This exercise may help your students think about what counts as a good essay and why.

Consider the following essay title (you don’t need to know anything about the topic of the essay to make sense of this exercise):

“Voluntary euthanasia is morally unacceptable and should never be practiced under any circumstances. Critically discuss.”

Suppose three students write three different essays on this topic:

  • Anna agrees entirely with the statement. She uses the doctrine of the sanctity of life to argue in favor of the statement.
  • Billy disagrees entirely with the statement. He makes use of autonomy and individual liberty to argue that voluntary euthanasia should be available to anyone who asks for it.
  • Carmen cannot come to a conclusion. She presents arguments both for and against the claim, rejecting the ones that are not convincing, but on balance there is no clear conclusion as the reasons for and against are evenly weighed.

One student gets a First for their essay and one fails, can you tell which one is which? Which criteria would you use to make your decision? Are any of these criteria any good?

  • The First is the essay which agrees with the tutor’s views
  • The First is the essay which agrees with the essay title
  • The First is the essay which agrees with the literature on this topic
  • The First is the essay which disagrees with the title
  • The First is the essay which presents all points of view

STOP and think about your answer. The text in italics below gives you the rationale behind the exercise, so don’t read it until you have had a chance to think about the questions.

The answer is that with this amount of information you cannot really know what marks each essay deserves. Any one of them could be a First any one of them could be a fail. None of these criteria are any good. We are not looking for students to repeat the tutor’s views; we want students to have their own views. Equally we are not looking for students who set out to agree with the essay title no matter what. Although we want the students to be aware of relevant literature we don’t want them to simply reproduce it. When it comes to these controversial topics there are all sorts of views in the literature, we need the students to be well informed and critical of these views. Ethics is not about being willfully contrary; we don’t expect students to disagree with the essay title just for the sake of it. Introducing opposing points of view is a technique for developing the discussion and probing deeper into arguments, it’s not an exercise in itself. We don’t expect students to disagree with views just for the sake of it. Criterion E is a tricky one. You may find you like this one and in one sense you are not wrong. A really good essay could be one that presents all points of view, but not all good essays will do so. All students should be aware of alternative positions and arguments, but the focus of the essay can be up to individual students. If a student has a strong view one way or another, he can focus on developing it to the exclusion of some of the other ideas on the topic. Equally it is a mistake merely to present a lot of views without assessing them and to conclude that it is difficult to come to an answer. In general, when presenting one view to the exclusion of others, you must be careful to address possible objections and show awareness of problems raised by alternative views, whereas when presenting an overview you must be careful to provide an in-depth, critical discussion rather than a superficial account of all views.

OK, so we haven’t gotten very far. Let’s look at the problem a different way. We have the same three student and the same three essays, but here is a different description of their work:

  • The first student (you don’t know who that is yet) wrote a fairly well informed essay, showing some awareness of relevant issues, writings by philosophers and links to the host discipline. The essay is well structured and on the whole clearly written. There are a small number of confusions and unclarities. On the whole, the student has tried to take a critical approach and evaluate different ideas and theories but hasn’t shown much evidence of original thinking.
  • The second student’s essay is quite confused. The structure is unclear, jumping from one point to the next without coming to any conclusion. Ideas are introduced without showing why they are relevant to the essay and there are some serious misunderstanding of the works the student has read. Much of the essay becomes distracted and the discussion is not really relevant to the essay question. There is no attempt to critically engage with the materials, rather there is a lot of description of other people’s views full of misunderstandings and confusion.
  • The third student’s essay is well structured and clearly written. The aim of the essay is clearly stated and rigorously developed and argued for through out. The essay is well informed and makes good use of these ideas as and when appropriate. The student has engaged with the material, thought about these ideas and come up with relevant critical comments. The essay also displays some evidence of independent and original thinking.

You don’t yet know who these students are (don’t assume Anna is the first, etc.), but can you now tell from this description which essay was awarded a First and which a fail? Who is the third student? Could it be Anna? Could it be Billy? Could it be Carmen?

STOP and think about your answer. The text in italics below gives you the rationale behind the exercise, so don’t read it until you have had a chance to think about the questions.

Of course it could be any of the three students. Their approach to the essay as such, i.e. whether they are against or for the title, cannot tell us anything about the quality of the essay. Any one of the three could write a well informed, well presented, critical piece. What we are looking for in a good essay are characteristics which can be displayed when arguing for any point of view; i.e. clarity of expression, ability to summarize, present and analyze the views of others, a critical approach to arguments, original thinking, etc. So, in a sense there is no right answer, i.e. your tutor is not looking for you to defend euthanasia, or agree with her point of view, but every good essay will share in the same characteristics: clarity of thought, good structure, awareness of other views, critical approach, independent thinking, etc.

This exercise was first developed for the “Introduction to Ethical Thinking” resource for the IDEA CETL, University of Leeds