Explain and justify

Students often think that there is a ‘right’ or a ‘wrong’ approach to every aspect of an assignment. This is a thought that can often lead to intense anxiety around an assessment period.

There are, of course, many areas in which this is correct. There are things that are simply ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, depending on the context and form of the assessment. If a department insists that a student submit with Harvard-style referencing, for example, it’s good practice for them to cite in Harvard, rather than footnotes.

However, students often take these concerns to a degree that might limit the potential for going out and exploring exciting and original cases or approaches, as they feel the need to double check every detail before committing – “is it right to use China as a case study for this essay question?”, “is it suitable to use liberal intergovernmentalism as a theory in my essay?”, etc. To students that are worrying about whether their approach, case, method, is the ‘right’ one to employ in completing an assessment, I usually reply with the simple advice to ‘explain and justify’.

It might be great to use China as a case study for this essay question! It could very well be suitable to use liberal intergovernmentalism as a theory in the essay! But it is up to the student to 1) explain that they are doing it and 2) justify their decision to do that. With those two things properly done, it is likely that their decisions will pay off and create a great piece of work. If a student is finding it tricky to explain and justify their use of China as a case or liberal intergovernmentalism as a theory within the confines of the set assignment, well that might answer their own questions for them.

My enthusiasm for encouraging students to ‘explain and justify’ their choices came from reading too many essays that would simply assume that the UK would be a relevant case study on a whole range of topics. More often than not, the UK would not be introduced as a case but a couple of pages into the essay, it would crop up and be consistently mentioned. There would not be critical consideration of whether the UK was a particularly useful case for addressing the essay question, for example – something undoubtedly driven by the fact that these essays were submitted by students living and studying in the UK. 

Had these students explained and justified their choice – even whilst keeping the UK – it would have created significantly stronger work and a clearer basis for critical analysis. So, this is now something that I encourage all students to do. Yes, they can use the UK if they want to, but make sure there is an argument to be made for why it’s a worthwhile focus of study. Yes, they can also use a case or theory which is a departure from what we might usually expect but, again, they need to say why they are doing so. 

Thinking about it whilst writing this post, there’s another framing that comes to mind. Back when I was sitting my GCSE maths exams, we were always told “it’s not enough to write your answer, you also need to show your working out”. There is the same logic here – it’s not enough to only be presented with a case or a theory, we also need to see how a student worked out, for themselves, that this was the ‘right’ one for their work.

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