This post might be a little insulting to some of you. There could be no simpler instruction than asking a student to simply respond to the question they have been set right?

Well that’s not how lecturers see it. Every year some students seem to exhibit a pathological reluctance to actually answer the essay question. It’s gotten so bad, that we’ve started including it in our marking criteria. In the UCL geography mark-scheme, it’s the 1st thing you see. When I first became a teaching assistant the first thing the module leader asked me was “Can you please get them to answer the ruddy question!”

Birmingham City University’s centre for Academic Success state the problem eloquently:

“You will never be given a title such as “Globalisation” and asked simply to write everything you know about it.”

“‘Globalisation’. Discuss.” Can you imagine how long that essay could be? Peter Dicken’s Global Shift, in its 6th edition, is thick enough to withstand a tackle from a reasonable NFL line-backer, and even that has a subtitle which gives some specificity: ‘mapping the changing contours of the world economy’.

Yet write about ‘Globalisation’ in the broad is what many students will do. They will produce lucid descriptions with exceptional analysis and original insight on various aspects of globalisation, and be mortified when they score in the 40s. Why? Because you didn’t directly respond to the question. But this is an important skill. If you work for an NGO that researches the impact of social inequality in rural Ghanaian villages, and you produce a report describing social inequality in Africa more generally, you’re of no use to them. In fact you’re fired.

In exams, markers are often more lenient, as time and pressure cause students to veer off topic. An exam was traditionally a test of your ability to recall key ideas, a way of use seeing how much you can cram into that leaky short term memory of yours. It’s ill-suited for producing academic knowledge of much worth. After all, no journal article was ever written in a cold sports hall in two hours. But in coursework, one thing you have is time, and you are rightly punished for failing to answer the question. This is where the Slow Movement can come in, and help you push yourself towards a more focused and thoughtful essay.

Strategy 1: Read the question and then ignore it.

This is a particularly useful tip for what psychologist Adam Grant calls the precrastinators among us. These are people like me, who hate to have work looming over them before a deadline. They will get it done well in advance, and hand it in 3 days before. They visibly blanch when they hear someone says they handed in work in 2 minutes before the deadline. They often suffer from rushing a piece of work too soon, rather than rushing too late.

Reading a question and ignoring it for a day or two before you start planning and writing is somewhat counter-intuitive to the idea of an efficient and productive student, particularly if you plan your time well. It’s hard to plot subconscious headspace into a busy week. But this is what ignoring an essay question requires. It might seem insane and wasteful, but it allows your brain to quietly mull over ideas, considering alternative scenarios, rejecting them, tinkering with them and ultimately arriving at more thoughtful ideas further down the line. It’s basically acknowledging that your first idea is not the most creative you will have, so if you want to score highly on coursework, this strategy can help with originality and insight, while keeping you focused on the question in hand.

I was taught this method by my friend Ken Ross in my 2nd year of undergrad. But it’s better than just a way of stimulating creativity. It can help you focus on the question by making you think about what the question is actually asking (more on this below).

I use this method all the time when trying to structure thoughts into a narrative. I’ll write my title, abstract and maybe first paragraph, take a day to do something else, and then come back and look at the shortcomings of my initial idea. It can work exactly the same for undergraduate essays: better ideas and writing might emerge later in the writing process, and a pair of fresh eyes reveals where you’ve swerved of the question response into the hinterlands of the topic.

It takes restraint and some bravery, particularly if a deadline is just around the corner. But if the precrastinators among you can wrench themselves away from the essay and on to another task for a day or two, it’ll pay dividends.

Strategy 2: LTQ

LTQ stands for ‘Link to the Question’. I put LTQ’s all over my undergraduate essays, and apply a very general formula for making them flow in the prose. A paragraph must have at least one, if not two LTQ’s. Three isn’t unheard of. The more you can remind the marker you are making a conscious effort to stay on target, the harder it is for them to not award you the marks for answering the question. When I’m marking, I look for LTQ’s for exactly the same reasons: is this person answering the question set?

So what does a LTQ look like? Well let’s stick with Ghanaian rural inequality. Suppose your question was this “To what extent have bi-lateral aid policies caused social inequality in rural Ghana?”

 Here are three LTQs I would use

·        ‘One way bi-lateral aid agreements have influenced rural Ghanaian society is…’

·        ‘We can observe changes in rural Ghanian life caused by bi-lateral aid policies through….’

·        ‘Smith et al argue bi-lateral aid agreements have radically changed rural Ghanaian life…’.

All three of these LTQs recycle parts of the question. Some people tried to avoid this, feeling it makes their writing dull, repetitive and lacking in flair. You couldn’t be more wrong. Cognitive psychologist Stephen Pinker suggests when writing is trying to explain, it should use the classic style: you know something, and someone else doesn’t. They can’t peer into your head, so your job is to organise those neuronal networks into words on a page which they can follow chronologically. Good writing does not come from elaborate rhetoric or flamboyant, jargon filled verbiage. It comes from clear, concise and thoughtful use of language that guides a reader through an argument.

What’s more, the LTQ’s don’t just remind the reader your answering the question. When you sit down to read a question, and spend the day writing, you’ll get so wrapped up in the details, examples and coherence of an argument you can very easily begin to lose sight of the bigger picture. You can spend hours perfecting a paragraph, without ever scrolling to the top of the document to see if that now-unblemished paragraph actually responds to the question you’ve been set.

An added bonus. It’s very hard to use a LTQ and scale up from rural Ghana to nebulous, abstract analysis and keep that coherent thread from snapping. You couldn’t write ‘One way bi-lateral aid agreements have influenced rural Ghanaian society is through structural adjustment policies’ and then talk about structural adjustment more broadly as a mechanism for inequality more broadly. It wouldn’t make sense. LTQ’s demand specificity, which makes them key essay tools.

Strategy 3: Think about what the question is really asking you/ criticise the question

I am indebted to Dr Matt Hall of Worcester Sixth Form College for teaching me this skill. Even as my A-level tutor, he caused many of my undergrad grades to skyrocket by suggesting I think about what a question is really asking. We could also call it being critical of the question.

Say you got this clumsy question on urban decline that I just made up:

“What, if any, are the benefits of gentrification for improving access to housing in inner cities?”  

After you have worked out how you’re going to respond (making sure you don’t just write about gentrification and inner cities) there is something else you should take some time to ponder. A niggly, bothersome little phrase that opens up a whole new world of analysis. Lesson 1 is often crucial here, because it gives you time to ruminate on the question and spot it:

“What, if any, are the benefits of gentrification for improving access to housing in inner cities?” 

If any. Two words that indicate many thousands more could be written. Think how different this question is without those two words:

“What are the benefits of gentrification for improving access to housing in inner cities?” 

Built into the ‘if any’ is an assumption that is ripe for criticism in your response. The author of this question (me) has clearly indicated some sort of bias towards the inherent negativity of gentrification for inner city housing access. They are open to the possibility of you suggesting there are no benefits for access to housing when it comes to gentrification. You, as the switched on, critical respondee, can legitimately question the premise of this assumption. Yes, access to housing for those with low incomes is greatly diminished, but perhaps access to housing is better for certain groups of people, such as wealthy professional city workers, transnational elites, or businesses who use property as investments or equity. If you do this, while using good case studies, evidence of reading, answering the question etc, you demonstrate sophistication that is at the heart of critical inquiry: being able to think about a problem differently, often called outside-the-box thinking.

It’s worth digressing here to think a little bit about how exam and coursework questions come to exist. You might think they are just written into the handbook or exam papers by module leaders. It’s not the case. Assessment questions go through an exam committee, an internal body who assess the questions module leaders write. Typically, in geography departments, questions have to address the content in the module, be wide enough to encourage students to draw on further reading, and encourage critical thought. That ‘if any’ is no accident. It’s been put there deliberately, to nudge people towards one answer that takes it for granted, and encourage the savvy to question it.

Some questions won’t have an assumption built in. They will rely on your prior reading and understanding to recognise an issue is complex, perhaps not as simple as the question is suggesting. But they are more common than you think, and can be very hard to spot. But phrases such as ‘in response to’ or ‘has led to’ reveal an assumption of causality. X happens in response to Y. That is often an assumption which is open to interpretation, maybe X is caused by Y and Z.

The danger here is you will spend too long looking for this assumption at the expense of the meat and potatoes of the essay. This approach only works if you do the groundwork and address the subject issue first in the bulk of your essay. You can’t think outside the box if you haven’t drawn the lines of the box.

So there we have it. Three simple lessons for keeping focus on the question. A stronger answer to the question doesn’t always come from more time at the computer screen. Often it requires the exact opposite, some time away to pontificate, attach your answer to the question with LTQ's and then work out what the question is assuming.