Glasgow University Essay Writing Guidelines

Sitting a Philosophy Exam

Advice from Adam Rieger:

1.  Aim for clarity.  Do not try to be flowery, or literary, or sophisticated.  Never worry that what you are writing seems too simple.  Reason in small steps.

2.  Answer the question.  Maybe you have a prepared answer on the topic, but you must show how what you are writing is relevant to the question as actually posed.  Read the question carefully.

 3.  Justify your claims.  In philosophy you are not generally judged on whether or not what you say is true.  (There's not enough agreement to make this practical.)  Rather you are judged on how well you argue for whatever you do say.  So never worry that what you say is controversial,  disagrees with the lecturer, etc.  But make sure that you have reasons for your conclusions, and state them as clearly as possible.

4.  Be honest.  Very often you'll be defending some position, and you'll know there's a strong objection to it.  Don't be afraid of explaining the objection, even if you're not sure you have a decisive answer to it.  Doing philosophy is not like arguing a case in a law court.  It's better to be honest, rather than merely assembling what looks like the strongest possible case for one side by omitting all the awkward arguments.

 5.  Show you've done some work.  It's a very good idea to make it clear that you've been attending the lectures and/or doing some of the recommended reading.  Demonstrate that you've understood the main ideas presented in the course.  Launching off with your own ideas is dangerous as (i) the ideas may not be as good as you think (it's not easy to produce good original philosophy under exam conditions) and (ii) even if what you produce is actually brilliant, it's possible the examiner (who may be tired,  and will have a lot of scripts to mark) won't realise.  (The examiner is more likely to have a high opinion of your own ideas if you've already won his/her confidence by a clear exposition of some of the standard views on the topic.)

Having said that,  you should not be reluctant to use any original arguments or ideas which occur to you.  You will get credit for any original thought, but it's not necessary to be original to get a good mark, and you shouldn't strive for originality for its own sake.

6. Don't be too superficial.  Sometimes there will be many arguments you want to consider: in a short essay you are probably better off treating a small number in some depth, rather than giving a very brief account of all of them.

7. Revise carefully.  Here’s a suggestion for how to revise: make summaries of the courses, as concisely as possible, which do this: (i) define the main ideas and (ii) give the main arguments for and against each position.

Further advice from David Bain can be found here.

Q: I have been accused of plagiarism. What will happen?

A: If you are a non-Honours undergraduate student and this is the first allegation against you, you will normally be asked to meet with your Head of School or his/her nominee to discuss the matter. You will receive a copy of your work with the suspected plagiarism highlighted, together with the original source of the work. You will be able to take a supporter with you to the meeting and you will be asked to explain what has happened, and to advise of any extenuating circumstances. Someone from the School will be present to take notes. The Head of School will decide whether plagiarism has occurred and, if so, what the penalty will be. You will be told of the outcome at the meeting and will receive it in writing within a week. Possible penalties might be a reduction in your mark, or a Grade H for the work. The Head of School will decide whether or not a resubmission will be allowed.

If you are an Honours or postgraduate student, or you have been found guilty of plagiarism on a previous occasion, the same procedure will apply but the meeting will be with two Senate Assessors for Student Conduct and a member of the Senate Office will take notes.

Possible penalties you might receive include a reprimand (or severe reprimand), a grade reduction, a grade of H, capping or withdrawal of a resubmission opportunity, or refusal of credit.

Regardless of whether you are interviewed within the School or by the Senate Assessors, you will have the right to appeal against the penalty and your letter will explain how to do this and on what grounds you may appeal.

We strongly encourage you to seek advice and support from the Students’ Representative Council as soon as you are notified about an alleged offence. The SRC advisors have a good deal of experience in dealing with such cases.


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