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Essay questions

An essay is usually based on a question. The first thing to be said about essay questions is that they do not usually have any simple and straightforward answer to them. In this way, they are not like the types of questions you will see on an exam eg. in multiple choice or short answer questions.

For example, the following factual question might appear as a question on an exam.

What is social networking?             (Sample short answer question)

To answer this question, you would just need to outline the basic features of social networking, drawing on the type of information you would find in a textbook, or which is presented in the lectures.

Essay questions, in contrast, have no simple answer, like the following question on a related topic.

Has social networking improved the quality of relationships in society?  (Sample essay question)

To answer this question you need to exercise your own judgment, and provide what YOU think is the best answer to the question. The answer you present in an essay is what we call YOUR ARGUMENT.


Question: Have a look at an essay question you need to complete this semester/study period What is the judgment you need to make about this topic? 

What does an ARGUMENT look like?

In an essay it is important to present a clear ARGUMENT. Let’s think about possible answers to the ‘social networking ‘essay question above.  The following are two possible responses:

NO! Social networking has had a terrible effect on the quality of relationships

YES! Social networking has had a fantastically good effect on the quality of relationships

These ARGUMENTS represent more extreme positions, and while it is possible to argue either position, there would be a good deal of pressure placed on you to justify and support such a strong claim.

The more conventional way to go is to consider both sides of the issue. This however, does not mean you should go straight for the middle, intermediate position; that is to argue something along the following lines.

Social networking has had both positive and negative effects on the quality of relationships

This example is a bit of YES and NO option, and while it is possible to argue it, your lecturer may criticise you for going for the easy, ‘sitting on the fence’ option.

The better academic arguments are ones that consider both sides of an issue, but ultimately make some commitment either way. Such arguments are often structured around connective words like whilealthough, however, such as the following:

WHILE social networking has had a number of positive effects on the quality of relationships in society, these are outweighed by the problems that this new technology has brought.

ALTHOUGH there are certainly some problems associated with social networking, on balance this technology has done much to improve the way that people relate to each other.  

These are just two of the arguments you could run. There may be other ways you could take the topic.  In the first example below, the ARGUMENT is focused on different ‘phases’ of social networking; in the second example, the focus is ion different ‘uses’.

In its early phases social networking clearly had a positive effect on social relationships. HOWEVER, in its more recent developments, particularly with its increased commercialisation, it is difficult to see any positive influence.

Some specialised uses of social networking have been most beneficial to people. HOWEVER the more common uses seem to have led to a deterioration in the quality of relationships.


Question: For the essay question you are working on what would be some possible arguments/ answers to the question?

How do I develop an ARGUMENT?

We do not want to suggest from the explanation above, that you just look at the question and then decide what your position will be. This would be violating a major principle of essay writing – which is that it is always based on wide and critical reading (see Table 1 above). It is through your reading on the topic that your argument will develop and begin to take shape. That is to say, in the case of the social networking question, you will look at research that has been done on this topic, and also read the ideas and views of some leading scholars in the field. It is your engagement with this material that will help you to develop the ARGUMENT you wish to present.

Some students however, find it useful to begin their research by adopting a PROVISIONAL position on the issue. This is the position that you intuitively have when you read the question. So for the social networking question, you may begin by taking for example, a generally pessimistic view of the effects of this phenomenon. This is in effect your hypothesis: that social networking has generally had a harmful effect on social relationships. Equally, though you could adopt the more ‘positive’ position.

It will be in the process of reading and thinking about material that you will decide what your final position will be. It is important when you come to writing and structuring your work that you have made some commitment to the ARGUMENT you wish to present.


Question: For the essay question you have chosen what would be a provisional argument?

How do I STRUCTURE an essay?

The conventional structure of an essay is usually given as:




List of references

On its own, this doesn’t tell us very much. We know we have to begin an essay with an introduction and finish with a conclusion (and also provide a list of the references we have used). The challenging part is developing a structure for the main part of the essay – the body.

It is important that whatever STRUCTURE you develop for your body, it is one that is going to allow your ARGUMENT to come through.

Imagine for example that you wish to present the following argument in your essay, one which is focused on the negative aspects of social networking:

WHILE social networking has had a number of positive effects on the quality of relationships in society, these are outweighed by the problems that this new technology has brought.

A possible structure for this work would be as follows:


Background to social networking

Positive effects on social relations

        Positive effect #1

        Positive effect #2

Negative effects on social relations

        Negative effect #1

        Negative effect #2

        Negative effect #3

        Negative effect #4


List of references

This essay structure would clearly be appropriate for the negative argument to be adopted. We can see in such a plan there is a clear outweighing of negatives over the positives. If you were to adopt the view that social networking has mainly led to improvements, then the ‘balance’ in the plan would need to be tipped the other way.

Among other things, a clear essay plan can keep you on track with the number of words you need to write. If for example you needed to write an essay of 2,000 words, you could work out some approximate allocation of words as follows: 

Introduction                                               100 words

Background to social networking              200

Positive effects on social relations           400-500

        Positive effect #1

        Positive effect #2

Negative effects on social relations         900-1000

        Negative effect #1

        Negative effect #2

        Negative effect #3

        Negative effect #4

Conclusion                                                      100

List of references*

*Not included in word count


Question: What is a possible structure for the essay you intend to write? How many words (approximately) might you devote to each section?

How do I REFERENCE material in my essay?

As mentioned above, your essay needs to be based on wide reading of sources, and your argument needs to be supported by relevant research, and evidence from these sources.  To do this you need to properly reference these materials in your work. This is done through the practice of citation.

At  Swinburne, we use the Harvard (or Author-date system) system of referencing. This requires that you include details about the author and date (and optionally the page no) in the text of your essay, and then provide full information about the publication in a separate list of references at the end.

The following are two examples of citations that could be found in the ‘social networking’ essay:

Nowadays as many as 43% of America teens report experiencing some form of cyber bullying (Patchin, 2008).

Nie (2005) explains that time spent on the internet actually ‘displaces’ time spent socialising, particularly with family.

 You will notice that these citations take slightly different forms. In the first one, the citation (author –date) appears at the end of the sentence. In the second example the author is present at the beginning of the sentence.

Thus the two citations have the following forms:

Type 1           Information …….. (author, date).
Type 2        Author (date) …. information.

Both of these are acceptable forms, and you are encouraged to use both in your essays. Type 1 citations (information-prominent) are used when the focus is more on the actual information itself. Type 2 citations (author-prominent) are used when the focus is more on the ideas, opinions etc of a particular writer.

At the end of your essay you need to present all the publication details of these texts in a separate list of references. Thus, for the citations above the entries would be as follows:


Nie, N 2005, ‘Researchers link use of Internet, social isolation’, Stanford Report, 23 February 2005, viewed 10 March 2011 < http://news.stanford.edu/news/2005/february23/internet-022305.html >

Patchin, J. W. 2008. Cyberbullying: An Exploratory Analysis of Factors Related to Offending and Victimization. Deviant Behavior, 29(2), 129–156.

For full details about referencing your essay, you should consult the Harvard Style Guide provided by Swinburne:

A SAMPLE essay on the ‘social networking’ topic

©Language and Learning Lab, FHEL, Swinburne

If you’re in a profession where you see presentations on a regular basis, you’ve probably heard all the hate-talk directed at Microsoft PowerPoint. The hatred runs deep. On a list of hated design-ish things, it fights for first place with the typeface Comic Sans. In fact, it has become so uncool to use PowerPoint that simply using a different program (like Prezi or SlideRocket or Slidshare) has seemed to make presenters suddenly be cool again. For a moment, anyway.

Truth is, though, PowerPoint isn’t the problem. If a presentation sucks, and the PowerPoint that the presenter is using sucks, the problem isn’t the presentation software. It’s the presentation design. And simply switching content to a different platform (making it annoyingly zoom in and out in a Prezi) won’t make the presentation any better. In fact, it often makes it worse.

If you’ve got a presentation coming up, you might take a moment to rethink what you’ve been doing with PowerPoint. Don’t be afraid to use PowerPoint; just use it well. 🙂 Here are five quick tricks to make your PowerPoint work:

Quick Trick #1: Use a Solid, Plain Background
If you’ve got content that you want your audience to see, then don’t distract them with the background. Think about all the websites you like to look at. Most of them will have very simple, very plain backgrounds. And think about books! Pretty much all books that are meant to be read have solid white backgrounds. There is nothing wrong with a plain white or plain black background. And, in fact, it is almost always recommended for presentations. Note: if you are presenting in a bright, well-lit room, a white background with black text is best. If you are presenting in a dark, low-light room, then use a black background with white text. Oh, and avoid the cheesy, cliche templates. You don’t want do have the same exact design as the guy presenting right after you, do you?

Quick Trick #2: Have Far More Pictures and Graphics than Text
You’ve probably heard numerous people (yourself included) say: “I’m a visual learner.” There’s plenty of research to suggest that most of us are. In fact, there is a design theory called the “Picture Superiority Effect” that suggests people are able to recall significantly more information (up to 80% in some cases) when a picture is used to communicate instead of text. Most of us claim to know this; why, then, do so many people STILL use so much text on PowerPoints? Avoid the temptation. Even bulleted lists are annoying. Think about it: when you see text on a PowerPoint, do you try to read it all? Or do you read the title, and then zone out? One of the big problems with text on the screen is that the audience will try to read it, then try to listen to you, then try to read, etc. The back-and-forth makes it difficult to understand, since most people can’t read and listen at the same time but you’re visually telling them to do so. It’s okay to use only an image on a slide. And if you are talking about something that doesn’t have a good picture to go with it, use a blank slide. Yes, this is okay! The audience will then focus on you while you’re saying something important.

Quick Trick #3: Pick a Good Color Scheme
You really shouldn’t ever use more than four colors to dominate any document. PowerPoints are no different, but if the only thing you color are headings, text, and a rule or shape, you’ll want even fewer than that. But whether you use two or five, you’ll want them to match (and don’t just try to eyeball it!) One of the best websites out there for getting good color schemes is kuler.adobe.com. Remember the mood of your content, too. Color has a psychology to it, and some colors shouldn’t be used for certain purposes. A general rule is that bright, saturated colors are used for children and for exciting, happy topics; desaturated, bright colors are used for friendly and professional settings; desaturated, dark colors are for serious and professional settings. And, just to be clear: never do light colors on light colors (yellow on white) or dark on dark (blue on black). And NEVER do blue on red or vice versa!!!

Quick Trick #4: Use Repetitive Elements
To make your PowerPoint look professional, you’ll want to tie your entire PowerPoint in, as a cohesive document. One really effective way to do this is to use repetitive design elements. Think of an icon that represents your theme. Tell an anecdote at the beginning of your presentation (maybe about a tree or something) and then use an icon of a tree in the bottom corner of every slide. Something. Also, keep your typefaces repetitive. All headings should be in the same place and the same size. And they should be the same font. You won’t want to use more than two typefaces for the entire presentation, keeping the document consistent.

Quick Trick #5: Be Creative, But Don’t Go Crazy
One enormous pitfall with PowerPoint is using too many animations or crazy effects. See this great (and funny) video for where you could go wrong. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t use visual effects for some purposes. One way to really impress an audience is to have visuals coincide with your speaking (as you say stuff, make the graphics and text appear in sync, for example). Making PowerPoint do interesting things takes a bit of time, but it can have a powerful effect if done right. And the audience may even come up to you afterwards and say, “What program did you make that with!?” (That’s a good compliment when using PowerPoint, by the way, so shoot for it!) There’s actually a lot of functionality in PowerPoint if you think creatively about its options. You might take a few minutes to review this PowerPoint for some ideas. To get the full effect, though, you’ll need to wait several minutes on each slide, since it is synced with a presentation script. If you just wait on the title slide and slide 2, you’ll get some interesting insight on how to sync text. Of course, you don’t always want to go crazy with these kinds of effects, but be aware that, at times, they can really make your PowerPoint pop.


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