How to deal with examination essays…

*Update* I have now published a book that goes into this (in a lot more detail as well as other key exam, revision and essay tips) available to buy and download from Amazon and all major outlets! It’s called “How to write any essay and get a top mark!” Click this link for details:

Sarah K Tyler said: “This is such a useful book for all students of A level Religious Studies, Philosophy and Ethics. The style is student friendly and accessible, and the author brings to it his experience as a teacher and examiner. The highly practical approach is exactly what students need to negotiate the minefield of exam preparation and practice equipped with straightforward, realistic advice.”

Check out my student’s amazing comments on my Facebook page (here) for more convincing!

But, for a quick look at the system, keep reading…!

All you have to do is follow Speedl!

Ok, so you’ve got to do an exam at least once in your life, they are everywhere, from academic milestones, to driving licences to professional qualification and so on, we mostly all have to face them at some time or another, you know, we normally get something out of them, so they are worth it, sort of.

Academic ones, should really be the easiest ones you face, not because they are easy, but because there is actually a set structured way that you can use to do well. Now, you still have to have knowledge, and that requires effort and memory skills, on the part of the examinee. But, with a good amount of knowledge, and good command of that information, you just have to follow the following steps to writing a perfect examination answer, for any textual response, really, but focussed on the humanities and particularly Religious studies (or religious education), philosophy and ethics for the OCR, Edexcel and AQA and other British exam boards. It also works for politics and any question that’s a statement and/or a question about how much you know about something. There’s a more universal version of this here.

Alright, with these subjects, you’re given a question and/or a statement, on the whole. The questions are trying to test your knowledge and understanding, as in “tell me about this” and the statements are trying to test your knowledge and understanding, to some extent, but mainly your evaluation or analytical, or critical thinking skills; as in “what do you think of this statement.”  This means for AO1, which is what examiners call the knowledge and understanding skills, you need to explain. For AO2, the name for the evaluation skills, you need to show argument, and/or weighing up of things. All exam essays follow this structure, even if they use different words or mark schemes, so try to translate the below according to your own essay’s requirements. (Some exams ask for an AO3, which is normally synoptic knowledge, the linking of other bodies of knowledge to the question.)

So lets look at this more closely, using OCR’s, Edexcel’s and AQA’s Religious Studies course…

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How to get an A* at A-level!

OCR A2 & AS AO1 criteria, says something along the lines of this:

‘very good/excellent attempt to answer the question’ ‘shows understanding and engagement’ ‘high level of ability to select and deploy relevant information’ ‘correct use of technical terms’ ‘well constructed’ ‘organised’ ‘easily understood’ ‘spelling, punctuation, grammar is good’

AQA’s is:

‘thorough treatment’ ‘accurate and relevant’ ‘good understanding’ ‘appropriate evidence / examples’

Edexcel’s is:

‘coherent and well-structured account’ ‘accurate and relevant detail’ ‘identifies key important features’ ‘using evidence to explain’ ‘uses technical vocabulary’

Remember, we could swap out that OCR RS or Edexcel criteria, for any other subject or exam body and the principles would be the same; you should also see how similar they are. By law, they have to be.

This therefore means you can understand it like this:

1.You will have wide and above average knowledge = not just the textbook – you have really studied the subject deeply and widely (- the internet and “thick” books help!)

2.You will have unusual knowledge = broad sheet newspaper and scholars

.This knowledge will be clear to you – your notes are excellent – mindmaps – and you do not worry about what you do or don’t know – you know enough to answer the question in front of you and leave the reader with the feeling that what you have written is – “an excellent attempt to address the question”

4.This means (e.g. utilitarianism) you have Bentham, Mill, Singer AND another or two! You have written c. 2-4 pages (depending on your handwriting size) in the exam booklet and it is accurate and relevant.

5.Your exposition is excellent – and that means using:


Signpost Points/info Evidence Expl. Develop Link (Normally once (As many (these can be swapped (the more (back to the in intro but can as you can) around) the better) question) come a few times if needed for focus)

6. Follow the above for most paragraphs –

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For example: “What is a pen”

S – A pen is lots of different things P – The thing I am writing with is a pen E – I know it is a pen as a pen is a thin object that has ink coming out at one end when you push it on a hard and porous surface. Ex – Pens use ink to leave a mark or writing on paper D – some pens are blue, others are different colours and they can come in rollerball, ink and fountain styles. L – Therefore, this is one explanation of what a pen is.

e.g. “Explain the importance and meaning of the Greatest Happiness Principle to the theory of utilitarianism”

S –  some believe the meaning and importance of the GHP is clear and very important. P – without this principle it wouldn’t be utilitarianism. It means maximising happiness. E – Bentham, Mill and singer all include it. They mean it differently though. E – Mill and singer alter it but it’s still a foundation of the theory. D – some might say just happiness is important but without GHP and its importance to Bentham, would there be Utilitarianism?

L – Therefore it’s very important, though its meaning differ.

NB – this is a basic example to illustrate the point I am making!

For AO2 we have:


‘very good/excellent attempt’ ‘sustains an argument’ ‘understands demands of question’ ‘range of evidence’ ‘understands and has critical analysis of views’



‘well-focused, reasoned answer to issues’ ‘views clearly explained’ ‘supporting evidence and argument’ ‘critical analysis’ ‘an evaluation driven by reasoned argument’



‘evaluation of issues’ ‘careful analysis of views’ ‘clear viewpoint’ ‘supported by good evidence’ ‘reasoned argument’ ‘accurate, fluent’ ‘technical vocabulary’

This means, for AO2, use SPEEDL too but focus on – “Argument”; “range of views and showing understanding” with “critical analysis” (Does 1 + 1 = 2?); and “an evaluation/conclusion” that is supported by the whole or at least half of the essay.

You should see if you think about it, that to any question that is like “What do you think of this?” there is always, 3 answers, yes/no/maybe. Even if we mean “I like it, I agree, I think it is good,” these are really yes’s; and vica versa are no’s. You can either then answer as three blocks, “yes, Hume’s claims about miracles are strong for these reasons blah blah blah;” then “no, Hume’s claims are not strong…blah blah blah,” followed by “Perhaps, his claims are in between, semi convincing…blah blah blah” ending with a conclusion either way on what you think, finally, about the claim in the question.

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Alternatively, and more sophisticatedly, you could answer as a table tennis match, knocking fors, and againsts, back and forth. This is preferred, but it is harder to do. A good trick is to use the textbook, philosophers and scholars, as your voice, so you have a potential of four voices, saying yes and no, back and forth. For example, “Can anything be good?”:

“Aquinas, says that good is what is natural, and he looks to natural laws to explain what is good. On the other hand, Ayer’s version of emotivism suggests that what is good is only an emotional preference by biological entities, so perhaps nothing can be good. alternatively Brandt argues against emotivism and suggest moral statements like “good”  are factual. One could argue that there can be such a thing as “good” as there are more theories and people saying there is than there isn’t.”  Ok, it’s a bit crude, but I hope you get the idea.

Other key things!

You must answer the question – don’t go off track – the best answers will question the question a little or at least be aware of the context of the question – why is it an important question? Give LOTS of detail – names, development – scholars and detail gets the examiner excited! NOT GCSE! Only matters if Kant took a walk every day if it helps in your question and everything you put down is focussed on the question – do not list or show off your knowledge. Use lots of keywords, sophisticated words, good use of grammar, and english and punctuation. You need to write fast and a lot! To add to what you have written, think about alternatives (or even criticisms) to what you have just said – but for AO1 keep this to informative and not argumentative. Define your terms – be clear with the reader and yourself about how you will answer the question help the examiner give you marks – make it easy for them to see you are an A* student!

Keep intros and conclusions short and snappy and repeat the words of the question in the introduction and conclusion.

Check out our other articles in the menu for more information!