The New A Level RS Specification: Essay Writing

My Lower Sixth pupils have got off to a flying start with their first foray into the new A Level specification from OCR.

I am teaching the Philosophy side of the course this year and we are just wrapping up their first topic: Ancient Greek Influences.

Crucial to helping them make the big step from GCSE to A level has been helping them come to terms with what is required when writing an essay. It is our whole school policy to not enter any pupil for AS levels and, as such, we are fully linear. Looking ahead to Summer 2018 it is imperative that my pupils get as much practice writing essays as they can.

In the Summer holiday I attended an OCR course in London designed to introduce the new course to teachers and Hugh Campbell gave some important information about exam technique. The crucial focus for pupils should be twofold:

  1. Answer the question directly.

  2. Use evaluative language. 

Following this insight, I adapted a resource for my pupils to use which was already very successful in the department. My brilliant predecessor  should be given all plaudits for how excellent the structure ‘DISC’ and ‘PEREL’ really is. We were already focusing on links to the question and evaluation implicitly, but I think, moving forward, making that focus explicit for the pupils can only lead to better results.

The following are taken from the resource on essay writing that I put together and included in a course guide for my A level pupils. All members of my department use the same structure for essay writing. It works for all three parts of the OCR course: Philosophy, Ethics and Theology.

1. What is the examiner looking for?
They want you to critically evaluate and justify a point of view through the use of
evidence and reasoned argument. Grade ‘A’ candidates characteristically:

  • Construct a coherent and well-organised argument supported by scholarly
    examples and/or sources of authority and evidence
  • Identify strengths and weaknesses of the scholarly arguments include
  • Use accurate and fluent expression
  • Reach a reasoned and well-justified conclusion

One of the great things about OCR is that they have a ‘positive-marking’ policy, that means that they want toreward you for all the impressive things you demonstrate in the exam. They accept that there is no ‘set way’ to answer a question, and will award a range of interpretations, arguments and scholarly ideas – so long as you are answering the question directly, that is!


2. A (very important!) note on evaluation:
The chief examiner is clear that the best essays are the ones which are the most evaluative. Evaluation involves making a judgement.

For example, writing:

Hume argues that miracles are the least likely of events.

Is not as evaluative as writing:

Hume rightly argues that miracles are the least likely of events.

It is very clear that evaluation should happen throughout your essay if you want to score higher marks.

The first essays attempted by my class were a mixed bag. This was to be expected; it is a big leap from GCSE to A Level! I needed some pretty radical intervention on improving their introductions in particular. I find that pupils really do not understand what an introduction should do and even with a clear structure and a whole lesson planning what they should do, they still struggled to put the words onto paper.

I created an ‘essay surgery’ lesson where I gave some whole class feedback and key targets for us to focus on. Part of this included a good amount of time given over to some sample introductions, written by me, to help pupils actively engage with some writing as a tool for learning how to improve. They should have written a ‘DISC’ introduction where they Defined key terms, gave the Implications, included Scholarly ideas, and, most importantly signposted their Conclusion by stating their line of argument.

Take this introduction as an example:

  • Has it used ‘DISC’?
  • What is good about it?
  • What is a key target for the author?

‘Plato’s theory of the forms is not convincing.’ Discuss. [40 marks]

Plato’s theory has much strength, but the weaknesses outweigh the strengths so I think it is not a convincing view. Plato argued that there is a world of the forms which is where real things are- the forms and that the world around us is an illusion. The other side of the argument is that Aristotle offers a better way of explaining the world because the senses are better and have less problems because you have to see it to be sure it exists and Plato does not do this convincingly. The allegory of the cave is not very good therefore Plato is not convincing.

Although the author has used Scholarly ideas from Plato and signposted a Conclusion which does answer the question, they have failed to Define their terms (what is a ‘form’?) and not really explored the Implications of the question. There is no real clarity here and the author needs to target their ability to show their knowledge clearly if they are to gain marks.

The second introduction  is clearly an improvement from the first:

‘Plato’s theory of the forms is not convincing.’ Discuss. [40 marks]

This essay will argue that Plato’s theory of the forms, as outlined in The Republic, is not very convincing due to the strength of the weaknesses put forward by his student, Aristotle.  The key point to Plato’s theory of the forms was that there exist two realms: the world of appearances, an illusory world of a posteriori knowledge represented by the cave in his allegory, and the world of the forms, represented by the world outside of the cave. His famous rejection of knowledge based in the senses will be found to be unconvincing due to the strength of the Third Man argument as outlined by Aristotle. Aristotle’s empiricist view of what is real is far more convincing and sensible. Therefore, the statement is false and Plato’s theory is not very convincing.

The author has used Scholarly ideas from Plato and signposted a Conclusion which answers the question directly, they have failed to Define their terms (what is a ‘form’?) but they are clearly using them with confidence. They have begun to explored the Implications of the question too. There  real clarity here and the author has made a very good first attempt.

However, thinking back to Hugh’s point about evaluation, I personally do not value this introduction as what my pupils should be aiming for. If they want to be achieving high A and A* grades (and that elusive Level 6 category) they need to use much more evaluative language. What follows is my proposal for a top level introduction, what all my pupils should aspire to at the end of the two year course:

‘Plato’s theory of the forms is not convincing.’ Discuss. [40 marks]

The theory of the Forms is Plato’s answer to two key branches of philosophical enquiry: metaphysics (what exists) and epistemology (what we can know).  In his book The Republic, he argues through the mouthpiece of Socrates, that humans rely too heavily on their senses and should not rely on them for any genuine knowledge about reality. For him, knowledge gained through sensory experience is merely ‘doxa’ or opinion, and is far removed from genuine knowledge (episteme) of the truth of the forms. As a rationalist, he believed that it was a priori knowledge which was superior and he explained his dualist understanding of reality through his Allegory of the Cave, exploring it in more detail in the Divided Line and Simile of the Sun. This essay will find that, despite some clear strengths, such as highlighting our need to question the reliability of the senses, Plato’s theory of the forms is, ultimately, not successful. The most destructive criticism is from Aristotle ‘s third man argument which highlights how Plato’s theory of the forms results in a meaningless infinite regression of ‘worlds’ of forms. Ultimately then, it might be argued that since Plato’s ideas are flawed, Aristotle’s empiricism could be seen as a much more convincing account of reality.

By modelling this to the pupils they now have a better understanding of the level of detail which is required at A Level writing, what it really means to use ‘evaluative language’ and can clearly see that with some simple steps and additions to their introductions they will be able to improve.

My pupils are currently writing their second essay- this time on Aristotle’s theory of causation. Update to follow on the impact my ‘essay surgery’ activity had on their marks!



3 thoughts on “The New A Level RS Specification: Essay Writing

  1. Enjoyed reading this! We’ve moved from AQA to Edexcel for the new spec. looking to build up a bank of potential exam questions as there isn’t much to go on from the specimen materials. If anyone reading this can help then please tweet me @guruteaching !

    P.S. Keep up the great work!


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