Essay outlines, not plot summaries

The Writing Centre put something on Facebook today about how to organise an essay and I’d like to quote something from the link they put up:

Though there are no easy formulas for generating an outline, you can avoid one of the most common pitfalls in student papers by remembering this simple principle: the structure of an essay should not be determined by the structure of its source material. For example, an essay on an historical period should not necessarily follow the chronology of events from that period. Similarly, a well-constructed essay about a literary work does not usually progress in parallel with the plot. Your obligation is to advance your argument, not to reproduce the plot.

From “Organizing an Essay“, by Jerry Plotnik, University College Writing Centre, University of Toronto

While reading this, suddenly something about my own marks for essays in Year 12 made a whole lot more sense. How dearly I wish someone had said this to me when I was in high school!

But of course, while you may sypmathise with my regrets, you may also be wondering why I am talking about essays when this blog is about the learning of maths… Well it occurred to me that the above quote applies to the writing about anything really, including your notes about your maths course.

Some people when they study for a maths exam will start at the first lecture and proceed to write down everything they were told in the order they were told it. They make their official cheat sheet for the exam and it has headings “Lecture 1”, “Lecture 2” etc. These people invariably find that they don’t do so well in their exams, and  I never found a decent way of explaining why it doesn’t work. It’s because they are basically writing a plot summary of their lectures!

What they should be doing is writing an essay outline. In an essay, you are not just repeating what you saw, but synthesising it into new knowledge. Similarly, when you are studying a course, you should be reorganising the content into a a structure that makes logical sense, and where the connections between things are clear. This is not necessarily the same as the order it was taught in. (Indeed, sometimes you can’t teach things in this order because some things have to be learned before other things to fit with how your brain works, but the logical strucure works the other way around.) There’s no point simply repeating the things in the way you saw them– you’ve seen that already in the lectures themselves. Instead, you have to write something that shows your understanding of the content. You’re writing an essay outline, not a plot summary.

Maybe next time I see a student studying in an unhelpful way I will tell them they’re not supposed to write a plot summary, and I’ll give them an essay question instead: “Discuss the logical structure of the ideas in this course.”


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