OCR Religious Studies A level Essay Structure
Essay structure is very important in OCR as your exams will be completely assessed by essay questions.
The most important thing to say about essay structure is that there are many different types of essay structure that work. As a tutor I’ve seen loads of different types that my student’s teachers have taught them and as an examiner I’ve seen even more.
Ultimately all an essay needs is detailed AO1 explanation/understanding and coherently developed AO2 evaluation/analysis. It needs to detail multiple points of view and come to a reasoned conclusion about which is successful. That’s all an essay needs. How exactly that content is arranged is therefore not the most important thing compared to making sure it is there.
However, there are two essay structures that I think are the best because they really force you to include coherently developed AO2 evaluation and they also work well with structured revision.
Before we get to that you need to understand the difference between general and particular essay questions.
General vs particular essay questions
Some essay questions are general and some are particular.
General questions ask a question about the overall topic.
Particular questions focus on a part of the topic.
Example from the Plato topic:
General: Critically assess how we can best make sense of reality.
Particular: Assess Plato’s theory of forms’.
Example from the Teleological/design argument topic:
General: Does the universe show evidence of design?
Particular: Critically assess Hume’s objections to the design argument
The importance of identifying particular essay questions for AO1 and AO2 marks
The most important thing to understand about this is that for particular questions, you can only get AO1 marks for whatever particular scholar/argument/theory/approach the question is asking you to evaluate.
So, in the Plato question example, you could only get AO1 marks for your explanation of Plato. You absolutely can bring in Aristotle to that essay if you want, but you can only get AO2 marks for that. This is because Aristotle can only be useful to a particular question on Plato to help you evaluate Plato.
This is vitally important. If you do not do well in your AO1 marks, you are limited in the AO2 marks you can get.
For example in the 2022 Philosophy paper there was a particular question on Aquinas’ 5th way. Students who didn’t remember Aquinas’ 5th way properly and quickly moved on to Paley who they understood better would have done badly. They could have written a really amazing essay on Paley and even included really amazing evaluations of the design argument, but without properly explaining Aquinas’ 5th way their AO2 marks would have been severely limited.
Ethics questions are often particular. A question asking you to evaluate Natural Law ethics clearly requires that you explain natural law. The question might have a focus like telos, the four tiers of law or the double effect, and you would have to explain that in detail too. But those are things you should be including in an AO1 explanation of Natural Law anyway!
So, it is vital that you can identify a particular question so you can make sure to get the AO1 explanation of whatever the question is about in as much detail as you can into your essay.
Then the question is where this AO1 knowledge should go in your essay.
If the essay question picks out a particular sub-topic that it wants you to evaluate, then paragraph 1 must start with that topic.
For example, if the question is on religious experience and asks you to evaluate William James, you could bring up other thinkers like Otto and do a paragraph on him, but for it to be relevant to the question you would need to bring him up for the purpose of evaluating James. The purpose would be to see whether Otto’s approach is better or worse than James’. This can only be properly done if you have already explained James’ approach.
I will now explain the two types of essay structures I recommend and then explain what AO2 evaluation requires.
Essay structure type one: split essay
AO1 & AO2 are split into different paragraphs.
This type of essay plan splits up the AO1 and AO2. Paragraph one is just completely pure AO1. The aim is to get all the detailed knowledge you need for your essay completed in paragraph 1. This is simple because you don’t have the unnecessary burden of thinking about how to break up the AO1 into different parts to start each paragraph with.
Both paragraphs 2 and 3 can then be pure AO2 evaluation.
Paragraph 1: pure AO1 explanation.
Paragraph 2: AO2 evaluation.
Paragraph 3: AO2 evaluation.
You can begin paragraphs 2 and 3 with AO2 criticisms, whether stand-alone or from scholars or scholarly views who disagree with whatever particular AO1 scholar/theory/argument/perecptive was in the question. Those paragraphs can then be developed with back-and-forth defences, counter-defences, etc.
This type of structure works well for particular questions because you can just get the important AO1 out of the way and then focus on evaluation.
Applied ethics questions are also easier to do with this structure. You get the AO1 explanation of the ethical theory and the application of it to the ethical issue(s) out of the way before then evaluating that theory’s application (sometimes by critically comparing it to another theory’s application) in paragraphs 2 and 3.
Essay structure type two: integrated essay
AO1 & AO2 are integrated into all paragraphs.
This type involves putting AO1 and AO2 in the same paragraph. Each paragraph, or at least the first two, will include AO1 and AO2.
Paragraph 1: AO1 explanation and then AO2 evaluation.
Paragraph 2: AO1 explanation and then AO2 evaluation.
Paragraph 3: AO1 explanation and then AO2 evaluation.
This type of structure works well for general questions. For example, if you have a general question on the soul topic, e.g. “Does the soul exist?”  you could do:
Paragraph 1: AO1: Plato’s views on the soul and AO2: criticism of Plato.
Paragraph 2: AO1: Aristotle’s views on the soul and AO2: criticism of Aristotle.
Paragraph 3: AO1: Dawkins’ views on the soul and AO2: criticism of Dawkins.
AO2 evaluation requires:
Now that we’ve gone over the types of essays you could do, here are some general comments about AO2 evaluation that pply whatever structure you decide to use.
AO2 evaluation requires starting with a strength or a weakness/criticism or an opposing perspective/scholar/scholarly view to whatever view you explained for AO1. Your AO1 will be either in the first paragraph if doing a split essay structure, or at the start of the paragraph if doing an integrated essay structure.
The first sentence of your AO2 is extremely important. It must link to the question. It needs to have with clear evaluative language and introduce both the evaluation point and its relevance to the question.
You will then have given two sides to a debate. It is optional but you could continue to go back and forth. Regardless of whether you do that or not, you then need to end the evaluation with your reasoned judgement as to which side of the debate is right and why. This will involve either:
- Arguing that the previous criticism is successful.
- Offering a defence against the previous criticism to show why it is actually unsuccessful.
It’s often easier and better to do the second option – defending against a criticism – since you can just learn a defence off by heart beforehand and then just plug it in.
It is good to begin the part where you offer your judgement with the phrase “X argument is un/successful because…”.
Then link back to the question using the language of the question and the paragraph is finished.
Introductions are not super important for getting marks but should be there and this is a good recipe to follow for structuring them. Ideally one or at most two sentences for each of these points in this order:
- What the general topic is about (and why it matters)
- What the question is asking about within that topic
- Who is on either side of the debate of the essay question
- What you are going to argue and why.
Sum up the evaluative judgements you reached throughout your essay and explain the overall conclusion that follows from them.
Whenever using a scholar/perspective/theory for evaluation, whether for a criticism or defence or counter-defence, etc, you then have to avoid juxtaposition. Juxtaposition is when you put two things next to each other. It’s basically like saying “Here’s a view on the question, and here’s an opposing view”. That is not yet evaluation. Evaluation is when you say which side is right and why.
It doesn’t matter how much back and forth you do in your evaluation, whether it’s simply a view on the question and one criticism or a longer chain, the crucial thing is to avoid juxtaposition; avoid ending the evaluation by stating what a scholar’s views are, even if those views are that the original view is wrong. You need to end your evaluation with your judgement on the success/failure of a theory/perspective/scholar’s views, having given a good reason for that judgement.
Evaluation = who is right, and why?
Make sure your evaluative mini-conclusions at the end of each paragraph which link back to the question fit your final conclusion
Always end a paragraph in a way that fits your conclusion. Your intro should say what your concluding answer to the question is going to be. It’s incoherent for you to conclude one side of the debate is correct if you have a paragraph which ends on a criticism of that side. This is because just leaving it like that makes it look like you don’t have an answer to it, which means you haven’t managed to justify your conclusion. However, it is acceptable to conclude a side is correct even if you end a paragraph with the evaluation that one of the points in support of it fails, so long as when ending the paragraph in the link back to the question you make clear that it’s not an essential point. For example, you could agree with Hume that the teleological/design argument fails, even if in one of your paragraphs you end up evaluating that one of his criticisms of it actually fails. So long as he has at least one criticism which you evaluate as successful, then the design argument fails (if that is indeed what the criticism shows).
Linking back to the question is not as simple as it seems. To get the best marks, it’s often not enough simply to end a paragraph with “therefore this side of the question is true/false”. Often, the final AO2 evaluative point you made to end the paragraph doesn’t exactly say that. It’s important that you notice exactly how your evaluative point is helping to justify your conclusion. For example:
It may be that you have merely undermined one of the arguments for one side of a debate, rather than completely proven the other side. For example, imagine the question is “does the soul exist?” and you spend a paragraph evaluating Plato and decide his arguments for the soul fail. It would be wrong of you to link back to the question by saying “Therefore, the soul does not exist”. Really, what your paragraph has actually shown in a deeper more precise sense is “Therefore, Plato’s argument for the soul fails”. If you evaluate all the arguments for the soul as false and the arguments against the soul as true, then in your final conclusion you would be justified in claiming that we have best reason to believe that the soul does not exist.