A “One-Essay” Exam – recalibrating students’ expectations

I know that the site has been somewhat quiet recently. All I can say is sorry. Things have been exceptionally busy of late. I’d love to have been producing more materials, but I also know that I have to find some space to not completely burn out (again…)

But one topic that has animated me somewhat in recent weeks (since the return to just ONE essay in the exam) is the idea of how to recalibrate the students’ expectations as to what level of depth and detail is required. Speaking to a few other Pol Soc teachers recently, I would say that this seems to be an issue in a few different classrooms. Some of my students now seem to think that the essay they write in June has to be about 6-8 pages with the accompanying level of detail. (i.e. twice the length and depth as before…). It was all I could do to dissuade them!

Now, I clearly am not an SEC examiner, but I have developed a mild skill in “reverse engineering” the application of SEC marking schemes over the last few years. So what might that kind of insights might that approach yield…?

One of the student questions that I struggled to answer over the years is “What does a H1 essay look like in this subject?” Well, last year I had a truly amazing student who got 99½% in the exam (full marks in every other section and 98/100 in the exam), so I now have a pretty good idea of what a “near perfect exam essay” looks like. Please note, that I’m not saying it’s a perfect essay, but rather that it’s pretty clear that it touches on all of the requirements of the exam essay marking scheme. I also say “a” near perfect essay (there’ll be lots of ways to skin that particular cat…)

I present it below (both blank and annotated with my own comments as I have done previously) NOT to say that students should learn it by heart, but rather to illustrate the ways in which the approach I suggested in a previous PASTAI CPD session in January 2022 (about addressing the “Is Ireland a Patriarchy?” question) were somewhat vindicated. Virtually all of the material that the student presented in the essay were drawn from class activities and combined with the research of her group members and herself.

98 per cent Feminism SEC Exam essay 2021 Blank

98 per cent Feminism SEC Exam essay 2021 Annotated

But more importantly, I’d suggested students look at the structure of the essay. What would I point out to them in a general sense?

  • This student took the extra time to PLAN here essay more precisely than she might otherwise have had the time to do. (Remember, 30% of the marks are for the INTRO and COHESION – i.e. structural factors)
  • It’s 4½ pages (meaning that the don’t have to just throw the kitchen sink at the question)
  • See how the student balanced her knowledge of the Key Thinkers and their Terminology with the other aspects of the essay
  • The student balanced the use of Qualitative and Quantitative evidence in different paragraphs as she felt appropriate
  • She uses credible, relevant, and recent sources at a number of different points
  • Each paragraph has a personal perspective that is appropriate to the content she has discussed.

And most importantly:

  • She always demonstrates how the evidence she provides can be framed as a direct response to the specific terms of the question asked…

I know that this is a lot to juggle in an essay, but as I always tell my students: “In Pol-Soc, it’s not what you know, it’s what you can DO with what you know.” Obviously, this must be grounded in detailed knowledge of the topics, concepts, and case studies, but then she uses that material and ‘pivots’ it to address the terms of the question.

I was delighted to see this student (who really was exceptional) get rewarded for what looks like a really insightful essay. I find that so encouraging.

It’s also worth saying that I know for a fact that not all my students engaged with the original task with the same focus and alacrity when we covered that Learning Outcome in 5th year, but at least I get to stick to my own version of the ‘Hippocratic Oath’ – Primo non Nocere – “First, do no harm”. In other words, I may not have done everything right in the classroom (I doubt I ever will), but as least I wasn’t so bad as to stop a great student achieving her potential…

Anyway, I hope the essay is useful and that it gives you and your students some insight into what the top end of the grading looks like in a “one-essay exam” (remembering that a sample size of ONE is pretty limited!)


Jerome 7/3/22

PS – I am, of course, most grateful to the student in question who was happy for me to circulate her work if I felt it would help other teachers and students. I hope it does…


2 thoughts on “A “One-Essay” Exam – recalibrating students’ expectations

  1. Hi Jerome

    Thank you so so much for the sample essay.

    My students will see from this essay that they need to put a lot more effort in to gathering and using data.

    They don’t seem to believe me when I stress how important it is to argue/discuss a topic rather than pure waffle.

    At least now they will see what other students are capable of doing and perhaps it will be a wake up call. So thanks again. It’s so much appreciated.


    O. Finnegan (HFCS)

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