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Evaluate the evidence that some children experience difficulties when learning, and discuss this in relation to two different developmental disorders (e.g., ADHD, Reading Disorder). 

Writing Essays in Child Psychology

These are general points that any good academic research essay should follow.

1. Structure: essays should make an argument: your essay should have a point and reach a conclusion, even if tentative, and you should try to convince the reader that your point is correct. This is the most important single point in writing a good essay. It will help you make it well organized, and well-written. Clarity of thought, and argument, provides the necessary basis for clear writing style. Thus, just like making a legal case in the courtroom, you follow a logical progression, using data or evidence to support each step of your argument, until you reach a logical conclusion.

The Introduction should introduce so that the reader is clear about the topic and where you are going to take them. Avoid going into detail about the content, but give a general indication of it and the elements that will make it up. Readers should be able to guess an essay title from the Introduction.

The main body of the essay should follow a logical progression so that the reader has a sense of being led through your reasoning. Avoid writing about different aspects in a random order. Write out the different aspects or sub-topics that will make up the main body on different pieces of paper. Then arrange them in the most logical order to guide you in creating a coherent line of reasoning, linking your paragraphs. Write as though for a ‘naïve’ reader – that is, someone who is not familiar with the topic. Do not write for the tutor, because you will tend to assume they already know what you are writing about! This tends to result in a very incoherent essay.

What counts as a good argument, or a solid conclusion? There is room for considerable creativity here, depending on the topic. It is easier to say what does not count as a good conclusion. For example, you should never just review a study or studies, and conclude that “more work is necessary”. More work is always necessary, and YOUR work in this essay is to reach a more substantive conclusion than that. A description of some research studies with no substantive conclusions does not make a good essay, however accurate.

2. Evidence: It is important to back up each main point that you make with evidence. Don’t just cite the study, but briefly describe its key result(s) in a sentence or two, and explain, explicitly, why this supports your point. Any statements of non-obvious fact (e.g. “toddlers engage in pretend play”, or “teachers can be attachment figures”) should be followed by a reference (even if only to a textbook).

Each claim should be cited at the appropriate place in the argument (and not repeated excessively in other less appropriate places). Avoid unnecessary study information. Don’t describe all the details of any study, only those that are relevant to the question you are addressing. But do give enough for the key studies to persuade the reader of the robustness of your point.

On the other hand, ALWAYS cite relevant data. If something is relevant to your point, you must cite it (even if it goes against your argument!). Finally, don’t say “This intervention appeared to have an effect” – either there was a recognisable effect or there was not and the study discussion or conclusion would make that clear.

3. Proof: Do not say “the researchers proved that …” Quantitative research uses statistical analysis to find out the mathematical probability or likelihood that there was an effect of their experiment or study, (e.g., a reading intervention), and not caused by other factors such as skewed sampling or varying test conditions. The likelihood may be very high but it is never certain. So in general, we say ”results indicated/showed that .. “.

4. Critical analysis: Being critical means carefully examining the factual basis for a statement. Just criticizing a study (e.g. for only looking at one age group or using a particular methodology) does not demonstrate a critical attitude. Part of psychology as a science is separating the crucial from the incidental factors, and criticizing incidentals is worse than saying nothing at all. Being overcritical about irrelevant issues is as bad as (maybe worse) than being uncritical.

So for example, using a technique that is not perfect, or using a single test age group, etc., are not valid targets of strong criticism. They may be points to be brought up in considering the implications of a study, but they are not “flaws”. Flaws include critical things left uncontrolled, poorly-described methods, incorrect hypotheses, vague research questions, elements overlooked that suggest the results presented do not show what the researchers claim they show. Thinking of alternatives that can explain the observed data in a different way is one of the most creative aspects of psychological research, and can be challenging and fun.

Avoid such tropes as “it is believed that” or “scientists believe”. Or (perhaps worse) “the general consensus seems to be…” (Science is not a popularity contest!) Say instead, “Frith (1996) {claimed (particularly if you don’t agree)/showed (particularly if you do)/suggested (if it is a hypothesis)} that x”. If it is you making the argument, just say “I suggest” (don’t say “this paper suggests”). Other useful words are ‘maintained that’, ‘proposed that’, ‘posited that’, ‘considered that’, ‘speculated that’.

5. Presentation: It makes a difference to the marker’s reading if your essay is well presented.

Use 12 point font and some spacing (1.5 is fine). Make it clear where paragraphs begin and end. A space is the clearest way rather than an indent.

In a 4000 word essay it is really helpful to the reader if there are sub-headings. It helps to make the overall structure clearer. It should also help you while you are writing.

Give the full essay title. As the marker is reading, they are checking back to see if you are answering the question so having the full title on the script helps. It should also help you while you are writing.

Keep sentence structure simple and clear (avoid run-on sentences). Avoid colloquial or informal expressions “a lot of”, “to try and see what is best”, or hyperbole (“this fabulous and amazing study”). Do not use technical terms unknown to a general reader without definition/explanation. Terms like “metarepresentation”, “phoneme” or “intentionality” have technical uses that need to be concisely defined.

6. References: The first time you refer to a set of authors, give all names unless there are six or more. E.g. “Baron-Cohen, Leslie and Frith (1983) conducted a study ” If you refer to them again, you should then give just the first author’s name and et al. “Baron-Cohen et al. further found that ….”. If there are six or more authors you can just say “Baron-Cohen et al. from the first time you refer to their paper.

Don’t cite something you haven’t read yourself directly (Sherif (1966) found that ..”. Instead say: “(Sherif (1966), as cited in Hogg et al)”. In the References list at the end, if you are citing something that you have not read yourself, give the entire reference, followed by (cited in Jones, 1978) and then give the full Jones (1978) reference just once in the alphabetical place in the References list:

Nesdale, D., & Flesser, D. (2001). Social identity and the development of children’s group attitudes, Child Development, 72, 506-517. (cited in Bennett and Sani (2004).

And then, at the appropriate place in the list:

Bennett, M., & Sani, F. (20024). The Development of the Social Self, Psychology Press, East Sussex.

A few common mistakes with scientific terms/words/abbreviations:

A. The abbreviation for et alia (which means “and others” in Latin) is et al. So you write (Jones et al., 1978). Do this only if there are two or more co-authors in addition to the primary author (so Jones and Smith 1978 is never Jones et al 1978)

B. E.g. means “for example”. I.e. means “that is”.

C. “Data” are plural. “The data are consistent with…”. The singular term, “datum” is rarely used – instead we discuss a single “data point”

D. “Criterion is” singular, “criteria are” plural (thus “the criteria are”). Same with phenomenon (singular) vs phenomena (pl).

E. Hyperbolic terms like “huge”, “amazing”, “vast” , and “incredible” and punctuation like “!” very rarely have a place in scientific writing.

F. The “work” of some scientists generally refers to their life’s work or some subset of it, and thus more than a single paper. If you want to discuss one paper, call it a “study”.

G. Replication: a study is an “attempt at replication” if they 1) use the same methods and “a replication” if they 2) get the same results. If they don’t get the same results it is a “failure to replicate”. If they don’t use the same methods (in broad outline) it is neither an attempt to replicate, nor a failure to replicate – it’s just a different study.

Do not have too many quotes. Do not have overly long quotes. If you do quote, give the reference and date + page number.

Singular possessives are formed by adding -‘s (a single girl’s book). The possessive of a regular plural (with -s) is formed by adding the apostrophe after the s: “all the girls’ books”. But irregular plurals (like person/people) just take the -‘s: “The People’s Party”; the children’s books.

Example References:

Journal Article: Fitch, W. T., & Hauser, M. D. (2004). Computational constraints on syntactic processing in a nonhuman primate. Science, 303, 377-380.

Book: Byrne, R. W. (1995). The Thinking Ape: Evolutionary Origins of Intelligence. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Book Chapter: Fitch, W. T. (2005). Computation and Cognition: Four distinctions and their implications. In A. Cutler (Ed.), Twenty-First Century Psycholinguistics: Four Cornerstones (pp. 381-400). Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum.

PLEASE NOTE – References in the text must match the REFERENCES list exactly!

A few questions on writing essay introductions

How do you start?

Background info, meaning of terms; structure of the essay; introduce the debate related to

the question; state the aims of the essay;

Do not give conclusions or full summary of essay. Do not give detail of studies; Do not say

you are going to attempt to answer!

Gap? More usually for a research study or dissertation rather than an essay.

What is the purpose of an essay introduction?

To set the scene for the reader, and let them know how you will answer the essay question –

where you are going to take them in the essay; how you will develop it. Menu or road map.

But not where they are going to get to eventually.

What are the key elements of an introduction? Explain your answer

Key – initial information for the reader – setting the scene and letting them know what will

be covered and in what order. In other words, how you plan to answer the question.

How long should it be? (eg number of paragraphs)

One or two paragraphs normally in a 3000 word essay. More than a page or so and you are

using up precious space that could be given to the main body of the assignment.

How much detail should you include? Explain your answer

Very little unless it seems crucial to the reader’s understanding of later sections.

The reader should be able to guess the title of your essay from the Introduction. If they

cannot do that, you have not been clear enough.

Key to a good essay: apply your own Theory of Mind ability. Always think about what your

reader needs to know, and in what order. Do not write for the lecturer who taught you.

Write for a ‘naïve reader’.


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