Dude, here’s how to get fizzle in your conclusion?

For students in ancient history, generic writing advice is insufficient. Advice about structure, such as, say what you are going to say, say it, then say what you have said, or acronyms, such as PEEL (Point Example Elaboration Link) emphasize repetition and connecting ideas. They aren’t much help to students needing to evaluate historical figures and events. What else can teachers do to help?

In our study (part of an ARC funded research project, we want to help ancient history students with writing for exams. The extended responses are daunting and high-stakes in terms of marks that contribute to the overall exam grade. In our data set, drawn from a lower Index of Community Socio-educational Advantage (ICSEA) in Western Sydney, we found that students struggled with writing conclusions and tended to just fizzle out – as if there was nothing new to say. In our data set, one-line conclusions were common, such as:

Extract 1
Despite his achievements to unify China he should still be considered a cruel king.

Flunking the conclusion section and getting confused about where and how to evaluate a historical figure makes it very hard for students to achieve higher grades. 

To tackle this issue, our study investigates how Yr 12 ancient history students can successfully write a discussion in which they evaluate historical figures, like Emperor Qin. While students could critique behaviour, like saying the Emperor was cruel, they often didn’t know how to gradually build towards a standpoint where values are connected to historical concepts. In ancient history, these concepts include collections of values that are abstractly packaged as ~isms, such as individualism, collectivism, socialism, democracy, etc. This means students need to express values (cruel, powerful, successful, etc) as a connection point for saying something broader about historical concepts, like the ~isms of history.

How to evaluate Emperor Qin

 In our data nearly all students could use evidence from artefacts and events to express specific values, but few could pull the values together. They missed the ~isms boat. 

Yet this identifies a teaching opportunity. We can teach students to marshal evidence and build towards a culminating standpoint. Instead of the fadding one-liners, conclusions are an ideal place for the ~isms. This is because a broad claim in the conclusion can be well supported by all the evidence and corresponding evaluation that has been previously introduced. Here’s an example adapted from our data where evaluation (ruthless, barbaric, brutality, rigidity) is pulled together under the concept of Legalism.

Example Conclusion

In conclusion, the discovery of the Terracotta Warriors reveals both negative and positive aspects of Qin’s rule. He can be perceived as a successful leader with respect to his role in the unification of China and reforms which led to a more prosperous and advanced society. However, the ruthless and barbaric bloodshed of his own people reveals an underlying obsession for power and control. For Qin, it seems that the price of progress and domination was never too high. Ultimately, the rigidity and brutality of leadership grounded in Legalism led to the demise of the Qin dynasty.

Heavy lifting

In the example above, the heavy-lifting for evaluation is done in the first and final sentences with corresponding evidence in between. It’s the final part of this ‘evaluation sandwich’ where students ‘go beyond the dude’ (in this case the Emperor Qin) and point towards historical concepts, like unification and Legalism. 

In our project, we used a theory from within the sociology of education, called Legitimation Code Theory (LCT) to understand how students can use evaluation to talk about the ~isms. This theory, developed by Professor Karl Maton at the University of Sydney involves the concept known as semantic gravity. When analysing student writing, semantic gravity can be used to compare and contrast how tied to context something is. For example, when students say that Emperor Qin’s behaviour is ruthless, barbaric or brutal, their writing displays relatively strong semantic gravity (SG+). They discuss a specific figure, doing specific things in a specific setting. In contrast, writing about the concept of Legalism has weaker semantic gravity (SG-). It is not necessarily only tied to the Emperor Qin but could be linked to other historical figures in other times and places. 

Ruthless, barbaric or brutal

In our research, we plotted the relative strength of semantic gravity as it changes throughout students’ text. This creates what is known as a semantic profile. Points at the top of the semantic profile represent more abstract and generalised meanings, whereas points at the bottom represent meanings that are more strongly tied to context. Here’s a sample (please see our article for more detailed analysis and an earlier blog post for another example with a different kind of exam question).

Figure 1: Plotting a semantic profile that builds towards a conclusion

What this kind of semantic profile highlights is that the fragments of evidence can be connected to values. Students can organise the pairing of evidence and values in series of body paragraphs, such as a paragraph with evidence of why Qin can be perceived as cruel, or another with examples of being powerful. These ‘evidence-value’ connections involve students controlling degrees of context dependency. Then in the conclusion, students can further reduce context dependency so that collections of values are interpreted as an ~ism (like Legalism). 

If students write in this kind of way, then their culminating claim can be perceived as justified by the reader and not come out of the blue. For evaluating historical figures, a conclusion can be far more than ’say what you’ve said’. It’s more helpful to ask, ‘what can you say now that you couldn’t authoritatively say before?’ 

Evaluative bits

In our study we argue that teaching students where all the ‘evaluative bits’ go and what their evaluation can build towards should be explicitly taught. 

Given that the NSW curriculum reform requires teachers to “clarify and strengthen ‘writing’ content” in all subjects, identifying what is valued in writing and why is vital. Through teaching practices, such as modelling and co-constructing texts, we can show students how to control context dependency and explain why it matters so much.

For year 12 students doing ancient history, this means learning to evaluate the dude but getting to the ~isms.

Lucy Macnaught, senior lecturer and learning advisor, Learning and Academic Engagement team within the AUT Library, collaborates with the Graduate Research School and faculty to integrate academic literacies in programs. Her research draws on theories of Systemic Functional Linguistics and Legitimation Code Theory to investigate what students are expected to create. She designs teaching making these expectations clear.  Twitter @lucy_macnaught and LinkedIn

Erika Matruglio, associate professor, School of Education, University of Wollongong, draws on theories of Systemic Functional Linguistics and Legitimation Code Theory, and on Design Based Research, to research literacy practices in schooling. She has published on the nature of classroom discourse, conditions which enable cumulative knowledge building, disciplinarity and the demands of writing in the disciplines. Twitter @Lingitude and LinkedIn.

4 thoughts on “Dude, here’s how to get fizzle in your conclusion?

  1. Should Australian research money be spent on pushing schools further down the “teach to the test” path? As someone with a low SES background, I find it disturbing that education researchers have decided I should be indoctrinated into how rich people write, rather than produce useful real world learning design suited to my needs.

  2. Lucy Macnaught says:

    I share your concerns with teach to test. Critically analysing any task to work out what is valued and thinking about how to create persuasive arguments are valuable life skills in contexts outside of schooling.

  3. Riley Palmer says:

    Lucy and Erika, thank you for your research into this space. I do agree also with the above comment regarding teach to test.

    Transforming this research into teachable components for students could be beneficial. However, the prominence of PEEL across many disciplines makes it somewhat difficult for students who require structure and scaffolding to adapt to the proposed way of synthesizing their evaluation.
    Would be intrigued to see where you believe this fits in a unit plan to explicitly teach, in order for it to be successful in student writing.

  4. Lucy Macnaught says:

    Hi Riley, thanks for engaging with this. Thinking about the first part of your comment. Whether it is something prominent and familiar, like PEEL or the ‘hamburger’ analogy, I think we can integrate more meaning into what is already familiar to students. We could, for instance, take the ‘ L’ in PEEL and relate it to building and argument. So, in terms of an overarching evaluation of a historical figure, what can writers now Link all the detailed examples to? And what would that Link look like as language choices, such as using all the detailed fragments of evidence (in the other paragraph sections) to support a claim about ‘brutality’ or ‘innovation’. So I guess what I’m saying is that we can relate some existing knowledge about language (like PEEL) and then look at it from different angles, like thinking about how arguments are developed with evidence to support claims – whether that be for assessment purposes or thinking more broadly about the rhetoric of persuasion in civic life.

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