Topic Analysis: How to read an essay question

When you are starting an assessment, you first need to analyse your assessment question. This will help you to understand what you are supposed to be doing and help you to find the relevant information.

Your assessment task will generally give you three pieces of information; instruction words, key concepts and limiters.

Let’s use the following as an example.

Q. Evaluate the contribution of liberation theology to Christology.

Instruction words tell you what you need to do, or how to shape your response. In this example ‘evaluate’ is our instruction word. Evaluate means to present a judgement of an issue by weighing up its strengths and weaknesses. There are other instruction words, like compare, discuss, analyse, and explore. For a list of these and their definitions, check out the link below.

Key concepts tell you what you need to research. The key concepts here are ‘liberation theology’ and ‘Christology’. Use the library’s theological dictionaries and encyclopaedias to better understand the terms and find synonyms to expand your searches. Brainstorm a list of additional keywords. Other keywords relating to liberation theology could be ‘preferential option for the poor’ and political theology. A definition for the word ‘Christology’ could be ‘how we understand the person, nature, and role of Christ’.

Limiters tell you the restrictions of your concept. In theological scholarship, limiters often specify a context, movement, time period, or theologian to focus on. In this task, ‘Christology’ is the limiter. Therefore, the evaluation of liberation theology must be focussed on the area of Christology.

After you analyse the question, it can be helpful to re-write it in your own words to make sure you really understand what you need to do. In this case:

'Evaluate                                                                  'presenting its strengths and weaknesses, assess the value of

the contribution of liberation theology                 liberation theology’s contribution

to Christology.’                                                        to how we understand the person, nature, and role of Christ.’

Often the instruction word is clear, as it is in our example here, but sometimes it is implied, or not directly stated. You will need to work backwards to figure out what the instruction is. Here’s an example:

Q. How is the church understood by feminist theologians?

There is no clear instruction word here, but the ‘how?’ implies the need to clarify and interpret a topic (in this case, the view point of feminist theologians). The instruction word could be, then, ‘explain’, which means ‘to make clear the topic’. So, to re-write the question first:

Q. Explain how the church is understood by feminist theologians.

And then into your own language so that you make sure you know what you are being asked:

Q. Clarify and interpret feminist theologians’ understanding of the church.

Now you’ve re-written your question you are ready for research.

You can use your list of keywords to perform searches using a variety of combinations to locate relevant resources. Remember to keep within the limits.

And as you write your essay, be sure to keep the instruction word in mind so that you answer the question that is being asked of you.

If you are having difficulty analysing your topic, please speak to the Camden Theological Library staff, or visit the study skills tutor.  

 

For additional keywords that are commonly used in essay questions, see this guide.

PDF iconTopic Analysis - Common Essay Question Words.pdf

Sources of Information: Where to find what you're looking for

When writing an essay at Uniting Theological College, you will need to support your work with a range of information sources. It’s important to consider whether your references are scholarly and suitable for inclusion.

Here are some common sources of information that you might be drawn to as you research:

  • Dictionaries and encyclopaedias
  • Books and ebooks
  • Scholarly journal articles
  • Media resources
  • Web content
  • Devotional material

Let’s briefly assess these sources and discuss when you might use them in your essay.

DICTIONARIES AND ENCYCLOPAEDIAS:  As we mentioned in the ‘Topic Analysis’ video linked to in the notes below, the library’s theological dictionaries and encyclopaedias are excellent sources to go to when starting your research. They help you to understand the terms, find synonyms, and brainstorm additional keywords—this will help you to further your research as you approach other sources. 

Camden Theological Library has a useful webpage where you can find a list of helpful reference books for key subject areas. You can find a link to that in the notes below.

BOOKS AND E-BOOKS:  Books and e-books are written for a range of audiences, so you will need to evaluate whether they are appropriate for inclusion in your essays.

  • Novels and popular non-fiction are usually written for a general audience;
  • Textbooks have an academic focus, provide good background information about a topic, and are another good place to begin research;
  • Academic books can be used for in-depth study as well background research;
  • As you are studying theology, you will often refer to The Bible, church doctrine, and perhaps the sacred texts of religions other than Christianity. 

SCHOLARLY JOURNAL ARTICLES:  These are articles written by academics for an academic audience, presenting new and original research. They will usually be narrow in scope and focussed on a particular aspect of a topic within a discipline—in your case, theology. Scholarly articles are great for going in-depth into the latest research and seeing different perspectives on a topic. They also usually have extensive reference lists that you can use to further your research.

MEDIA RESOURCES:  These resources include broadcasts on television and radio as well as newspaper articles. They have been written by journalists for the general public and are not considered to be scholarly sources. They can be useful, however, for getting public attitudes on your topic. Online social media, like Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, is also helpful for this purpose, but they are also not scholarly resources.

WEB CONTENT:  The internet has an extremely wide range of resources. The domains .edu and .gov are the most credible websites, whereas .org, .com, and .net can be purchased by anyone for publishing anything so will vary in credibility. Governments, academic organisations, and professional associations often publish reports, documents, and statistics online, and these may be useful for your research. They will also cite their references so can be helpful for furthering your research. Other websites, depending on their credibility, might be helpful for background knowledge.

DEVOTIONAL MATERIAL:  Sometimes in your theological studies you might be tempted to use devotional materials like Bible reflections or studies, or sermon transcripts. These are not scholarly materials and are often biased in one way or another. However, they may contain references to academic sources or church doctrine, for example, that you might find helpful for further research.

Regardless of the sources you’ve come across, you will need to evaluate them. If you want to know more about how to evaluate whether a particular resource is suitable for your essay, take a look at our ‘CRAP test’ video, linked to in the notes below. 

And as always, please speak to the Camden Theological Library staff, or visit the study skills tutor if you need help with deciding how to use different sources of information.

To find useful reference books for particular subjects click here.

Evaluating Information Sources: How to determine the quality of the information source

You’re ready to read some books or articles for your essay.

But wait! Before you start reading, it’s important to evaluate whether the sources that you’ve chosen are appropriate for use in your academic essay.

The more practise you have, the easier it will become to judge whether a source is appropriate. In the meantime, though, here are some tips that will help you decide. We call these the ABCs of source evaluation:

A is for AUTHOR,

B is for BASIS OF THE AUTHOR’S INFORMATION,

and C is for CONTENT.

The questions that follow can help you to evaluate an information source, but the answers will not always be clear or ideal. In those cases, you will need to weigh up the information you have and use your best judgement to decide if it is suitable for using in your academic work.

 

A is for AUTHOR

Here are some questions you can ask to find out if this author has the approval of the wider academic community and can therefore be a trustworthy source to use.

  • Is this person qualified to address this topic?
    •    Is the author from a credible or well-known academic institution?
    •    Do they have a PhD?
    •    Are they respected in their field? In some cases, the author may not have a PhD, but have done decades of work in their field and are endorsed by the academic community. 
  • Who has published this work?
    •    Academic presses want to publish credible authors and be a part of building up a field of knowledge. Some publishing houses in the field of theology include: Baker, Eerdmanns, Fortress, Oxford, Abington, Zondervan, Routledge, Blackwells, Yale, T+T Clark, Bloomsbury, Wipf and Stock, InterVarsity.
  • Who has endorsed this book?
    •    The back cover will often have a few endorsements from other academics who are prepared to put their names to their positive opinions of the author and their work. There should be some credible academics or institutions represented here.

 

B is for BASIS OF THE AUTHOR’S INFORMATION.

An Author that is suitable to use in your academic writing will have also done their own work to make sure that the basis of their writing is appropriate. These following questions will help guide you.

  • Is this source well-researched?
    • In theology, we want to see texts that refer to Scripture or the Bible. But there are many non-academic texts that refer to Scripture, like devotionals or online blogs. These are not appropriate texts for academic work.
  • In addition to Scriptural references, there should be references to other sources. Look at the bibliography to judge this. You want to see a long and broad list of credible sources in the bibliography.  
  • If it is a journal article, is it peer-reviewed?
    • Peer review is a process that all academic articles go through. It provides the seal of approval from the wider academic community that what the author is saying is considered of value and contributes to a body of knowledge.
    • In Revelation you can limit your search to include only peer reviewed articles. Check the box for ‘Academic (Peer Reviewed) Journals’ on the left-hand side of the search screen.
  • If you are using information from a website, what is the domain name?
    • Domain names that end with .gov or .edu are good ones to use. They can only publish evidence-based information on these sites and are therefore considered credible.
    • Domain names that end with “.com” or “.org” are not appropriate because anyone can make those websites and publish anything on them.

 

C is for CONTENT.

The questions in section B overlap with this section. But here are a few more that relate to the content specifically.

  • What is the writing style like?
    • Just reading a paragraph aloud to yourself will give you a sense of whether the author speaks with the authority of an academic. The language should be formal.
    • The language should also be focused and specific. Although most academic writers are writing to make a topic clear, they will often use words that only people in their field know. It is the same in theology. You may not know what these words mean yet, but it can indicate that they are speaking to their field, and this is a good sign.
    • Remember that an academic text can be formally written and easy to read at the same time. Not all academic writing is hard to read or boring!
  • Is the source biased? Or is it clear that the author understands that there are differing opinions, even if they disagree with them?
    • Sometimes it will be very clear that the source is biased. It will disregard other opinions in the field and push the agenda of the author or their institution. These are sources that you will want to either avoid or use with critical caution.
    • A better source choice is one that acknowledges their bias or the place or perspective that they are writing from. The author will also refer to other opinions even if they disagree with them. This makes for a robust source, and one that is reliable for you to use.

So those are the ABCs of evaluating sources!  They should get you off to a good start as you begin your research. Remember that no source will be perfect, and you will need to use your own judgement to decide whether they are appropriate for your essay.

Good luck! And, as always, please contact the Study Skills Tutor or the Library Staff if you have any questions about researching or writing your essays.