Assessment -- Some Tips

'I found out what my  main problem is last's quite a big one as well....during my weekly test i figured out that all the info is locked (literally) into my brain and won't come out in test conditions!!!!  Quite a large problem when it comes to my finals i do believe.  I don't know what to do because i know i know the info i need but can't reproduce it.... any hints or tips???' (writes Katie from the UK)

Yes...nasty one this.I have students just like this, and I don't think there is one answer. Some people find it goes away with practice, while others might need more specialist help to focus and relax ( some of my lot swear by yoga -- I find a nice ride on my motorbike or a swim just as good). Some practice stretching their memory -- drawing mind maps in lovely colours or with symbols to make them memorable, constructing little mnemomics, imagining Durkheim functioning with a biological analogy (!),or Marx  in conflict with the rest of his class --or whatever. 

.Maybe routinising the exercise a bit might help -- slow down, accept that you might make a real mess of it at first but so what, get a bit contemptuous of it all and see it as a game? Get angry even! (any motivation is a good motivation). It's early days yet -- is there that much at stake just yet? it reminds me of learning to play video games as well as my kid (no chance) -- I just had to calm down and accept I was going to fail a lot at first. Break the sequence of nasty feelings anyway - -have a break and a rest then try again later. 

Try a soothing ritual to calm you down at the start of the test. I sometimes suggest that students begin with a good read through of the paper, then a decisive choice of the best ones to answer. Then proceed with a quick plan of the answer where you write down notes on what you can remember of the 'facts', 'great men', 'perspectives' or whatever. Or you can reproduce your diagram or mind map or whatever. This can be reassuring because you can get it all down before you forget it ( a big worry for some students). Do a plan for all the answers first, before you do forget, then go back and let your memory fill in around the notes you have written.

Or cut things down into steps. Just get  your intro done. Then if that is OK just think of the main points to make. If that goes well, try to add a few examples. Then some debate and criticism. Then some sparkling insight of your own -- and there you are -- an A. I often suggest that students think of putting the main points in a list, then thinking of adding flourishes in boxes before and after the list (called 'Introduction' and 'Conclusion' if you want to be conventional). Here are some suggestions as to what to put in those boxes too -- much of this can be thought out before you go in, of course:

1: Maximise Your Grades

  1. Take a professional, technical, cool, detached, 'deep' stance towards the topics
  2. Pace yourself -- practise writing in exam conditions (e.g. sit down and seehow much you can write in an hour or whatever is the time allowed)
  3. Choose the best questions to illustrate what you know (e.g. is a general question better for you than a specific one on the topics you have revised?)
  4. Produce a consistent paper -- it is easier to get a good average overall than trying to combine an excellent answer with a poor one
  5. Try to demonstrate that you have met all the published criteria
  6. Write short plans of each answer, listing the main points and leaving space for comment (see below)
2:  A typical plan
 List of main points, authors, perspectives, studies or approaches --you summarise and 'cover', show you  'understand', critically discuss, show you can see both sides, or that you can manage complex disputes, or cut through to the heart of the  matter, follow a track from theory to empirical research, that you can reference your sources etc (or whatever your criteria ask for)

3: A Typical Introduction (one or two paragraphs)

  1. You (briefly) set the scene, explain why this is an important topic, and show how it relates to the main themes of the course or module you are taking
  2. You set an agenda -- describing how you intend to tackle this question, what the key issues really are etc
  3. You briefly summarise the main issues and debates
4: A Typical Conclusion (one or two paragraphs)
  1. You make sure you have answered the question and made a nice argument out of your answer
  2. You can summarise the main issues that have arisen for you -- the main problems of the research or the theories or whatever
  3. You make some nice mature comments on what you have written and read --e.g. which approach has worked best for you? which piece of evidence has been the most convincing? can we come down on one side or the other on balance? Note you can do this in a non-personal way if that suits you best, using phrases like 'It could be argued that...' or 'One solution might be...' or 'On balance, this perspective seems to fit X better than its rivals...' Or (more ambitiously) -- does the work need to be brought up to date (as it nearly always does)? Can you see a connection with any other issues you  have tackled on the course (e.g. same methodological problems, or same theoretical frameworks, same omissions of gender, class or ethnicity, or whatever)? Can you suggest what new research might be needed?
5: A Revision Strategy
If you know you are going to have to write a plan that conmsists of both accurate summary of the published work AND some mature and intelligent commentary in Intros and Concs, you need to revise accordingly:
  1. Take good notes from lectures AND seminars or presentations, from reading or browsing you have done AND from any discussions you have had with staff or students
  2. Practise remembering and summarising -- notes or mind maps, mnemonics etc (as above)
  3. Practise COMMENTING  too -- note your own thoughts, views and opinions as you work through other people's work (see my  tutorial for some ideas on how to do this with electronic text). Work on judgements and connections, the need to bring things up to date etc. Work on this with your friends and with staff -- eg if you are stuck for something to say in tutorials or seminars, you can always ask  how this work might be brought up to date, or how it might fit modern conditions,or, indeed, whether people think there have been any changes lately which might affect the results or arguments. Ask how the topic this week might fit with what you did last week (or the week before, or the year before). You don't have to wait for inspiration on the day of the test (unless you are an adrenalin freak like me) -- you can have all your reflections ready to go

If it still goes pear-shaped, cut your losses. Stop panicking, take a deep breath and chew a Polo. Then shrug and write whatever you can -- just the basic points, say. So OK you know you can do better -- but you're still a beginner so you can forgive yourself a bit. In the real exam, you get lots of points for that sort of answer anyway, and by that time you'll be an old

I tend to like students who find it hard at first - -they are the bright ones who can see the problems, usually. Writer's block is often a promising sign too --people know enough to know they don't know much, if you see what I mean, and that is good really. Complacency is difficult to bust -- but clever and slightly anxious people can soon scale down a bit to tackle the
rituals of testing. Anyway -- it's easy for me to say all this I know.I don't have to take the tests any more (although marking the bloody things is just as bad, believe me).

Keep in touch anyway.

'I am a first year student, and I am having a slight problem ... I am taking an introduction to sociology course and we were asked to put together a research paper on a topic concerning sociology.  My problem is... I am... having difficulty in picking a subject' (writes V from Canada).

This is very open-ended, isn't it? Can it be anything? If it must be about [your profession], you could always try something on sociological characteristics of entrants to the profession ( age, gender, ethnic origin, language community and social background of entrants), or on, say, the media images of your profession compared to the reality (e.g. you analyse some films or medical dramas on TV, describe the look of TV medics and the typical things they do, then compare with real medics etc). Or how about a nice ethnographic study of the world of the student medical professional, how they cope, where the strains are, why they drop out etc? ( you do one or two longish personal interviews and observations, keeping names out of it, record the data, write it up, keep a log of the problems in getting people to talk etc)

If it can be anything, you might find you can do some of the seminar topics I have suggested on some of my files -- especially on the Cultural Studies one or Children and the Media one (which I am still completing). If you felt really confident (difficult in a beginner I know), you might look at some of the stuff on education generally and compare that to professional  education? (e.g. look at some of the problems of assessment in my file)

Failing that, you might get hold of a Sociology textbook (like anything by G Ritzer, or as you're in Canada,  something like Synnott A (1996) Shadows: issues and social problems in Canada, Ontario: Prentice-Hall. He has chapters on juicy social problems like poverty, crime, suicide and racism, which might give you some background and some ideas.

As for structure -- I might be way off-beam here so try and find out from your actual professor (or maybe the students who did the course last year?). What I like to see is a structure that: 

  1. (a) reviews some Sociological argument of the kind you find on websites or in books, picks out the main points, looks a bit at any evidence, discusses it critically (good and bad points)
  2. (b) tries it out on something modern, recent or similar -- asks what is the state of play now (with representations of nurses in the media, or whatever), thinks up a way to research this topic (proposes a method etc).
This could be too ambitious or old-fashioned?

Now much depends on how big this thing has to be and how much time you have -- and how much detail you need too.I suppose in a real emergency what you do will depend on what material you can find (including any web material -- have you tried the excellent Dutch sociology site ('Sociosite') I recommend on my 'links' page?. Or try the British database SOSIG? Or just type in 'medical professionals' and 'sociology' into a search engine and see what you get?

Best of luck with it anyway. Get back to me if I can help any more.

 'I have to do an observational project in Sociology ... can you help me to select one?' (writes Ross from the USA)

You seem to have a nice wide scope for your project. I assume you have to do more than just report your observations, but you also have to make some sort of sociological commentary as well? Can you participant/observe? So -- you might keep a log of the problems you encountered when observing (such as whether you felt people changed their behaviour because you were there -- 'observer effects' -- or whether you got so interested in the behaviour you forgot to be objective -- 'going native'-- or lots of other things -- ethical dilemmas in observing people? Particular difficulties in observing some people? Representative samples?

The other thing to consider is how your observational project might help with other sociological work you might be doing. Are you studying any particular famous participant/observers at present? Becker? Goffman? Hammersley? If so, why not try to test out their work a bit -- try to duplicate it (not on the same scale, of course), try to bring it up to date etc.

As for your actual topic, I would be very tempted to suggest you observe other students. One topic might be to see how they relate to each other in groups (e.g. to see if there are gender differences in the ways they interact with faculty members?) Or, my favourite topic is how students actually tackle assignments -- do they take short cuts? Work in groups? Do they try to check out faculty preferences or favourite topics? There is a marvellous old study of students at Kansas Uni by Becker and others -- I mention it in my file on the Sociology of Assessment on the website.

Or something less controversial? Observing subcultures in student bodies -- are there still sporting subcultures and academic subcultures among US students? You can observe subcultures, maybe, by looking at who interacts with whom, and who chooses whom as a friend. Or some leisure activity -- playing video games? Drinking? Dating? Again, you might be looking out for classic sociological concerns like patterns of 'race', social status and gender and any effects.

If you don't fancy observing other students, try other young men as you go about your own leisure pursuits -- do you mix with non-students at all when you play sport or do your paid work? How do they manage their identities as 'men'? What props do they use, how do they socialise each other into the right sort of behaviour, what do you have to learn to be a 'proper' baseball fan, biker, pizza delivery man, Church member or whatever?

Or you could observe TV or cinema audiences to see how 'active' they actually are (again, some of my files on media might help here). Do people watch on their own or in groups? Do people talk about what they see afterwards? What kinds of things are commonly said about films -- which ones appeal? Is people's behaviour affected in any way by violent programs?

I hope these might be of some help

'dear dave, i have to do this essay for sociology and i have never done this before... [the title is]..."examine the argument that the explanation of poverty, idleness and crime lies in personal morality" Can give me some pointers on how to do do this (writes anon from the UK) 

Hi Anon,

You mustn't let any nasty Sociology tutors demoralise you like this!! I suspect that what this essay question is really asking is something more like:

'Please discuss the sociological work on poverty/idleness/crime'

I expect your tutor gave you a nice opinionated quote deliberately to encourage you to argue with it -- this is a common technique. I expect s/he wants to see how far you have got with the business of getting to grips with Sociology as opposed to 'normal' views on matters like this.

You will have encountered this Sociological work on your course so far, I expect, or you will find it in some of the books the course recommends. Most of the standard A-level texts discuss poverty  and crime -- Giddens, Bilton, Haralambos etc. Or it is possible that you might find relevant material slightly more disguised -- have you discussed concepts like 'the underclass'? Or perhaps you have discussed personal morality directly, or issues like whether sociology pays enough attention to the individual? Or even the relations between Sociology and 'common-sense'?

 Be very careful to reference your work properly, of course. Search your course documents or ask your tutors if you are not clear where to find this relevant work.

You might then try to organise these works in a way which gets points in Sociological essays -- as a debate between different notions of poverty or maybe different Sociological perspectives on poverty. In the background, I suspect, will be different definitions of poverty too, which you will notice. This work will form the main body of your essay, and I am sure you will get a reasonable mark for it, especially as it is your first time.

However, you might wish to do even better than this (and have some time to do it) and go for a good mark. My general advice is to add a few sparkly bits to a basic account, either as you go through or, especially for beginners, at the beginning and at the end. 

Thus your introductory section might pick up on the specific issue of non-Sociological accounts like the one represented by the quote. Lots of ordinary people, before they do Sociology courses, think that poverty or crime are indeed matters of personal morality -- that the poor do not want to work, or that they prefer to spend their money on booze or gambling, and having lots of kids by different fathers. This is quite a well-known view, you might say -- some politicians and other commentators like press people seem to have it, for example (and you might find some examples in the tabloid press). However, you will go on, now that you have done a bit of Sociology, you will have doubts yourself about this view --e.g. (and it all depends on what you've done on your course already)
1. You might have heard an argument that individual motives and beliefs are not good at explaining social trends and facts

2. You might even had had doubts cast on the notion of 'personal' morality, arguing that social currents or forces of various kinds affect people's morality

Again, look through your lecture notes to see if you have had any lectures on this sort of topic -- on the differences between Sociology and 'common sense', perhaps, or on why Sociology isn't Psychology (or morality), or on the concept of a 'social fact' or whatever.

This sort of introduction will then lead you to looking at what Sociologists say about poverty, crime, idleeness and its causes -- and off you go with your main body as above.

Then you might return to some comments or debates at the end of your essay in your conclusion. Again, I have made some general suggestions for conclusions in my 'study tips' file. You might want to:

1. Say which Sociological account you think is best -- or say that they are all good and that more research is needed

2. Return to your title and make a judgement -- has personal morality still got a role? Does it help explain some cases at least? Or should it be rejected as a major explanation altogether? Do people have any responsibility for their actions? (I suppose the safe answer would be to say they do have some limited responsibility).

3. Express (or even fake, as it's your first time) an insight --as a result of studying this topic you now realise the strengths and weaknesses of specifically Sociological accounts -- that there are social trends which operate unseen by individuals, or that British society is quite different from other societies (I dunno if you've done any comparative work on poverty in other countries? --if so, mention it), or that you still think Sociological accounts leave out personal morality -- or whatever. You can use careful phrases like 'It could be argued thatů' or 'One problem is thatů' if you don't want to use 'I think thatů' (some places don't like students using the first person).

Again, you will doubtless have found your lectures, seminars, tutorials and discussions with your mates awash with these sorts of asides and comments, reservations, insights, suggestions for further research, links with other topics you have studied on your course and so on. Try to note them down for later use. Try to raise additional comments like these yourself in seminars or lectures -- if a tutor asks for questions, you can always ask: 

  •  'How does this link with what we studied last week?' or 
  • 'Where would this lead in practice?' or 
  • 'What recent research is there?', or even ,when you get really confident
  • 'What does this tell us about Sociology?'

I know you may be thinking this is too much, but do have a go. Whatever grade you get for this first one, ask to discuss it with your tutor -- how can you do better next time would be a good way to raise it.

Get in touch if I can help again


'I have recently started the course and finding it wonderful and was hoping I would find some information off the net and I came across your web page. [I have an assignment on the] the nuclear family  -- is it still the norm or the ideal in modern Britain?' (writes A from the UK)

This is not really my specialism and I am a bit rusty. You can find stuff on families in standard Sociology texts such as Haralambos or Bilton or Giddens (although these are really A-level texts). You might also consider a scan through some of the journals to look for more recent pieces on things like the symmetrical family or current family practices re domestic labour (see below)?
In general You might consider including several elements in your essay:

1. Some statistics. I assume you are based in the UK? If so, you can get hold of some Government statistics on families and household arrangements in publications like 'Social Trends' or 'Annual Abstract of Statistics', and use them to show how many families in Britain are non-nuclear (i.e. not the standard mum, dad and 2.4 kids). Many are single parent, for example. Try to get some data on childless ones or on divorce rates too. You have to be a bit careful here, though, since families can become 'nuclear' again as divorcees re-marry -- but even then there are step-kids to consider.

2. Some theory. It is Parsons and other functionalists who have argued that nuclear families are especially functional in industrial societies (and Fletcher, in a very old commentary, but still a good one). Allegedly, nuclear families have replaced extended ones -- although some historians would want to argue about that too. Classic studies of the 1960s -- like Willmott and Young -- found the old extended kinship networks alive and well in working class or immigrant areas. Anyway, Parsons and the others are very pro-family, seeing them as delivering the nice warm emotional relationships we all need in nasty old impersonal industrial societies. For some critics this is too idealistic, though, and some families are clearly highly dysfunctional -- those that feature domestic violence against women or kids, for example. Here, the very closeness and intimacy of the nuclear family turns into a nightmare of tensions and emotional violence. Not surprisingly, then, some feminists have been especially sceptical about the usual views of families and have pointed to the oppression of women in them (and Engels did once in a famous piece). Young and Willmott (again) in 'The Symmetrical Family' have painted a picture of much more modern sharing families, but this is still much discussed. Some Freudians -- like Poster -- claim they are unhealthily emotional and restricted for kids, but again this is controversial, as some recent debates about child-care policies have shown.. Some 'anti-psychiatrists' of the 60s, especially Laing in his 'The Divided Self' have pointed to the terrible tensions inside some families which can pull kids in different directions and thus literally make them schizophrenic, but this work is far less fashionable than it used to be.
So -- that's how I'd handle it. Maybe conclude by saying it is hard to generalise -- some families are a refuge from anomie or alienation, but others drive people crazy. So -- we all need varieties of emotional havens beyond just the family?
Best of luck with it