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How to get the best marks in your essays

Writing essay-answers in Religious Studies, whether as part of an exam, coursework or just weekly assignments, is challenging. In your essays you are expected to:

• select appropriate and accurate information in order to answer the question in a full and thorough way.
• organise and communicate your answer effectively, making your answer clear and engaging.
• demonstrate sound knowledge of how scholars have responded to the issue in the past, including reference to their specific writings.
• demonstrate an understanding of different points of view and the reasons for them.
• develop your own argument, supported by reasons and evidence, and explained in relation to the arguments put forward by other scholars.
• keep within the rules of the required academic style of presentation, including the use of an accurate word-count, succinct footnotes and a full, well organised bibliography.


Watch Richard Swinburne, emeritus professor of philosophy at the University of Oxford, answer the question: "Why study the philosophy of religion?"

Examination boards, and most teachers, assess your work according to three broad attainment objectives (AOs). Work is "level-marked" - i.e. you don't get a mark for every valid point you make or lose marks for mistakes; you get marks in relation to the level you have reached in each attainment objective.

AO1 KNOWLEDGE Candidate selects appropriate information, organises and communicates it effectively and uses full-range of appropriate subject-specific vocabulary.
A02 UNDERSTANDING Candidate shows awareness of how the issue has been handled in the past, including how different points of view have emerged and been articulated.
AO3 EVALUATION Candidate is able to analyse arguments and develop their own line of argument, explained in relation to the arguments of others and supported with appropriate reasons, evidence and examples.

To earn top marks in each attainment objective, you will be expected to address all the requirements and show that you have command of the subject matter, are able to think clearly and independently and form an original and reasoned point of view. You will not get high marks for a one-sided essay which starts "I think" or for toeing the party line or just expressing a particular point of view without exploring alternative views.

The higher the level of your course the more marks will be awarded to Attainment Objectives 2 and 3. It is considered more difficult to demonstrate understanding and evaluative ability than just knowledge. For example, in England, Wales and Northern Ireland GCSE examinations award 40% for A01, 35% for AO2 and 25% for A03 wheras A2 examinations award just 40% for AO1/2 and 60% for AO3.

10 top tips for doing well in RS

1. Know the topic really well and have access to accurate and specific facts, names, quotations, terminology and so on, ideally from memory. To get you started there are handy quotes by most of the main subjects in the Student Zone, which also offers recommended Tablet articles and other websites and books for further reading.

2. Spend time planning your answer, preferably on paper.

• Consider carefully how your essay will begin – the opening paragraph sets the tone for your essay and first impressions count with examiners – how each of your middle paragraphs contribute to your answering the question and how your conclusion will argue your answer clearly, succinctly and effectively.

• Each paragraph needs to be a unit of argument, it should contain a Point, some Evidence and should then be related back to the Argument (PEA). Take, for example, this paragraph from an essay entitled "Can any version of the teleological argument be convincing after Auschwitz?"

William Paley put forward the most famous version of the teleological argument in his book Natural theology (1802) [which was required reading for all undergraduates at Cambridge University for over a century]. An argument from analogy, it asked the reader to accept that there are similarities between a watch and the universe. [POINT]

A watch has signs of order and purpose, its cogs and wheels fit together in a complex but predictable way which together serve to turn the hands of the watch and so to tell the time. For Paley the universe also has complex processes which work together in order to support life. As he put it: "Every indication of contrivance, every manifestation of design which existed in the watch exists also in the works of nature."

The argument stands or falls by the analogy. If it is held to be invalid then the a posteriori conclusion, that the universe must have a designer to explain evidence of order and purpose and this is what everybody calls God, does not stand up. Is the universe ordered and purposeful like a watch? The existence of gratuitous evil and suffering, that which cannot be explained as giving us an opportunity to learn or to better appreciate the good, suggests that the universe is at least ill-designed and, as Hume put it, that any designer might be suspected of being senile or working as part of a committee.

• The conclusion should refer back to the argument made through the body of the essay and then explain your view, stating the reasons you have for holding it, the evidence that you have found convincing and how your would respond to those with different views who might criticise you. For example, the conclusion from the same essay:

It is clear that traditional teleological arguments such as that put forward by Paley are shown to be simplistic, even crass, by the experience of the twentieth century. Nevertheless there are more subtle teleological arguments which modern believers find compelling despite a universe which seems mysterious, even malign in parts. The aesthetic argument put forward by Tennant speaks to people even in the depths of suffering – prisoners speak of the beauty of jasmine flowers and keep faith despite the logical challenge of defending God against charges of being responsible for the lime-pits. No teleological argument can conclusively rebut those like Mackie who ask why it had to be this way, why a perfect God could not have created another world better than this one. Yet proponents of 'intelligent design' today do not look to win such academic arguments. Most scholars who are engaged in the business of developing teleological arguments come from a position of pre-existing non-propositional faith, they are reformed epistemologists seeking only to show that believing is not irrational. In answer to the question it seems that teleological arguments may not be exactly convincing - but they can at least offer support to faith after Auschwitz.

3. Your work should refer to a variety of different sources (never just one textbook or website) and must specifically attribute these through footnotes and bibliography. Be very careful about this as teachers and exam boards are rightly sensitive about any copying (plagiarism) and have now got sophisticated digital tools to check whether your work is original. Any sentence which matches another sentence in a book, article, website or previously submitted coursework essay and so on without attribution will be flagged up by the computer and could mean you getting disqualified from sitting public exams. Handwritten exam-scripts and coursework essays are now routinely scanned into computers before being marked.

4. Take care with spelling, punctuation and grammar. If you must use abbreviations, write them out in full the first time (e.g. Santity of Life (henceforth SOL)). The use of fluent written English is a key skill in RS and you will lose marks either directly or indirectly for sloppy communication.

5. If this is a piece of coursework or a weekly assignment try to draft and re-draft your work. Using a computer helps. Often by re-reading an essay it becomes obvious where the balance of the argument is wrong, which paragraph is irrelevant or where more detail is needed. Practice makes perfect – having written a few good essays by drafting and redrafting eventually helps you to plan and write good essays under exam conditions.

6. Try to get used to assessing your own work. Get hold of a copy of the mark-scheme your teacher or the examiner will use and then apply it to a piece of your own work. Be honest – what are your strengths and weaknesses? How could you improve your work? You might know that better than your teacher! You might also try marking a friend's work and getting them to mark yours - this gives you access to more regular feedback than would otherwise be possible.

7. For exams, preparation is everything. You must make time to learn facts, vocabulary, scholars and quotations if you want to get the top marks. Use flash-cards or even record notes onto your iPod. Practise past exam questions under timed conditions and get used to planning your response to unseen questions in a couple of minutes. If time is short get a friend to set you three essay questions and give yourself 15 minutes to brainstorm an essay plan for each onto scrap paper. It is this process of selecting and organising information appropriately when under pressure that is most difficult to acquire.

8. Be ruthless, reflect on your own performance and set yourself some very specific targets. Don't just say "I must do well in this exam" say "I must make sure to read all the questions thoroughly before starting to write" or "I must not include irrelevant information in my answers". Tell somebody what your targets are or write them down and then, straight after the exam, at least you can celebrate meeting your targets.

9. Remember that your examiner (or teacher) is human. Nobody likes to be presented with indecipherable handwriting and nobody is really psychic. Be clear about what you mean and you will get credit – don't assume that examiners will have the time or patience to work out what you were probably referring to and give you the benefit of the doubt. If you have time, underline key terminology so that it is obvious that you have used it and that you have planned your work carefully.

10. Sometimes writing frames or guides can help when you are nervous. A good way of making sure you produced a balanced answer was to use the guide FACY - argument For, argument Against, a Christian point of view, Your view. Your teacher probably has lots of these tips relevant to the board and exam you are sitting. Remember the key word in RS is because. Never be satisfied with saying, "X thinks" or "I think"; explain why.

Check what your exam board requires

Religious Studies encompasses many different areas. Most formal courses focus on just one or two of these. Some of the most popular areas, usually offered as part of school examination courses in England, Wales, N Ireland, Scotland, Eire, Australia and New Zealand, include:

• the philosophy of religion
• ethics
• science and religion
• the study of religions (particularly Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism)
• the study of religious texts
• religion and culture

There are, of course, many other areas of study which cannot be covered here. If you are taking Religious Studies as part of an examined course and would like to find out exactly what the examination board expects you to study and how you will be assessed, please follow the links below.

In England, Wales and N Ireland

AS and A2 courses for 16-19 year old students are offered by the examination boards AQA, EdExcel, OCR, WJEC and CCEA. The specifications and sample assessment materials may be found here for AQA, here for EdExcel, here for OCR, here for WJEC and here for CCEA. GCSE courses are offered by the same boards, though there are several specifications offered by each board to cater for different religious denominations and interests.

In Scotland

A Scottish Higher course in Religious, Moral and Philosophical Studies is offered by SQA and the specification can be found here. A Scottish Standard course in is also offered by SQA and the specification can be found here.

In Eire

The State Examinations Commission offers Ordinary and Higher Level options for the Leaving Certificate in Religious Education. A sample Ordinary Level paper may be found here. A sample Higher Level paper may be found here.

In Australia

Independent schools often set their own schemes of work and assessments for Religious Education, but state boards of education typically offer studies of religion as an option for the Higher School Certificate. The specification offered by the New South Wales Board of Education, which is typical, may be found here.

In New Zealand

Independent schools set their own schemes of work and assessments for Religious Education. The NZQA offers national standards at levels 1, 2 and 3 in Religious Studies for the National Certificate of Educational Achievement which can be found here. Within Catholic Schools there is a common framework that may be adopted to structure teaching across the age-range which may be found (along with a selection of New-Zealand selected resources) here.