant survives as long as it can reproduce in quantity immediately after the fire. An example of this type of survival trait is Allocasuarina stricta, which does not survive fire well yet regenerates afterwards in great numbers (Chandler, et al, 1991).
The survivability of plants can vary depending on the development stage reached at the time of the fire occurrence, as well as aspects such as fire severity and the time between fires (Gill et al, 1981). Therefore seedlings and herbaceous plants may be very sensitive whereas a mature plant may have much greater levels of damage tolerance in the way of bud protection through underground storage and/or in bark.
The insulative properties of soil and the characteristics of heat rising makes underground storage of buds a highly effective protective measure. Many plants show a number of methods for placing their buds out of harm. Lignotubers are one of the most common forms of underground buds found in many Australian plants. A lignotuber is a swollen under ground stem acting as a storage device. They are made strong by the presence of lignin; a plant polymer that gives large plants and trees their supportive strength (Raven, et al, 1999). As the plant grows the lignotuber is gradually deposited deeper into the soil. When the foliage is destroyed by fire, the lignotuber releases buds, which emerge to form the new shoot system. It is noted by McCarther (1965 in Gill et al, 1981) that 95% of the Eucalyptus species use lignotubers as a protective regeneration device. Other species of plants have similar structures in the form of root buds and rhizomes. Root buds are areas on the root system which, like lignotubers, start to produce new shoots when damage to the above ground foliage is sustained. A rhizome is a horizontal, often underground, stem that is very common in grasses and some ferns. They are extremely effective in vegetative propagation of the plant as well as offering some protection from fire due to their proximity to the soil. Grasses and ferns such as bracken re-sprout after fire (Trabaud, 1987).
Species that do not have lignotubers or a similar underground system commonly utilise aerial buds. In these species, the bud develops underneath bark. Upon defoliation of the plant, clumps of new shoots grow out from the main stem. Many eucalypts utilise this method of bud protection (Crane, 1972). The bark not only protects the buds but also the critical internal pathways used for water and nutrient movement from the heat of the fire. A similar principle is adopted by Pinus palustris. It protects its buds by covering them with many layers of extremely succulent non-flammable foliage to keep them cool and safe from fire. This, as with most adaptive traits, has its limitations and success depends on such aspects as the fire intensity and speed (Gill et al, 1981).
Unlike underground or aerial epicormic buds, which re-shoot the original plant, an adaptation called ‘serotiny’ gives rise to a new and often increased population of the plant (Trabaud, 1987). Several Australian plants, including the species of Eucalyptus regnans and Banksia ornata, share this ‘serotiny’ trait and have specialised seed capsules that are stored on the plant until fire triggers their release (E. Pharo pers. comm., 2000). The seeds are then deposited into well-lit and highly nutritive soil beds left over by the fire and the burning of the surrounding vegetation.
Many orchids, grasses, lilies and other small flowering herbaceous plants will not flower for many years and then burst into bloom when a fire moves through the area. Some orchid bulbs can lay dormant for up to 20 years waiting for a fire to bring it into growth (DPIEW, 2002). A number of factors could be responsible, such as high nutrient quality of the ash, increased light, and a decrease in competition for resources due to the reduction in neighbouring plants or even the chemicals in the smoke. In any case, fire aids or triggers the plants to reproduce indicating the ability of the species to not only survive fire but also actually harness it to increase their population. Xanthorrhoea australis and other plants within the genus show this fire stimulated inflorescent production method. Casuarinas and Oyster Bay pines cope well with low frequency fire, seeding in large numbers after fire (Chandler et al, 1991).
In contrast to plants, animals are mobile and can therefore move around to varying degrees and in most cases are able to escape the fire itself. Despite this ability to move around, certain animals can be restricted to a relatively small area due to their dependence on particular local biotic factors, like a particular food source or other physical conditions. Research indicates that in areas of Australia with regularly occurring, low intensity fires animals have evolved to be able exploit the burned areas (Chandler et al, 1991).
For an animal to survive a fire it has to avoid the flames, heat and smoke. This avoidance behaviour is one of the key adaptive traits. Animals living in fire prone areas have adapted to survive during the burn and immediately after when resources could be extremely scarce (Trabaud, 1987). Highly mobile animals like birds and kangaroos can generally move out of the fires path. Less mobile animals such as wombats and small mammals need to take refuge in the ground by burrowing or hiding in holes and depressions. Animal adaptations to fire prone habitats include being able to run or fly quickly and for long distances, burrowing, storing food and migration (Gill et al, 1981).
Some animals show quite specific behaviour to protect themselves from the effects of fire. The Acacia ant, Pseudomyrnex species, clears away all vegetation and debris from around the colony to stop it from been burnt and over heating. Other insects like the fire beetle, Merimna atrata, possess infrared radiation-detection organs that allow them to locate forest fires from distances of up to 160 kilometres away. They are attracted to the fire and the female lays her eggs into the charred wood (Chandler et al, 1991).
In contrast to animals such as the fire beetle, there are many animals that are adapted to fire prone environments yet do not necessarily have specific traits to allow survival of fire. For example, the Ground Parrot of southeastern Australia and southwest Western Australia lives in the coastal heath, which becomes uninhabitable if not periodically burned. Another fire prone environment specialist is the rat kangaroo, Bettong penicillata, which prefers the Casuarina species as its habitat. This habitat requires fires every seven or so years to be maintained. Research indicates that certain species that are adapted to these specialised niches would not survive should fire disappear from their area (Chandler et al, 1991).
Most animals living in fire prone areas might be better thought of as opportunistic rather than truly adaptive. In contrast, the previous discussion shows that plants have developed remarkable adaptations to surviving and even encouraging fire. Whether through adaptations or simply opportunistic behaviour, there are countless examples of animals and plants that that live and thrive in fire prone environments. Historical evidence suggests that fires have been shaping the land for many tens of thousands of years and in this time the flora and fauna have evolved to survive and utilise fire.
Chandler, C., Cheney, P., Thomas, P., Trabaud, L. and Williams, D. (1991). Fire in forestry Volume 1. Forest fire behaviour and effects. Florida: Krieger Publishing Company.
Crane, W. (1972). Fire in the environment. Symposium proceedings. USA: United States Forest Service.
Department of Primary Industries, Water & Environment. (2002). Fire and vegetation communities. Retrieved on September 2, 2002, from
Gill, A., Groves, R. and Noble, I. (1981). Fire and the Australian biota. Canberra: Australian Academy of Science.
Raven, P., Evert, R. and Fichholm, S. (1999). Biology of plants. New York: Worth Publishers.
Trabaud, L. (1987). The role of fire in ecological systems. The Hague: SPB Academic Publishing.