English Grammar

1 Why study grammar?

1.1 The power of grammar

I wonder if you understand what Mrs Clark meant, or whether any teacher has ever made a similar remark about your work? In this unit we look at some of the factors that contribute to differences between speech and writing and at ways of describing them. However, we shall try to avoid just helping you to get descriptive labels right, though that is important. We want you to discover that grammar is not a boring system for labelling parts of a sentence, but rather that it can give you an insight into how we present ourselves and our view of the world to other people. Our choices within the grammatical system together with our choices of vocabulary are our most powerful ways of putting together the meanings that we want to communicate. An advanced, sophisticated method of communication is what makes human beings so special, so a study of grammar is a way of exploring how these meanings get made.

The key terms we are looking at in this unit are listed below. We have highlighted them in bold throughout the text as they are introduced.

Key terminology
context monologue
descriptive, prescriptive and pedagogic grammars question tag
dialogue sociocultural context
dysfluency structural grammar
ellipsis tail [tag]
functional grammar text
head [preface] traditional grammar
hesitator transcript
lexicogrammar utterance
lexis word class [part of speech, grammatical class]
mode
Near equivalents are given in [ ].

1.2 The importance of grammar

We want you to start thinking about what exactly we mean by a term like ‘grammar’ and how and why grammar differs in speech and writing. For some of you this will revise and build on your knowledge of previous study. Activity 1 is a way of raising questions in your mind and you will find some answers or explanations in the rest of the unit.

Activity 1

0 hours 10 minutes

Write down a few sentences which explain what you think grammar is about and why it is important. What do you expect to learn by studying English grammar? We shall come back to this activity again at the end of the unit.

Discussion

In thinking about answers to these questions I have to admit that, in helping to write this unit, I have expanded my own knowledge of the variety of interpretations of grammar and the applications of grammatical analysis. I started off many years ago as a teacher of English in various countries around the world, using a form of grammatical description which highlighted ‘correct’ usage such as knowing when to say I have gone and when to say I went. More recently, in analysing academic writing, I have applied a different model of grammar, one which foregrounds the idea of grammar as choosing forms to express different types of meaning. Also, in working with my Open University colleagues, I have discovered other grammatical systems and applications. You might be surprised to realise how many different areas of life utilise an understanding of grammar. Computer scientists involved in creating voice-recognition software need to understand grammar and the frequency of the likely patterns of the language; police experts need to trace typical language patterns used by individuals if they are to detect lies and forged documents; doctors and specialists in language disorders in children or in patients with head injuries need to know the typical grammar associated with particular contexts in order to understand where disruption or dysfunction is taking place. Of course, knowing grammar is a basic part of language learning and teaching and is also necessary in professions such as translating and lexicography (compiling dictionaries).

Many of the uses to which a knowledge of grammar is put are also starting to rely on the application of computer technology to language analysis. The new computational tools are changing the way we describe and understand language. Some of the activities that you will be trying out are important in writing many dictionaries and textbooks about English. But before we move on to recent approaches to grammar we shall take a short diversion into different types of grammatical description.

2 Developments in grammatical description

2.1 Different types of grammatical description

Activity 2

0 hours 10 minutes

As a way of helping you to consider what we mean by ‘grammar’, look at the following sentences and see how many meanings of the word ‘grammar’ you can identify.

  1. It’s a really complicated area of grammar.
  2. Why don’t you look it up in a grammar?
  3. Her spelling is good, but her grammar is almost non-existent.
  4. Children don’t do enough grammar at school.
  5. We had to do generative grammar on the course.
  6. He needs to work on his grammar and punctuation.
  7. Systemic functional grammar is generally associated with the work of Michael Halliday.
  8. I’ve always had problems with German grammar.
  9. It’s a grammar for learners of English as a foreign language.
  10. Oh no! We’re doing grammar again today!

(Based on Hewings and Hewings, 2004)

Discussion

There is clearly overlap in these uses, but I have grouped them into five meanings.

  1. In 1 and 8, it refers to the way in which words are organised in a language in order to make correct sentences; here ‘grammar’ is the description of the way in which words combine into larger units, the largest being the sentence.
  2. In 2 and 9, it refers to a book in which these organising principles are laid out. Sometimes these are given as a set of rules.
  3. In 4 and 10, it refers to the study of these rules.
  4. In 3 and 6, it refers to whether a person follows the ‘rules of grammar’.
  5. In 5 and 7, it refers to a particular theory of language description.

Different theories of language result in different types of grammatical description based on different premises and with different purposes. The first complementary grammatical description we are going to look at is sometimes referred to as traditional or structural grammar, a grammar that divides language on the basis of parts of speech, units such as nouns, verbs, and adjectives. In looking at parts of speech, or word classes as they are also called, grammarians divide up sentences or smaller units into their constituent parts; for example:

David played his guitar in the concert
noun verb possessive determiner noun preposition determiner noun

Don’t worry if you are not familiar with terms such as ‘possessive determiner’; you do not need to understand them to work through this unit. In addition to this type of description, grammarians and others can also concentrate on how words combine to make meanings and this gives rise to a functional grammar which uses a different descriptive vocabulary. Functional grammar is another key approach to describing language. In a functional grammar the emphasis is on describing words or groups of words according to the function they are fulfilling in a sentence.

Both traditional grammars and functional grammars are largely descriptive grammars, that is, they set out to account for the language we use without necessarily making judgements about its correctness. However, the word ‘grammar’, as we have seen, can be used to indicate what rules exist for combining units together and whether these have been followed correctly. For example, the variety of English I speak has a rule that if you use a number greater than one with a noun, the noun has to be plural (I say ‘three cats’, not ‘three cat’). Books which set out this view of language are prescriptive grammars which aim to tell people how they should speak rather than to describe how they do speak. Prescriptive grammars contain the notion of the ‘correct’ use of language. For example, many people were taught that an English verb in the infinitive form (underlined in the example below) should not be separated from its preceding to.

So the introduction to the TV series Star Trek

…to boldly go where no man has gone before

is criticised on the grounds that to and go should not be separated by the adverb boldly. We are not arguing that one form is better than another. Rather, we are going to analyse examples of English as it has been used and look at the different choices that have been made and the factors that might influence those choices.

The final type of grammar is a pedagogic grammar. These grammars are generally based on descriptions of ‘standard’ English and are designed to help people learn English if they are not native speakers of the language. Pedagogic grammars often give some of the ‘rules’ of English and lots of examples and practice material. They thus combine elements from descriptive and prescriptive grammars. Your reference grammar is a pedagogic grammar, but it relies on description rather than prescription to explain how English works.

2.2 The history of grammatical description

Of these approaches, prescriptive grammars are probably the best known. Originally associated with describing ancient Greek, a system of labelling parts of speech developed into a way of laying down rules on the socially correct usage of language. Because of their origin in the ancient languages, prescriptive grammars introduced rules into English which arguably imposed labels and expectations that had not evolved from within the living language.

Descriptive grammars in the USA and Europe have a more recent history. Linguists, and particularly grammarians, take examples of language that they have read, heard or invented to work out the rules underpinning our language use. The rules underlying actual practice are the structure or grammar of the language. The most notable attempts to make thorough descriptions of language occurred in the USA at the beginning of the twentieth century when anthropologists sought to describe North American Indian languages which were disappearing as English became more powerful. There was no written record relating to these languages so careful description of speech patterns was necessary.

At approximately the same time, a European anthropologist, Bronislaw Malinowski, was working among islanders in the Pacific. The importance of his work lies in his understanding that it is not enough to translate words into their rough equivalents in English or another language. In order to understand a language it is necessary to understand the contexts in which language is used and the cultural significance of different choices of words and grammar. Words and their meanings are not independent of their culture or of the situation in which they are being used.

2.3 Using grammatical description in context

Malinowski’s anthropological work illustrates a more dynamic approach to the study of language which is still influential today, particularly in functional approaches to grammar. Many linguists are exploring ways of grounding their description of language in the cultural, geographical, social and economic conditions stressed by Malinowski. These factors are seen as influencing how language is used in context; that is, how variations in what we are doing, who we are communicating with, whether we are face to face or separated in time and space from our listener/reader and so on affect the grammatical and other language choices we make. This is a wide definition of context, and is sometimes called sociocultural context. This term is to distinguish it from a narrower meaning of context which refers to the words in the immediate textual environment of the word or grammatical feature that you are looking at. So in the following sentence we might be looking at how, for example, the word wide is used.

This is a wide definition of context.

All the words that surround it form its immediate context, as does the whole paragraph. The notion of context and its influence on grammatical choice is important in this unit. You will have opportunities to reflect on how the local textual context affects grammar and how the wider context of the local culture and the particular situation of people communicating influence the variations that you will observe in grammatical choices.

Activity 3

0 hours 10 minutes

Before you continue reading, think about what the contextual factors are that might be influencing me as I sit here typing this unit. What would be affecting me in the wider sociocultural context and in the immediate textual context surrounding each word I write?

Discussion

If we are using context in its broader sense then wider influences on my selection of grammar than simply textual context can be considered. My choices of language would reflect my evaluation of the social relations between myself as writer and you as reader. We are strangers, but I wish to create a feeling of friendliness and dialogue within the text. I am conscious that I am trying to achieve a purpose through writing – helping you to understand more about grammar. I therefore select words and put them together in sentences which I hope will convey the point I am trying to make. I can’t refer to things in my immediate environment because you do not share it – we are not communicating face-to-face or even simultaneously. I must make myself clear just by the ordering of the words on the page. Such contextual factors can be described and accounted for in a comprehensive description of grammar and such a grammar can also help me to think about how I can make my meanings more clearly.

3 Grammar and contextual variation

3.1 Spoken and written modes: an overview

Variations in context that can affect grammatical choice may relate to different modes of communication, such as whether it is speech or writing, telephone or email, and so on. I am communicating with you now through the written mode. I have no idea where you are or what is motivating you to look at this unit. I don’t know if you are alone, inside, outside, whether it is morning, afternoon or evening. To make my meanings clear to you, I type words into a computer that fit together in strings of phrases and clauses with boundaries marked by full stops and initial capital letters. I try to make what I write as clear as possible because you do not have the chance to ask me for clarification. If you were sitting with me here in my study and we were discussing grammar, most of the communication would be oral, though we might also make use of various reference books that I have on my shelves. There would be no full stops or capital letters in my speech. Instead there would be a stream of sounds, some of which would receive greater emphasis than others. The sounds would be broken up with pauses and often I would stop part way through and start to rephrase my thoughts. While we are talking I would be looking at you to make sure that you have understood what I have to say. I would be automatically monitoring your gestures, such as a nodding of the head to indicate understanding or a furrowing of the brow to indicate non-comprehension. You might interrupt and ask me to say something again or retell something in your own words to check your understanding.

In this way, the inherent difference of face-to-face communication and written communication creates different contexts which tend to lead people to communicate meanings differently through making different grammatical choices. The way I speak and write is different from the way you speak and write. However, the way I speak is probably closer to the way you speak (if you are a native speaker of English) than to the way either you or I write. Let me put that in a different way. Language varies for each individual, but it varies in systematic ways in different situations. So the language choices we make when we write will show similarities because the mode is writing and not speech.

To start you thinking about what the study of grammar can tell us about these systematic variations, let us consider the following two bits of language which come from some longer texts which you will read shortly.

  1. So she piles her in the car and they go off.
  2. Since 1840, maximum life expectancies have increased at a rate of about three months per year.

One of these is spoken and the other is written. You can probably guess that (1) is spoken and (2) is from a written text. What clues are you using to make this judgement? What choices have the speaker in (1) and the writer in (2) made that enable you to identify one as speech and the other as writing? You might say that (2) is more formal and (1) less formal. If you know some grammatical terminology, you might relate this to the long noun phrases like maximum life expectancy in (2) and the less formal ‘phrasal verbs’ such as pile in and go off in (1). In writing we often consider more carefully the words we use. We have time to plan and revise what we have to say to fit in with the meanings we want to convey and the person or people we are addressing. In speech we often do not consider our words so carefully, particularly in casual conversation. However, we are still making choices about how to express ourselves – just so quickly that we rarely have time to reflect on it. The speaker in (1) probably based her selection of informal-sounding phrasal verbs on the basis that she knew the friend she was talking to well. Or perhaps she thought that those choices would add to the contrast between the everydayness of the activities she was describing and what she was about to say next. Most of our language choices are subconscious choices, but they are nevertheless motivated. There must be a reason why you chose one word or expression and not another. One of the factors influencing this choice is whether or not we are in face-to-face contact with the person we are communicating with. While this is a major influence on variation in grammatical choices it is not the only one. There are many factors which influence our choices and this unit will help you to see what some of these are.

3.2 Spoken and written modes: a comparison

As we have said, one of the most significant factors affecting our grammatical choices is whether we are speaking or writing. We can see these differences if we compare a spoken text and a written text. Text here is not being used in its usual sense to mean a piece of writing. ‘Text’ in language analysis can refer both to speech which has been prepared in a written form that can be analysed and to writing.

Activity 4

0 hours 30 minutes

Read Texts 1 and 2 below. Which do you think is spoken language and which written? Make a list of the differences between them that indicate to you that one is a written text and one is a spoken text. Don’t worry about using grammatical terminology to describe things – just make notes that mean something to you.

Text 1

A friend of mine told me this amazing story the other day she a … she’d been shopping and she came back to this multi-storey car park that she’s been in and it was kind of deserted … erm … and as she was walking towards her car she saw this figure sitting in the passenger seat … and she thought what’s that I’ve been burgled and as she walked towards the car feeling a bit scared this person got out of the car and it was a little old lady… so she thought oh well probably it’s not a burglar and … er … anyway she asked her and the woman said … er … apparently she’d been sitting there waiting for her daughter to arrive and the daughter hadn’t turned up and she was feeling a bit giddy and faint and so she went and sat in the car … it seems a very strange thing to do … I mean … apparently she’d been trying all the door handles one was open so she sat in it … so anyway… this friend of mine … erm … said … you know … what are you going to do now … when are you meant to be meeting your daughter and the woman said half an hour ago so she said well … what are you going do now and anyway … finally this woman asked her if … er … she could possibly giver her a lift home because it was freezing and this old lady looked really ill and my friend thought oh … I’d better be nice and it was a bit out of her way but she thought she’d better do the … do the … do the right thing … so she piles her in the car and they go off … and as they’re driving along she just happens to look across and sees her hands … and they weren’t woman’s hands at all … they were man’s hands … it’s got hairy big hairy hands…

(Brazil, 1995, pp. 24–5)

Text 2

Industrialized societies throughout the world are greying. Since 1840, maximum life expectancies have increased at a rate of about three months per year and this trend shows no sign of slowing down. The good news is that people are getting healthier. But one downside is the net impact on healthcare. The overall improvement in health is more than countered by the much greater number of individuals reaching ages at which age-related health problems occur. An obvious example is Alzheimer’s disease, which was almost unknown a century ago. The same is true of age-related macular degeneration, now the leading cause of blindness. Ageing is bad for us and yet it happens to everyone. So why does it occur at all?

(Partridge and Gems, 2002, p. 921)

Discussion

There are many differences between these two texts that you might have noted. Let us look at just a few of them. To start with, Text 1 looks very different from language that you normally see written down and this is the first clue to the fact that it was originally spoken not written. It is a transcript, a written version of something that someone has said. This is a very simple transcript, partly because there is only one speaker and partly because of the way it has been transcribed. As you go through the course you will read lots of transcripts and will see that there are many different ways of representing spoken language on a page. In this transcription many of the features that we associate with written language are missing. There are no sentences or paragraphs, for instance. Three full stops (an ellipsis) are used to indicate gaps or pauses, not sentence endings. It is consequently difficult at first to make sense of what is said and to guess how it sounded. The speaker repeats parts of utterances, e.g. she’d better do the … do the … do the right thing and hesitates, e.g. er, erm and pauses. (The word ‘utterance’ is used in preference to ‘sentence’ because, as we shall see, the notion of a sentence does not fit neatly with describing spoken language.) The utterances often seem incomplete or to change direction as they proceed, e.g. anyway she asked her and the woman said … er … apparently she’d been sitting there waiting for her daughter to arrive, and there are changes in verb tenses, e.g. but she thought she’d better do the … do the … do the right thing …so she piles her in the car and they go off. The string of events in the story are linked predominately by and, e.g. …apparently she’d been sitting there waiting for her daughter to arrive and the daughter hadn’t turned up and she was feeling a bit giddy and faint and so she went and sat in the car.

Many of the features of Text 1 are in direct contrast to Text 2 where the meanings are divided into sentences. Sentences and parts of sentences are linked together not predominately by and, but by other linking words such as but, yet and so which not only link bits of text but give us an idea of the logical unfolding of a text. One of the most significant differences between speech and writing is the amount of information that is packed into written texts in relation to the number of words used.

We can demonstrate this through looking at the following sentence from Text 2.

  • 1 The overall improvement in health is more than countered by the much greater number of individuals reaching ages at which age-related health problems occur.
  • Imagine how you might convey all that information in speech. If I were in a seminar discussing this I think I might say something like:
  • 2 There’s been an improvement in health generally but at the same time this has led to problems … more people are living into old age and this is when they start to have illness and diseases that are only associated with being old.
  • But if I were talking to friends it might be more like:
  • 3 Health’s getting better yeah overall … more people are living longer … but but the problem is the problem is they’re not as well … they’ve got lots of diseases and stuff … things that you get when you’re old.
  • In (2) I have used 42 words (I am counting contracted forms such as they’re as one word) and in (3) 36 words to say what took 24 words in the written text. How we convey all this information in relatively few words is one of the main grammatical differences between speech and writing, especially between informal conversation and formal writing. Both formality and whether something is spoken or written can affect the choice of grammatical structures and also the choice of vocabulary. For example, the noun improvement in (1) is replaced by a verb and an adverb in (3):‘s getting better. Vocabulary differences can also be seen: for example, the word individuals in (1) is replaced by people in (2) and (3).

The technical word for vocabulary is lexis, and this is combined with the word grammar in the term lexicogrammar. In this unit our primary focus is on grammar, but it is important to realise that it is often the choices of both lexis and grammar, i.e. lexicogrammar, that convey the meanings we make with language.

3.3 Features of speech: dialogue

In Section 3.2/?printable=1″>Section 3.2, Texts 1 and 2 were both monologues, that is, one person speaking or writing. Speech is more often a dialogue, a communication between two or more speakers and this influences the grammar choices made. We can see this in the dialogue transcribed below.

A: Oh well she wouldn’t be there after the bingo then would she? Probably went to I know that she does go. She there most of the evening and she goes to bingo and

B: Yeah

A: Cos they live down round near Tina’s but not like Tina’s house before that off Allard Avenue round the back of Allard Sherwood is it?

B: Sherwood, yeah Sherwood Avenue

A: Yeah

B: Yeah they live up yeah.

(BNC-OU spoken corpus)

This transcript looks different from Text 1 and is even more difficult to make sense of. In natural speech, people often speak at the same time as each other, or complete each other’s remarks. There are therefore many utterances that seem incomplete when read on the page. Although transcripts of conversation may seem ‘ungrammatical’ in comparison to text specifically composed to be read, the participants in them have no problem understanding and responding. This indicates that the grammatical choices made in speech are often just different from those we make in writing. The use of the context surrounding the participants means that they do not need to make everything explicit. In fact, they need to do different things in conversation and therefore need different grammatical resources. For example, in the context of a face-to-face conversation we see grammatical features such as question tags (would she? is it?) which invite a response, either verbally or through gestures such as nodding the head, from the other member of the dialogue. This helps to keep all participants in the conversation involved. Missing out words such as personal pronouns is common, e.g. Probably went to, where the pronoun she is omitted. This is allowable in conversation because such words can be inferred from the surrounding text. It also helps to create a feeling of closeness between the participants. They can leave out words because they can rely on their shared understanding to fill in the meanings.

3.4 Features of speech: interaction

Once we start to consider the ongoing interactive nature of speech, many of the differences between speech and writing become explicable.

Activity 5

0 hours 15 minutes

Read the extract below from a conversation among three people. Using your own words, underline and describe things that indicate that this is spontaneous conversation. To get you started, here is an example from the first two lines.

A: I’ve got [informal everyday expression with contraction] something [general noun rather than specific] new on the computer [specific reference to a particular computer shows shared context] here [reference to specific place that is clear to those in the conversation].

B: What do you got? [questions reflect interactive style: do and got show a lack of concord (agreement) as perhaps the speaker changed his/her mind halfway through the utterance.]

A conversation

A1: I’ve got something new on the computer here.

B1: What do you got?

A2: If you turn it on, it turns on here and that turns on the monitor, the speakers and the uh, printer so now <unclear> shut off my printer. I just put a, a plug strip in here.

B2: oh okay.

A3: And there there’s another switch inside here that allows me to turn everything off, the computer, so like when I go away I can hit that and then everything is down.

C1: The one I like is the uh, little console.

B3: Yeah.

C2: You can, well you know <unclear>

A4: Well you know the other thing is though, see I can shut this off.

Discussion

Some of the points that you might have noticed were:

  • Avoiding elaborations or specification of meaning, and the use of general nouns and of pronouns e.g. something new; the other thing.
  • Interactiveness with questions: What do you got? (note the dysfluency – a term we introduce more fully later).
  • Real-time production by add-on strategy: If you turn it on, it turns on here and that turns on the monitor, the speakers and the uh, printer so now <unclear> shut off my printer.
  • Vernacular range of expressions such as contractions (I’ve), and informal and non-standard usage, e.g. so like when I go away; What do you got?
  • Repetition and hesitation: I just put a, a plug strip in here.

(Based on Biber, 2002b, pp. 100–101)

Many of these features can be put down to the pressures of thinking and translating our thoughts into comprehensible language in the milliseconds available during face-to-face conversation. They also rely on the sharing of immediate physical contexts and often much sociocultural context knowledge as well. They result in the range of features noted above. Easily observable in most conversations is the increased use of pronouns to refer to people and things in the vicinity or recoverable in the wider context of the conversation. Writing, in contrast, usually uses fuller combinations of nouns and adjectives to specify who or what is being referred to.

3.5 Features of speech: ellipsis

Another feature of relying on the shared linguistic or sociocultural context is ellipsis. This occurs when some elements of a phrase or other unit of language are not specified because they can be inferred from the context. Ellipsis occurs in both speech and writing, but is more common in speech. The following two-part exchange between myself and my daughter is an illustration. We have a cordless phone which can be used anywhere in the house and my daughter, like many teenagers, is constantly phoning and being phoned by her friends.

MOTHER Suzanne, have you got the phone up there?

SUZANNE No. Dad’s using it.

The ellipsis occurs in the first part of Suzanne’s response. No could be expanded to ‘No, I haven’t got the phone up here’, but this is unnecessary because we both know what she is saying ‘no’ to.

Activity 6

0 hours 10 minutes

In the examples below there is ellipsis. Try to work out what words have been omitted. The place where they could go has been indicated with the symbol ^. Write a version of each of these sentences with the ellipsed material included.

  1. He and his mate both jumped out, he ^ to go to the women, his mate ^ to stop other traffic on the bridge.
  2. Perhaps, as the review gathers steam, this can now change. It needs to ^.
  3. A: Have you got an exam on Monday? B: ^ Two exams ^.

(Biber et al., 1999, pp. 156–7)

Discussion

Ellipted material is enclosed in 〈 〉.

  1. He and his mate both jumped out, he 〈jumped out〉 to go to the women, his mate 〈jumped out〉 to stop other traffic on the bridge.
  2. Perhaps, as the review gathers steam, this can now change. It needs to 〈change〉.
  3. A: Have you got an exam on Monday?
  4. B: 〈I’ve got〉 two exams 〈on Monday〉.

3.6 Features of speech: dysfluency

Another of the differences between conversation and writing is sometimes referred to as dysfluency. This is the use of hesitators (sounds such as erm, urn), pauses and repetitions which reflect the difficulty of mental planning at speed. We can see all three of these dysfluencies in the next example.

That’s a very good – er very good precaution to take, yes.

(Biber et al., 1999, p. 1053)

There is a pause after good, a hesitator er and repetition of very good. While such dysfluencies might be considered as random occurrences during unplanned speech, analysis of large amounts of conversational data shows that there are systematic patterns in how they are used. Before you read on, consider when you might use a pause as opposed to a hesitator in conversation.

Hesitators are devices for indicating that a speaker has not yet finished their turn, and thus does not want to be interrupted. Hesitators are commonly used at a point when a speaker has not yet finished all they want to say, but they need to give themselves time for forward planning. In contrast, a pause occurs more often at places where a speaker is about to start on a new part of their utterance. They are often followed by words such as okay which signal this new section, as in this example:

Mmm I just thought you know I okay it’s only a cheque I know

(BNC-OU)

This transcript does not have pauses marked. However, when I say it in my head I certainly feel that there would be a pause before okay.

Activity 7

0 hours 5 minutes

Read the examples below which show uses of repetition. Do you think repetitions function more like hesitators or pauses?

  1. I hope that, uh, Audrey sent in that article to the News Press to, to get back with them
  2. Hopefully he’ll, er, he’ll see the error of his ways.

(Biber et al., 1999, p. 1055)

Discussion

The repetition of to and he’ll are not at major points in the utterance, rather they are like hesitators, they allow forward planning time and indicate that the speaker has not finished. They can also be used to indicate emphasis.

3.7 Features of speech: language in real life

In our discussion of dysfluency, we specifically avoided the use of the word ‘error’. In the past, because written grammar was used to judge speech, common features of speech were judged as errors because they do not occur in the more planned environment of written text.

Thus what type of data is analysed is crucial to what the grammatical findings are. We said earlier that grammar descriptions were increasingly being developed on the basis of examining how language is really used. This is in contrast to methods which rely on introspection; that is, grammarians consider examples of the language that they use or that is published and devise ways of accounting for the word combinations they find. This method has two consequences. The first is that it is associated with a particular variety of the language, usually that used by those with higher levels of education. The second is that written rather than spoken language often forms the basis of the description. Nowadays, many authors writing grammar books or books to help learners of English are using large databases of natural language to give them insights into how language is used in real life, not just how we think it is used. We want to show you an example of a grammatical feature which would not have been evident to grammarians using just introspective methods or even those describing actual uses of language based on limited examples.

The example comes from a project investigating grammatical patterns in speech. One of the discoveries made by the project team is referred to as ‘heads and tails’. These are items that are placed at the beginning or the end of the main utterance. Example (1) illustrates ‘heads’ (in bold) and (2) exemplifies ‘tails’ (in bold).

  • 1. Paul in this job that he’s got now when he goes into the office he’s never quite sure where he’s going to be sent.
  • 2. A: I’m going to have Mississippi Mud Pie I am.
  • B: I’m going to have profiteroles. I can’t resist them I can’t … just too moreish.

(McCarthy, 1998, p. 78)

I think you will agree that it is highly unlikely that such utterances would occur in writing, with the exception perhaps of dialogue in novels. However, they have been found to occur frequently in speech. They must therefore serve a communicative purpose in speech that would not be necessary in writing. It has been suggested that heads play an important role in helping the listener to prepare for what is coming next. In (1), the word Paul is used as a signal by the speaker to the listener that a new topic of conversation is being introduced. It reflects the importance of helping the listener to process incoming information in the short time span typical of face-to-face interaction. In contrast, tails are often used in evaluative contexts where they reinforce a particular point, as in B’s remarks which contrast with A’s. These are examples of features that are only now being discovered through analysis of authentic, naturally occurring language, particularly in association with computational analysis.

To illustrate what I mean about not basing our study on how we think we use language, look at the transcripts below from a television news programme. Earlier, in Activity 4, we contrasted speech and writing, now you are looking at two different types of speech.

Activity 8

0 hours 30 minutes

Below are two transcripts from a BBC news programme. In Text 3 you will read a short part of what the newsreader said when introducing a news item on rioting in Genoa during a summit conference of world leaders. In Text 4 you will read what a demonstrator at the conference had to say to a reporter. Read the texts and try to put in punctuation for both of them. Make a note of any differences in how the newsreader organises his speech and how the demonstrator organises his. Before you read the comment you may want to watch the video clip ‘Rioting in Genoa’ and see if you want to change your mind about the punctuation.

Click below to watch the video clip ‘Rioting in Genoa’ .

Text 3

Newsreader: Good evening dozens of people have been hurt in fighting between police and protesters outside the G8 summit of world leaders in Genoa Italian riot police fired tear gas at demonstrators after an anti-globalisation rally erupted into violence

Text 4

Man: A peaceful demonstration broke up round here you know with them mindless thugs that set fire to that bank for a start it’s it’s just devastating

Discussion

My versions of the transcripts are as follows:

Text 3

Newsreader: Good evening. Dozens of people have been hurt in fighting between police and protesters, outside the G8 summit of world leaders in Genoa. Italian riot police fired tear gas at demonstrators after an anti-globalisation rally erupted into violence.

Text 4

Man: A peaceful demonstration broke up round here you know with them mindless thugs that set fire to that bank for a start. It’s, it’s just devastating.

Here we can observe yet more variation in how language is structured. The newsreader is reading from a script, so his words have been carefully worked out for him; his speech has a lot in common with written language and is therefore much easier to punctuate with conventional punctuation. The demonstrator, however, is thinking and formulating his thoughts into words almost simultaneously. We can see the result of this in the pauses, repetition, fillers such as you know and the lack of clear sentence boundaries – features you observed earlier in Activity 4 and other subsequent examples. What is interesting is that before the invention of the tape recorder, people were not consciously aware of many of these features of spoken language. In the same way, having access to lots of language data is also revealing new features of how we actually use language.

Activity 9

0 hours 40 minutes

Click below to watch the video clip ‘Face to Face’.

  • Watch the video clip ‘Face to Face’ (a split screen of a man and woman talking). This is an unscripted conversation, though obviously the participants knew they were being filmed.Try to write a transcript of the conversation. Look out for the features of spoken language that we have discussed in this unit.
Discussion
Video clip (‘face-to-face’) transcript

I have not included punctuation in this transcript. However, there are many different ways of transcribing speech. If you have included punctuation that is acceptable.

MAN but the second thing is I wondered about the characterisation of the lads whether the fact that men playing the girls was actually sharper because it was men or whether it actually missed a lot

WOMAN I’m at a disadvantage here because you know I’ve observed this these kids at a very much younger age I used to be a teacher and it was exactly the kind of thing that they would’ve done you know the girls oh the the scene in the hairdressing salon was absolutely beautiful they were all, they were all getting themselves prettified

MAN now there’s the caricature with that hairdresser and the hair going 6 feet above the girls’ head

WOMAN yeah yes

MAN you know

WOMAN yes but its its not an anachronism is it I mean it wasn’t a bee hive hair do it was a it was a

MAN no no

WOMAN but was it a punk either I I thought

MAN no no

WOMAN that was a little bit over the top

MAN it wasn’t punk

WOMAN because he was he was doing all this kind of thing wasn’t he behind her head

MAN yes but that’s right there were several occasions on that when there were quite clearly where that they took something and just played it well beyond reality

4 Conclusions

Once we start to look at naturally occurring language we see that there is systematic variation in the choices people make. These choices relate to both the meaning and the context of the communication. Specifically we have looked at differences in mode between grammar in speech, especially conversation, and in writing.

You may already be familiar with the idea of variation within a language. For example, there are different varieties of English used in different parts of the world. India, the USA and Australia, for example, all have different varieties of the language we refer to as English. But variety also occurs within countries where different lexical and grammatical choices may be associated with regional dialects. Often people have a choice over whether to use their dialect or to communicate using what has come to be called standard English. Exploring the grammar of English can help us look at a level of variation which is much more subtle – in this unit we have used a very crude distinction between written and spoken modes. Grammar is a tool for adapting our communications in ways which present us and our message in different lights and it is dependent on many contextual factors.

In Activity 1 you were asked to note down what you thought grammar was about. Look back at what you wrote down. Have your views changed at all? We hope that in this unit you have begun to see that grammar is not just about labelling parts of speech or judging whether something is right or wrong. Studying grammar opens doors into how we organise our world. Exploring grammar can allow you to see how language is intertwined with both describing a view of the world and interacting with others in it.

References

The Advertiser (2002) ‘Shark attack’, The Advertiser (South Australia), 1 May 2002, Adelaide, South Australia.
‘Alternative Medicine’ (1988) Transcript of an extract from After Dark Series 2, Channel 4/ITN Archive.
Alexander, S. and Beer, M. (1998) Stephanie Alexander & Maggie Beer’s Tuscan Cookbook, Australia, Viking/Penguin Books.
Ansen, D. ‘Mild About “Harry”’ in Newsweek (Pacific edn), vol. 140, no. 21, 18 Nov 2002.
Biber, D., Conrad, S. and Leech, G. (2002a) Longman Student Grammar of Spoken and Written English, London, Pearson.
Biber, D., Conrad, S. and Leech, G. (2002b) Longman Student Grammar of Spoken and Written English Workbook, London, Pearson.
Biber, D., Conrad, S., Johansson, S. and Leech, G. (1999) Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English, London, Longman.
Brazil, D. (1995) A Grammar of Speech, Oxford, Oxford University Press.
Coates, J. (1993) Women, Men and Language, London, Longman.
Coulthard, M. and Sinclair, J. (1975) Towards an Analysis of Discourse. Oxford, Oxford University Press.
CTE (1990) Sticks and Stones (Replay, Reinforce, Remember)

, London, CTE.

Derewianka, B. (1990) Exploring How Texts Work, Sydney, PETA.
Eggins, S. E. and Slade, D. (1997) Analysing Casual Conversation, London, Cassell.
Franzen, J. (2002) The Corrections, London, Fourth Estate.
Halliday, M. A. K. (1985) Spoken and Written Language, Deakin University, Geelong, Australia.
Halliday, M. and Matthiensen, C. (eds) (2004) An Introduction to Functional Grammar, 3rd edn, London, Arnold.
Hanna, M. (2002) ‘Prague cleans up as threat continues’, CNN.com. Available at http://edition.cnn.com/2002/WORLD/europe/08/16/czech.floods/index.html
Hewings, A. and Hewings, M. (2004) Grammar and Context, London, Routledge.
Hunston, S. (2002) Corpora in Applied Linguistics, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
Irving, J. (1981) The Hotel New Hampshire, London, Jonathan Cape. Keller, H. (1980) The Art of the Impressionists, London, Phaidon Press.
Lupton. D. (2001) ‘Constructing “road rage” as news’, Australian Journal of Communication, vol. 28(2), 2001.
McCarthy, M. (1998) Spoken Language and Applied Linguistics, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
The National Institute for the Prevention of Workplace Violence (2000) ‘Road rage causes fatal accident’. Available at , accessed 20 March 2007
O’Connor, J. D. and Arnold, G. F. (1961) Intonation of Colloquial English, London, Longman.
Parks, T. (1992) Italian Neighbours, London, Minerva.
Partridge, L. and Gems, D. (2002) ‘A lethal side-effect’, Nature, vol. 418, 29 August 2002.
Plum, G. (1988) ‘Text and contextual conditioning in spoken English: a genre-based approach,’ unpublished PhD thesis, University of Sydney, vol. 2, Text 1.6.
Porter, E. H. (1987) Pollyanna, London, Angus and Robertson (first published 1913).
Roadragers (2003) ‘Road rage’.
Schiermeier, Q. (2002) ‘Central Europe braced for tide of pollution in flood aftermath’, Nature, vol. 418, 29 August 2002.
Sinclair, J. McH. (1990) Collins Cobuild English Grammar, London, Collins.
Tench, P. (1996) The Intonation Systems of English, London, Cassell.
Upton, D. (2001) ‘Constructing road rage as news: an analysis of two Australian newspapers’, Australian Journal of Communication, vol. 28, no. 3, pp.23–35.
Webb, A. (1987) Talk About Sound, London, Franklin Watts.
Wells, W. H. G. (1986) ‘An experimental approach to the interpretation of focus in spoken English’ in Johns-Lewis, C. (ed.) Intonation in Discourse, London, Croom Helm.

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Human Resources: Recruitment and Selection

The unit begins by looking at how it can be difficult for a manager in the process of recruitment and selection to maintain objectivity. Drawing up clear criteria to use throughout recruitment and selection can help the process. It then addresses the difference between the person–job and person–organisation approaches to recruitment. Subsequent sections review the different tasks to be completed and the different methods which can be used by the manager in this important process.

2 Effective recruitment and selection

The key to successful recruitment is to ensure that the criteria of suitability are overt and relevant to the job itself. Once these criteria are agreed and shared it is possible to make more rational decisions about someone’s suitability for a job, based on evidence rather than ‘gut feeling’ or instinct. Effective recruitment and selection should not be about the luck of the draw. Systematic planning and preparation will increase the likelihood of taking on the right person. The key to effective recruitment is preparation: knowing the job and what is required of someone to perform it well. The costs of recruiting the wrong person can be significant. The cost of employing someone may be at least twice their salary when factors such as training, expenses and employer’s contributions to their pension are added.

Incorrect assumptions about class, gender, ethnic group or physical ability, or any other type of discrimination, can cloud your objectivity in recruitment and selection. At worst this may contravene legislation that exists to protect individuals from discrimination. Other prejudices may be generated by particular organisational traditions regarding the ‘type of person’ considered suitable. However, it is important to ensure that the qualities of the successful applicant match what the organisation requires, perhaps in terms of being forward looking, customer focused or market orientated. It is easy to discriminate in the recruitment and selection process through personal responses and reactions to certain types of people. The recruiter’s perception is often influenced by striking characteristics or similarities to themselves. This is called the ‘halo’ effect and can work in either a positive or negative direction (the latter is sometimes called the ‘horns’ effect). The halo effect acts as a filter to any information that contradicts first impressions. For example, someone who attended the same college or university as the recruiter would be at an advantage, while a person not wearing a suit would not be management material. It is often the case that people judge more favourably those individuals with whom they have something in common. Ultimately, you are seeking the best person for the job and any discrimination, intentional or not, may prevent you from achieving that.

Before we look more closely at the recruitment process, spend about ten minutes on the following activity.

Activity 1

0 hours 10 minutes

Basing your ideas on your own initial reactions to the characters outlined below, complete the table to describe what would typically be the characteristics associated with them. Do not take too much time to think – just jot down ideas as they come to you. To demonstrate, we have suggested how some people might see the first example; you may not agree with the stereotyping evident in the suggested characteristics!

Job Age range Gender Politics Hobbies Car
Social worker 27–43 Either Liberal or Green, left-wing Camping cycling rambling Old Volvo or Saab
Supermarket checkout operative
Building labourer
Accountant
Senior civil servant/government official
Personal secretary to managing director
Police inspector
Salesperson
Fundraiser for a charity

We all harbour stereotypes of what types of people are suitable or unsuitable for particular jobs, and everyone will complete the table differently. However, let us look at a couple of examples. Did you think that the supermarket checkout person would be male or female? The majority of people completing this exercise would have an expectation that a checkout person would be either a very young single female or an older woman who works part-time. They would be unlikely to associate working on a supermarket checkout with a middle-aged man. What cars did you suggest the building labourer and accountant might drive? Which one was more likely to own an executive car? What would you expect the senior civil servant’s hobbies to be – gardening or sky diving? The point of this simple exercise is to make you aware of the stereotypes and expectations that may exist about people associated with particular jobs. When recruiting for any job, take care that you are not simply looking for a certain type of person because they are normally associated with the work of the vacant post.

When recruiting people, be alert to any personal prejudices or preferences you have which are not linked to the ability to do the job. Try to set these aside in favour of objective criteria of suitability related to the skills, experience and ability needed to perform the job. But should these criteria relate solely to the job or task requirements? We consider the issue of fit with the wider organisation in the next section.

3 Person–job fit or person–organisation fit?

3.1 A two-way process

It is important for both the job applicant and the organisation to ensure that the right job goes to the right person. Taking the wrong job may be just as disastrous for the employee as for the organisation. Recruitment and selection, therefore, involves the organisation (represented by the manager) and the applicant trying to discover the extent to which their separate interests are likely to be served by the appointment. In other words, it is a two-way process. Applicants should have a realistic picture of the job so that they can decide if they really want it and whether they could do it well. They should also be given the opportunity to consider what type of organisation they may be joining and whether it would suit them. There are two different approaches to assessing suitability for a particular job: person-job fit and person-organisation fit. They are based on different assumptions about people and what determines their behaviour at work.

3.2 Person–job fit

The traditional approach to recruitment and selection is based on the view that organisations should specify the requirements of the job as closely as possible and then look for individuals whose personal attributes fit those requirements. It is based on the assumption that human behaviour is determined by factors particular to the individual, and the clear implication is that selection techniques should be concerned with accessing and measuring these personal factors, which can then be compared with those required for the job.

The person-job fit approach has been criticised for a variety of reasons. In particular, the amount and pace of change in organisations mean that the jobs for which people are recruited often change. Consequently, organisations may be interested in potential beyond the immediate job, and people have the capacity to influence the organisation’s performance beyond the boundaries of their own jobs. Increasingly, it is seen as important to ensure that there is also a fit between the applicant and the organisation.

3.3 Person–organisation fit

This approach stresses that people’s behaviour and performance are strongly influenced by the environment in which they find themselves. So being successful in a job in one organisation does not necessarily imply success in a similar job in another. In assessing the suitability of a job applicant a manager should explore the reasons why a person has performed well in their existing job and consider whether similar conditions apply in the new job. Advocates of the person-organisation fit approach stress that an important consideration in recruitment is how suited the applicant is to the organisation – its style, approach, pace of change and informal ways of working. In other words, you need to think beyond whether someone simply has the technical skills to perform in the job and assess their fit with the culture of the organisation. However, this carries the danger of excluding suitably qualified candidates because their ‘face does not fit’. This approach suggests a greater need to describe the context of the job to applicants, including the difficulties and pressures associated with it. In general, ‘overselling’ a job can result in individuals leaving after a short time and hence the costs of a repeat recruitment and selection process and further managerial time.

4 Specifying job and person requirements

4.1 Initial assessment

To find the right person for the job, you need to have an accurate idea of the job itself and of the particular skills and attributes it demands. This can be carried out in a series of stages, as shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1

Figure 1 Stages of job and person analysis

However, before – or indeed after – the job analysis you might consider whether the vacant job needs to be filled at all. Reallocation of work, internal promotion or temporary transfer could be used to cover the tasks associated with the vacancy. Ask yourself whether the job needs to be changed, updated or filled at all before going any further. An apparent vacancy provides a real opportunity to consider the way work is organised and the skills the organisation needs to secure its future success; you might wish to consider aspects of person-organisation fit to help develop the job.

Assuming you decide to go ahead and recruit to the existing or changed post, you now need to analyse exactly what the job entails.

4.2 Job analysis

Job analysis involves examining a job systematically and in detail. There is no single way of doing this. Direct observation may be helpful if you are analysing repetitive manual jobs, for example. Discussion with the current job holder and supervisor or line manager is also a useful source of information. Another method of job analysis is to use the checklist approach illustrated in Box 1, ticking off the various aspects of the job as you consider them.

Box 1: Checklist – undertaking a job analysis

Check 1 – The key words approach

□ What is done?

□ When is it done?

□ Where is it done?

□ How is it done?

Check 2 – What is the job holder responsible for?

□ Responsibility for the work of others

□ Responsibility for physical resources

□ Responsibility for budgets/money

Check 3 – What sorts of working relationships are involved?

□ Relationships with superiors (if any)

□ Relationships with colleagues

□ Relationships with other departments or agencies

□ Relationships with customers/clients/users

□ Relationships with individuals supervised

Check 4 – What are the job requirements?

□ Required standard of performance and results

□ Required skills and experience

□ Required analytical skills

□ Required education and training

□ Required physique and health (if appropriate)

□ Required motivation and social skills

□ Required attitude or general approach to the work involved

Check 5 – What are the working conditions?

□ The physical environment

□ The social conditions and work group context

□ The economic conditions including funding and pay

Check 6 – Who should be consulted about the analysis?

□ Check back with the job holder

□ Check back with his or her line manager

(Source: based on Cowling and Mailer, 1981, p. 9)

4.3 Organisational analysis

The broader organisational requirements can be as important as the specific ones for the job itself. The organisation needs creativity, flexibility, the ability to work in a small team, and so on, from the job holder. In line with the person-organisation fit described earlier, it is important to think beyond the technical aspects of the job to the cultural aspects of the organisation.

4.4 Job description

From your analysis of the job you can write a job description which will state what the job holder is responsible for and what they are required to do (see Example 1).

Example 1: Job description for a Buying Manager

Job title: Buying Department Manager

Job grade: 10

Responsible to: Contracts Manager

A: Summary of main responsibilities and activities

  • Has overall responsibility for procurement of contracts for both direct orders and subcontracts, including negotiating terms and conditions with suppliers, initiating enquiries, analysing quotations, with detailed involvement in very large or complex orders.
  • Liaises with Estimating and Engineering departments for technical and cost information; makes recommendations on selection of suppliers.
  • Responsible for preparation of contracts.
  • Arranges storage of material for delayed contracts.
  • Responsible for inspection and expedition of orders to ensure that material, plant and equipment meet the specifications for the job and are available when required. Issues inspection and test reports to the client.
  • Authorises payment to suppliers and subcontractors.
  • Negotiates increased costs with suppliers in association with Contracts Manager.

B: Specific responsibilities

1. Staff

  • Direct: Responsible for Senior Buyer, Buyer, Assistant Buyer, Senior Expediter.
  • Indirect: Responsible for selection, training, development and appraisal of all buying and inspection staff in liaison with Contracts Manager.

2. Assets

  • Recommends selection of suppliers and equipment.

3. Planning

  • Plans allocation and organisation of work in Contract Buying and Expedition Department.
  • Provides advice to Contracts Manager during contract planning.

4. Technical decisions

  • Recommends selection of suppliers and subcontractors on the basis of commercial considerations.

5. Financial

  • Responsible for negotiating terms and conditions with suppliers and subcontractors, up to £150,000.
  • Ensures that all orders are executed within Estimators’ budget.
  • Recommends authorisation of final payments to suppliers and subcontractors.

6. Confidential information

  • Prices, discounts, profit margins and similar commercial information.

7. Degree of supervision

  • Works within the broad directives of Contracts Manager. Reports monthly on deviations in terms of cost, time, quality, etc.

8. Contacts

  • Liaises with Head Office staff, for example Contracts Manager, Project Engineer, Design Engineers.
  • Suppliers and subcontractors.
  • Clients (occasional).
  • Site staff.

9. Working conditions

  • Head Office based, in city centre; fortnightly visits to suppliers.
  • Pace of work is often demanding, working with strict time pressures; involves overall responsibility for a large number of contracts simultaneously.

10. Organisational requirements

  • Must be flexible and able to work on own initiative. Must be able to work as part of a team and to interact effectively with external contacts.
(Source: Cowling and Mailer, 1981, pp. 12–13)

Example 1 is a comprehensive description, setting out a full range of responsibilities. There is no one right way of setting out job descriptions and you may find that the ones used in your organisation look different and may be less detailed in comparison. An accurate job description has various uses outside the recruitment process: for example, it can be used to review staff performance in appraisals or to assess training needs when someone new starts with the organisation. Within the recruitment process, the job description leads on to the next stage of specifying the type of person you are looking for to fill your vacancy.

4.5 Person specification

Once the job and organisational analyses and the job description have been completed (see Figure 1), the next stage is to write a specification of the kind of person needed to fill the job you have just described. It is important to be as precise as possible about the skills, knowledge, qualifications and attributes that are required for the job and about the experience and personal characteristics that are needed. It is good practice to specify what is essential or the minimum required to perform the job, as well as what is desirable. To decide on the qualities required for the person specification you need to pick out key features from the job description. Think also about the context of the job and the wider organisational requirements to specify any elements of person-organisation fit that are important.

Table 1 is an example of a completed person specification; we have added some imaginary aspects of person-organisation fit under ‘Personality’.

When constructing a person specification you need not follow the format described in the table; your organisation may have a standard approach. The exact format of the person specification is less important than making sure you capture what the suitable applicant requires in order to perform the job and fit with the organisation’s way of working and culture. You will have noted the ‘How ascertained?’ column in the table. This signals the need to think through how you will measure or assess the specification you are looking for.

Table 1: Person specification for the position of Buying Department Manager

Characteristics Essential/minimum Desirable How ascertained?
Physical attributes Good health record Excellent health record Medical report
Few absences from work Previous employers’ sickness records
Tidy appearance Smart appearance
Creates good impression on others Interview
Capable of working for long hours under pressure Give examples at interview
Mental attributes Top 50 per cent for general intelligence, verbal ability and numerical ability Top 30 per cent for general intelligence, verbal ability and numerical ability Possible use of selection tests
Education and qualifications Good general school results with particular aptitude for English Two A-levels (post-16 higher examination) or equivalent Certificate or Diploma in Management Qualification certificates
Membership of professional body Membership of professional institute Documentation
Experience, training and skills Five years’ experience in purchasing Ten years’ experience in purchasing Curriculum vitae (CV)
Two years’ experience of supervising small office or section Successful record of supervising qualified staff CV/interview: examples
Successful completion of reputable management training course Attendance/qualification certificates
Good social skills
Fluent in two European languages, including English
Ability to write good reports and understand basic financial information Ability to plan, organise, coordinate and control work under pressure CV/interview: examples
Personality Career record shows ability to adjust to normal social circumstances Mature and socially well adjusted Interview
Thrives on challenge and change and has an ability to develop new approaches to the work Able to communicate at all levels Interview
Evidence of experience of dealing with external clients CV
Special circumstances Able to work overtime and at weekends Willing to work long hours when required, and to transfer to other locations in Europe Person’s experience
Able to travel to suppliers Fully mobile with valid driving licence Interview
(Source: based on Cowling and Mailer, 1981, p. 19)

Activity 2

0 hours 15 minutes

If you have a job description for your current post, construct a person specification for the job based on a format similar to that in Table 1. Decide what you think should be in the person specification, even if this differs from any actual person specification there may be for your job. Alternatively, or in addition, you could do this for a person who works with or for you. If you do not have a description for your current job, try to work from the main duties and responsibilities you have. (This may convince you that it is easier to work from a fairly thorough job description.) Also, in constructing this person specification, try to indicate some person-organisation fit requirements which may be relevant to your own situation.

  • Physical attributes
  • Mental attributes
  • Education and qualifications
  • Experience, training and skills
  • Personality
  • Special circumstances

When you have completed this task, check what you have written, bearing the following points in mind.

  • Have you thought about the qualities needed to cope with the difficult parts of the job?
  • Have you considered any particular qualities that would be required to fit the culture of the organisation?
  • How carefully have you thought through the education/training needed for the work? Remember that qualifications are only one way of knowing what people have to offer. Skills and experience gained in a whole variety of contexts – for example parenting, voluntary work, leisure interests – can sometimes be just as relevant.
  • Have you included any rigid requirements based on age, physical ability or length of paid work experience which may be questionable on equal opportunities grounds and constitute ‘indirect discrimination’ (specifying a criterion that would effectively debar someone because of their ethnic group, gender, age, disability, etc.)?
  • Have you said which qualities and attributes would be essential and which desirable? Remember, if something is ‘essential’ you should be able to justify it.
  • Is the specification credible? Do such people exist? Are they likely to apply for the salary offered? What are the options if the answers to these questions are probably ‘no’?

4.6 Recruiting and selecting internal candidates

Where an existing member of staff is applying for a post, you will already have knowledge of their personality, skills, fit with the organisation and so on. However, whether the job they are applying for is very similar to or different from the one they are doing currently, you need to ensure that they receive the same treatment as other candidates. Being an internal candidate is not easy. It can be both an advantage and a disadvantage to be known! Maintaining our theme of objectivity, the recruitment and selection process needs to be seen by all to be fair and equitable.

4.7 Attracting applicants

You have now established the criteria for recruiting the kind of person you are looking for; the next step is to find someone who meets these criteria. Obviously, you must make it known to people that a vacancy exists. Before placing an expensive advertisement in a newspaper or professional journal you should consider alternatives. There are a variety of methods of publicising recruitment in addition to the traditional media advertisement (see Box 2).

Box 2: Sources of recruits

  • Internal advertisements
  • Advertising in a range of newspapers and professional and specialist publications
  • Employment agencies and job centres
  • Selection consultants who advertise on your behalf and may screen applicants
  • Executive search consultants (headhunters) who will try to track down suitable candidates for your post
  • Introductions by existing staff, word of mouth. To prevent discrimination this should be accompanied by more formal mechanisms
  • Previous applicants
  • Unsolicited applications
  • The Internet
  • School or university contacts
  • Planned promotions from formal assessment schemes

4.8 Advertising

If you are managing the recruitment process by a traditional route you will now need to consider advertising the vacancy. Your organisation may have a specific policy or rules governing advertising. The cost of advertising can constitute a significant proportion of any recruitment expenditure and you need to ensure you get an effective response at the least possible cost. The important factors are:

  • the content of the advertisement (key elements of the job, location, salary, etc.)
  • the medium used to carry the advertisement (national paper, professional journal, local magazine, etc.)
  • the timing of the advertisement.

Where you advertise the job is important. If you are looking for specialist skills, then targeting professional journals may be more effective than using a national newspaper. If you are attempting to encourage applicants from specific groups such as people with disabilities, then the websites or magazines of particular societies may be an option.

Just as the content of the advertisement should encourage suitable people to apply for the job, it should also discourage unsuitable candidates from applying. Much individual and organisational time can be wasted in sifting through unsuitable applications, and it is unfair to applicants to raise false expectations. The information contained in the advertisement should be taken largely from the job analysis and the job description (see Box 3).

Box 3: Contents of a job advertisement

The advertisement should be factual, truthful and relevant. Ludlow and Panton (1991) suggest that it should contain the following:

  • the job title, in terms likely to be familiar to the reader; avoid jargon
  • the name of the organisation, the nature of its activity and the location of the job
  • the aims and responsibilities of the job
  • the qualifications required and the experience needed – this will be a summary of the person specification
  • the salary and fringe benefits; where possible, state the salary range
  • genuine promotion prospects
  • the manner in which applications should be made; for example asking the applicant to send a CV, or to write or telephone for an application form and further information
  • the closing date, if there is one, for applications.

Remember that the advertisement is a public relations opportunity for the organisation. It needs to present the best face of the organisation in order to attract the best applicants. Antidiscrimination employment legislation in many countries applies to most stages of the recruitment process, including advertising. Legislation may make it illegal to discriminate, either directly or indirectly, on the grounds of ethnicity, disability, colour, gender or marital status.

4.9 Further particulars, application forms and dealing with paperwork

One way of offering more information than can be put into an advertisement is to send further particulars to people who respond. These could explain, for example, current and future developments within the organisation. If your organisation already has a standard application form, you will almost certainly use that. Otherwise, you could ask applicants to write a letter of application, possibly accompanied by a CV. It is also useful to ask for details of referees at this stage, but bear in mind that candidates might have objections to them being contacted before the job is offered.

Handling the administration of the recruitment process is largely a clerical activity – but that does not mean you can ignore it. Here are a few points you should bear in mind:

  • Candidates will be particularly anxious to know what is happening, so you will probably need to brief the switchboard and your colleagues or secretary to handle expected calls.
  • Application forms and further particulars should be ready to go out immediately after a candidate contacts the organisation. Keep records of the people to whom they are sent.
  • Keep a record of returned application forms, and acknowledge these by return of post, preferably with some indication of what the next step will be. If costs prevent this, invite applicants to include a stamped addressed envelope if they require acknowledgement of receipt.
  • Give as much notice as possible to those whom you intend to interview, giving them some choice of date and time if that is feasible, and ask them if they have any special needs. They should also be given a name and telephone number to contact if they have any queries. Make sure they know where and when to attend for the interview.
  • Send a courteous letter to those who are not shortlisted as soon as you are certain they will not be required.
  • If you intend to take up references, you should send out letters as soon as possible, allowing plenty of time for the references to arrive before the date of the interviews. But make sure candidates are happy for you to ask for references from their current employer before you send out the letters.
  • Keep detailed records of all correspondence at every stage.

4.10 Shortlisting

It is common to shortlist up to six applicants per position, but the exact number may reflect the time you have available for interviewing and the strength of the applicants. The important point is to ensure that as far as possible you finish up with the best possible candidates on the shortlist. This can best be achieved by approaching the task systematically. In other words, the systematic use of criteria as detailed in the job specification should be preferred to reliance on intuition. It is sensible to reject those applications that do not match these key criteria closely. If feasible, keeping a set of notes as you shortlist is a good idea. This helps you to remember or explain the grounds on which you decided to interview or reject each candidate.

Activity 3

0 hours 20 minutes

The following details have been taken from application forms submitted by candidates for the post of Buying Department Manager. The job description can be found in Example 1 and the person specification in Table 1. Imagine that you have already shortlisted three good candidates and need to add only one more to complete your shortlist.

Terry Churchill Anne Olsen Colin Compton Renate Schmidt
Address Suburbs Village 50 miles away City centre 200 miles away-willing to relocate
Age 58 34 45 43
Driving licence Yes Yes No Yes
Nationality British British British German
Current employer ABC Computers pic Cheapshops Compact Manufacturing Ltd Deutsch Chemicals
Size of organisation £400m turnover p.a. £35m turnover p.a. £60m turnover p.a. £600m turnover p.a.
Position held Purchasing Manager Senior Buyer Buyer Senior Buyer
Number of previous employers None Five Four None
Professional qualifications Member of professional institute Member of professional institute Member of professional institute None
Education 3 A-levels, 8 GCSEs/O-levels 5 GCSEs/O-levels 2 A-levels, 8 GCSEs/O-levels Arbitur
Further education Degree in Chemistry; MBA Certificate in Management Degree in Operations Management; Certificate in Management Degree in Economics from Wuppertal University; Diploma in Management
Court convictions None None Yes: driving offence None
Other information Member of the local Chamber of Commerce Studying for Professional Diploma in Management; fluent English and Danish Studying for Professional Diploma in Management Fluent English, German and French; studying for MBA

Who would you shortlist? Why did you make this choice?

The following table might help you to make a decision. It records whether each candidate reaches the ‘minimum’ or the ‘desirable’ level.

Terry Churchill Anne Olsen Colin Compton Renate Schmidt
Education Desirable Minimum Desirable Desirable
Further education Desirable Desirable Desirable Desirable
Professional qualifications Desirable Minimum Desirable None
Experience of purchasing Desirable (too much?) Possibly Desirable Desirable
Management of people Desirable Minimum Minimum Desirable
Languages None Some None Desirable
Travel Desirable Desirable Possibly Desirable

Several of the characteristics on the job specification are impossible to determine from a candidate’s application form. And several of the observable characteristics require some guesswork. You must, therefore, be careful not to put too much weight on subjective judgements. However, the following factors may affect your decision.

Anne Olsen seems the least qualified candidate, mainly because the buying skills required for a retail shop are likely to be very different from the buying skills that you are looking for.

Colin Compton seems excellent, apart from his lack of a driving licence and his conviction. But he lives locally and could easily get to work. How essential is a driving licence for the fortnightly visits to suppliers? As for the conviction, he has paid the penalty – should he be further disadvantaged?

Terry Churchill seems an excellent candidate, but two factors might have influenced you against him: his age and his experience. He is 58 years old and he seems very senior. Is he too senior? But is that a fair question to ask? His motivation for applying is important, not his age. It is important to ask questions in order to reveal whether the candidate is able to do the job, and not for other reasons.

Two factors appear to weaken Renate Schmidt’s application: she is not a member of a professional body and she needs to relocate. However, in Germany it is not common for people to join professional bodies and she has applied for the job in the knowledge that she must relocate.

4.11 References

References can be useful, but they do have some limitations: no one would supply the name of a referee who was likely to give a bad reference. However, it is always a good idea to request them of the candidates who have been shortlisted (but, as we have already said, bear in mind that some candidates may not want their employers approached until they have actually been offered a job). It is helpful for referees if you enclose all the information sent out to the prospective candidate and point out clearly any essential requirements of the job. You may want to ask specific questions relating to the candidate’s suitability in certain areas.

4.12 Candidates make decisions too

In the past people have tended to see selection primarily as organisations choosing between individuals. However, we must not forget that candidates are also making choices: about whether to write in for an application form, whether to apply, whether to attend an interview, whether to accept an offered job. This makes it important for organisations to treat candidates in a sensitive and responsive manner. They will need to pay attention to their recruitment materials, to provide realistic job descriptions and to be aware of how candidates are treated.

Recruitment processes vary between sectors and between organisations. They are also constantly changing (Box 4).

Box 4: Internet recruitment

There has been a significant increase in the use of the Internet for recruitment purposes. One way of using the Internet is to post vacancy advertisements on some of the specially created ‘job boards’ – electronic versions of a newspaper’s situations pages. Another method is to incorporate a recruitment section in a company website. Although there are capital costs to this, they may represent a modest investment considering the price of national newspaper advertisements and the potential long-term use of a website. Organisations need to encourage potential recruits to visit the site by placing small advertisements on job boards and in the press indicating the organisation’s web address.

The audience for recruitment websites has been concentrated in younger age groups and professional occupations, although this is likely to broaden out. Recruitment costs may be reduced – some US firms claim a 45 per cent saving by using the Internet.

Criteria for success are that visitors to a company website should find it convenient to use, up to date and offering online application facilities. The advantage to the organisation is the technical simplicity of adding applicant details to its database and in conducting online dialogue with applicants about job and career requirements so that they can be advised when a suitable vacancy arises.

Thus the Internet offers several attractions to both recruiters and job hunters.

5 Methods of selection

5.1 The interview as a selection method: pros and cons

Traditionally, the interview has been the main means of assessing the suitability of candidates for a job. Almost all organisations use the interview at some stage in their selection process. Similarly, most applicants expect to be interviewed. Interviews are useful for assessing such personal characteristics as practical intelligence and interpersonal and communication skills. The interview can be used for answering applicants’ questions, selling the organisation and negotiating terms and conditions. It is a matter of debate whether an interview accurately assesses ability at work, relevant experience and work skills. A further problem with interviews is that factors that are not related to the job influence the decision: clothing, colour, ethnic origin, gender, accent, physical features or a disability might be such factors. There is also evidence that interviewers make decisions very rapidly on little information. You need to be aware of the potential pitfalls in using selection interviews and may choose to supplement them with a variety of tests. Some of these are considered below.

5.2 Tests as a selection tool

There are various types of tests and ways in which they might be used as part of the selection process (see Box 5). Before using any kind of test you should ensure that you know why you are using it and how it relates to the job specification.

Box 5: Selection tests

Aptitude tests

  • Tests of physical ability: used for the selection of manual workers. For example, a test of the ability to perform lifting operations might be used.
  • Mental ability tests: tests of literacy, numeracy and intelligence.
  • Analogous tests: tests which simulate some of the actual tasks in the job, for example a typing or word-processing test for secretaries. Group problem-solving exercises and presentations may be suitable for managerial jobs.

Personality tests

The use of these in selection comes from the assumption that certain jobs require certain personalities and that tests can identify them. The most common form of personality test is questionnaires designed to rate respondents on various personality dimensions. The individual is rated for being persuasive, socially confident, competitive, decisive, introspective, artistic, conceptual, traditional, independent, extravert, stable, optimistic, and so on. Most reputable personality tests need to be administered and scored by trained and licensed users. Organisations selling personality tests usually recommend that they are not the only method used for selection.

Assessment centre

This is a process, rather than a place, that uses a number of selection techniques in combination. A typical assessment centre would assemble 12 applicants after screening and subject them to tests such as intelligence tests, presentations, group work and interviews.

Tests can be very useful in the selection process as they actually replicate certain parts of the job, whereas a selection interview can only indicate whether the person has that ability. However, most tests are time-consuming to administer and can be used indiscriminately. It would be very unusual to use a test as the sole means of selecting and, particularly with personality tests, it should not be the major evidence on which the decision to appoint or not is made. Very often the results of personality tests are used in interviews as the basis for further investigation and questioning about an applicant’s abilities.

5.3 The selection interview

The aim of the selection interview is to determine whether the candidate is interested in the job and competent to do it. A selection interview also has the following functions:

  • to explain the work of the organisation, the job and any features such as induction and probation
  • to set expectations on both sides, including a realistic discussion of any potential difficulties (if appropriate)
  • to enable the candidate to assess whether they want the job being offered.

Selection interviews are not easy to conduct and it is preferable – some organisations insist on it – that everyone involved has participated in some kind of training. Most managers believe they can interview competently but probably few have subjected their interviewing practice to close scrutiny and thought about how they can improve their performance. Important decisions have to be made, such as how many people should be on the interview panel, who would be the most appropriate people, and what role they should play. One-to-one selection interviews are difficult to conduct, not least because there is more likelihood of subjectivity creeping in.

Preparation is an extremely important stage in the process. Box 6 indicates four factors to consider in preparing for an interview and gives some examples.

Box 6: Considerations in interview preparation

What does the interviewer(s) need for the interview?

  • Job description, person specification
  • Individual application forms, CVs, etc.
  • Details of terms and conditions of employment: hours of work, fringe benefits, perks, etc.
  • Information on general prospects, training, induction etc. within the organisation

What does the candidate need?

  • Details of venue; to be met on arrival
  • Access to facilities: toilets, any special needs for candidates with disabilities
  • Comfortable waiting area

Location requirements

  • Suitable room and layout: consider whether formal or informal and what type of setting to create
  • Freedom from interruptions and other discomforts and distractions such as extraneous noise, uncomfortable furniture, extremes of temperature, etc.
  • Appropriate access for people with special needs

Requirements of a good interview

  • A structured interview plan enabling the interviewer(s) to assess what they are looking for in the candidate and whether the person:
    • could do the job (assessment against the person specification)
    • would do the job (judgements of motivation and commitment)
    • would fit (elements of person-organisation fit)

    (Note: a well-developed person specification should include criteria relating to all three areas.)

  • A clear idea of the areas of questioning for each candidate to check that they fulfil the criteria
  • Agreement on the roles of those involved in the interview if there is a panel: who will chair and how questions will be divided among the panel members in an organised way
  • A disciplined approach to timing: enough time for each candidate and not too many candidates per day

Interviews have distinct and recognisable stages, and individuals have certain expectations about what should happen when, but try not to become routinised or mechanistic in your approach.

5.4 Structuring the interview

5.4.1 Introduction and Starting

In a panel interview one member will need to take the chair; this person will then be responsible for initiating, controlling and closing the interview. It is also the role of the chair to link and control the contributions of the panel members.

If you are the chair, you should always introduce the panel members to the candidate and explain how the interview will be conducted. A relaxed and skilful lead interviewer will then continue to establish and maintain rapport throughout the exchange with the candidate.

5.4.2 The main body of the interview

Your main objective is to gather information. A practical target is to expect the candidate to talk for 70 per cent of the time. Example 2 describes the kind of conduct to avoid when interviewing.

Example 2: Interview weaknesses

David was really pleased to have been asked to an interview for the job of Project Manager. He spent a lot of time preparing for the interview, finding out more about the organisation in his local library and collating the documentation required, such as qualification certificates, additional references and so on.

On the day of the interview, David arrived early but was not asked into the interview room until 30 minutes after his allotted time. The first thing he was asked to do by a member of the panel was ‘describe your major weaknesses and what you have done to overcome them’. This completely floored David and he struggled to respond. It was not a good start. A second member of the panel quizzed him closely about his fluency in other languages but was sharply reminded by his colleague that it was not that job they were interviewing for. The third member of the panel asked some relevant questions, but all the time David was talking he was looking through a pile of papers on the desk in front of him.

David received a letter a week later offering him the job; he decided not to accept.

Some essential interviewing skills are outlined below.

Effective questioning. The level of detail you require from a question should determine the way you ask it. Some questions have a very broad focus and will stimulate the candidate to talk at length while you look out for specific things you want to check on. When you find something, you can zoom in on it and ask a probing question so that you receive a precise answer (a ‘closed’ question). The skill in questioning is, therefore, to frame your questions to suit your purpose. When you open up a new area of enquiry, you need to use ‘open’ questions that will start the candidate talking. Take care not to make them too broad, especially in the early stages, or you will leave the candidate floundering and wondering what to say. As you identify specific items that you want to concentrate on, you can start to focus your questions using different types as appropriate.

Another common approach is the use of questions about specific incidents from the past that demonstrate the candidate’s suitability for the current job. This is sometimes known as behavioural interviewing. Consider approaches to assessing whether someone is a good project manager. You could say to them, ‘Tell me what you know about project management.’ Equally, you could ask, ‘How would you ensure that a project runs to plan?’ The skilful interviewee will take this opportunity to present their wide range of knowledge about project management approaches and techniques, almost textbook fashion. However, does this mean that they are a good project manager in practice? An alternative approach would be to ask them about actual instances when they have managed projects and what they did to ensure the success of the project. For example, a question such as ‘Tell me about the most complex project you have had to manage in the past’ will open up the discussion. You could then listen for cues to probe specifically what they contributed to that project in order to assess their project management skills. The interviewee might say, ‘There was one particular project that was really difficult as we were working to such tight deadlines, but we met them.’ The interviewer’s probing question would be something like, ‘What did you do personally to ensure that the deadlines were met?’ The probing is used to elicit actual examples of what someone has done in the past to show they are skilled in a particular area. This can be much more effective than asking hypothetical questions that only test a person’s knowledge.

Some examples of questions you might ask in relation to other aspects of managerial jobs are set out in Table 2.

Table 2: Examples of behavioural questions for managerial jobs
Aspect of job Possible questions
Developing staff What has been your most satisfying experience in the past of developing a staff member? What did you do specifically to achieve it?
Managing conflict Tell me about a time when you have had to mediate in a conflict between two people. What did you do?
Representing your group or organisation What has been the most difficult representational role you have had to perform in the past? How did you ensure that the best interests of the group/organisation were safeguarded?

There are some general points about interview questions:

  • The questions should be capable of eliciting information that is relevant to success or failure at work.
  • They should not be random or overlapping; rather, they should be comprehensive, grouped in an organised way and clearly distinguishable.
  • Similar areas of questioning should be used for all candidates.
  • The questions should allow you to compare each candidate with the job/person specification.

We have been looking at examples of questions about the job itself, but how can you assess the degree of fit between the person and the organisation, as discussed previously? Box 7 provides some examples of questions related to fit with the organisation which you might find useful.

Box 7: Examples of organisation fit questions
  1. Could you compare the cultures of the organisations where you have worked before and say how the differences affected your behaviour at work?
  2. Where were you happiest at work? (followed by) What was it about the place that made you feel like this?
  3. Why did you decide to join each of the organisations you have worked for?
  4. What factors will cause you to decide whether or not to leave your current employer?
  5. How is your effectiveness measured in your present job?
  6. How do you cope with working in teams?
  7. What are the things you have regretted leaving behind at places where you have worked in the past?
(Source: based on Billsberry, 2000, pp. 156–7)

Controlling the flow of the interview. This is the second key interview skill: the ability to keep a candidate talking about the things you need to know about. Different kinds of interview require different levels of control. A good interviewer can adjust their style to the particular circumstances of the interview while it is in progress. To be able to control the direction and flow of the interview so that it corresponds closely with the plan, an interviewer needs to be aware of the control mechanisms available. These can be the types of questions asked and encouraging sounds and body language, such as maintaining eye contact, sitting forward, nodding and smiling as appropriate.

Using listening skills. Your third essential skill is active listening. This means you need to concentrate, give all your attention to someone and, where appropriate, summarise and reflect on what they say. Be aware of factors – personal and environmental – that can interfere with your ability to receive and interpret signals, such as noise outside the room, room temperature and clarity of speech.

Evaluating the information. Your fourth skill is concerned with assessing what you hear from the candidate. As the interview proceeds you will need to be assessing whether the answers to your questions are producing useful evidence of job suitability, or are superficial and raise doubts about suitability.

5.5 Closing and deciding

5.5.1 Drawing the interview to a close

Up to now we have been considering how to control and conduct the main body of an interview. There remains, however, the need to draw it to a satisfactory close. You should remember that, while you are trying to select the best candidate, the candidates are also ‘selecting’ you. You need to remember that you as an interviewer are being assessed and selected, and you need to ensure your presentational and interpersonal skills are up to the job.

When you are satisfied that you have all the information you require, it is important that you give the candidate two invitations:

  • first, to tell you about anything that has not been covered, or to expand on anything that has not been adequately covered (for example, a relevant accomplishment that the candidate wants you to know about)
  • second, to ask you questions in order to clarify any features of the job or the terms and conditions associated with it.

Only when the candidate has had this opportunity should you begin concluding the interview. It is good practice to summarise any agreements or understandings that may have been reached and to give a clear indication of what is likely to happen next, and when.

5.5.2 Reaching a final decision

Having seen all the candidates, you can now start to pull together your notes and impressions and make a final decision. It is probably worth allowing a little time to gather your thoughts and/or discuss initial observations with colleagues or the interview panel after every interview so that your memory is not confused. The person specification should again play a major role in your final decision. Your questions should have been geared to elicit the necessary information from each applicant to enable you to ascertain their suitability against the agreed criteria. Example 3 shows the importance of meeting the person specification.

Example 3: Meeting the criteria

In the city hospital, the Personnel Manager was called upon by the Outpatients supervisor to help in a case of poor performance – the individual concerned was generally offhand with staff and patients and was only meeting minimum standards in her written work. She had been in post for about six months.

The Personnel Manager asked about the appointment. The supervisor admitted that the individual’s references had not been all that impressive. She also admitted later: ‘No one on the panel wanted to appoint her but she met all the criteria so we felt we had to – we can never recruit to these posts anyway.’

The Personnel Manager was worried by this and made a mental note to talk to her colleagues about it. She was aware that it was extremely difficult to fill advertised posts in certain departments in the hospital. However, she felt strongly that this should not result in the appointment of staff who did not meet the person specification. More thought was required in terms of where the posts were advertised and the shortlisting and interviewing skills of staff in the hospital.

The planning of the selection process will help you to reach an objective decision, but intuition cannot be completely ignored. What is important is that you can explain objectively – preferably to colleagues and not just to yourself – the basis of your intuition. If you feel that one candidate would fit perfectly into your team, what is it – precisely – that gives you that impression?

Activity 4
0 hours 10 minutes

Think back to the most recent interview you have participated in, either as an interviewer or as an interviewee. With the models and suggestions of this session in mind:

  1. Identify and explain at least one positive aspect of the way the interview was conducted.
  2. Identify and explain at least one weak aspect of it.
  3. Make a note of three things from this session that you will try to apply when next conducting an interview.

There is no universal formula for conducting interviews successfully. Your own style and your panel’s self-confidence in pursuing what they want to ascertain are important ingredients of an effective interview. However, the discussion of common pitfalls and proven techniques may help you to increase your confidence and effectiveness in this important selection medium.

6 Summary

This unit has looked at specifying the requirements of a job by drawing up a job description and a person specification. We considered how you might indicate the qualities required of individuals in relation to person-organisation fit as well as the more traditional approach of person-job fit. We then considered various methods of attracting candidates and the process of arriving at a shortlist. We have stressed the importance of preparing for the selection process, be it an interview alone or with accompanying tests. The importance of effective interviewing skills was also emphasised.

  • Objective recruitment requires preparation and an awareness of the tendency of recruiters to look positively on similarities with themselves and negatively on differences (halo and horns effects).
  • The person–job fit approach concentrates on measuring the candidate’s attributes in relation to the specific job vacancy.
  • The person–organisation fit approach considers how well suited the candidate is to the organisation.
  • The key stages of good selection are: the job analysis; the job description; the person specification.
  • Applicants can be attracted by a wide range of media, but all advertising requires effective back-up recruitment administration, including the shortlisting and reference processes.
  • Job advertisements need to be carefully constructed to attract high-quality applicants.
  • Aptitude and personality tests can supplement interviews, sometimes using assessment centres.
  • Key features of effective selection interviews include:
    • training of interviewers
    • composition of panel
    • preparation, including details of who will ask which questions
    • timing
    • role of panel chair
    • the candidate doing most of the talking
    • open and behavioural questions
    • organisation fit questions
    • controlling the flow
    • listening skills
    • closure
    • using the person specification to reach final decisions

References

Billsberry, J. (2000) Finding and keeping the Right People, 2nd edn, London, Prentice-Hall
Cowling, A.G. and Mailer, C.J.B (1981) Managing Human Resources, London, Edward Arnold.
Ludlow, R. and Panton, F. (1991) The Essence of Successful Staff Selection, London, Prentice-Hall.

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Introduction to Bookkeeping and Accounting

Introduction

In this unit we introduce you to the essential skills and concepts of bookkeeping and accounting. To start with you will gain some practical skills in numeracy including learning about rearranging simple equations as well as some important calculator skills. Afterwards, you will gain knowledge and understanding of the fundamental principles that underpin bookkeeping and accounting. You will learn the time-honoured rules of double-entry bookkeeping and also how to prepare a trial balance and the two principal financial statements: the balance sheet (also known as the statement of financial position) and the profit and loss account (also known as the income statement).

Learning outcomes

After studying this unit, you should be able to:

  • understand and apply the essential numerical skills required for bookkeeping and accounting
  • understand and explain the relationship between the accounting equation and double-entry bookkeeping
  • record transactions in the appropriate ledger accounts using the double-entry bookkeeping system
  • balance off ledger accounts at the end of an accounting period
  • prepare a trial balance, balance sheet and a profit and loss account

1 Essential numerical skills required for bookkeeping and accounting

Expertise in mathematics is not required to succeed as a bookkeeper or an accountant. What is needed, however, is the confidence and ability to be able to add, subtract, multiply, divide as well as use decimals, fractions and percentages. Competent bookkeepers and accountants should be able to use mental calculations as well as a calculator to perform these numerical skills. The ability to use a calculator effectively is as important- as the ability to use a spreadsheet program.

The material in this section covers the essential numerical skills of addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, through to decimals, percentages, fractions and negative numbers. You are expected to use a calculator for most of the activities but you are also encouraged to use mental calculations. In the modern world, the assumption is that we use calculators to avoid the tedious process of working out calculations by hand or mentally. The danger, of course, is that you may use a calculator without understanding what an answer means or how it relates to the numbers that have been used. For example, if you calculate that 10% of £90 is £900 (which can easily happen if either you forget to press the per-cent key or it is not pressed hard enough), you should immediately notice that something is very wrong.

Using a calculator requires an understanding of what functions the buttons perform and in which order to carry out the calculations. Your need to study this material is dependent on your mathematical background. If you feel weak or rusty on basic arithmetic or maths, you should find this material helpful. The directions and symbols used will be those found on most standard calculators. (If you find that any of the instructions contained in this material do not produce the answer you expected, please follow the instructions of your calculator.)

There are four basic operations between numbers, each of which has its own notation:

  • Addition 7 + 34 = 41
  • Subtraction 34 – 7 = 27
  • Multiplication 21 x 3 = 63, or 21 * 3 = 63
  • Division 21 ÷ 3 = 7, or 21 / 3 = 7

The next section will examine the application of these operations and the correct presentation of the results arising from them.

1.1 Use of BODMAS and brackets

When several operations are combined, the order in which they are performed is important. For example, 12 + 21 x 3 might be interpreted in two different ways:

Activity 1

(a) add 12 to 21 and then multiply the result by 3

Answer

The first way gives a result of 99.

(b) multiply 21 by 3 and then add the result to 12

Answer

and the second a result of 75.

Discussion

We need some way of ensuring that only one possible interpretation can be placed upon the formula presented. For this we use BODMAS. BODMAS give us the correct sequence of operations to follow so that we always get the right answer:

  • (B)rackets
  • (O)rder
  • (D)ivision
  • (M)ultiplication
  • (A)ddition
  • (S)ubtraction

According to BODMAS, multiplication should always be done before addition, therefore 75 is actually the correct answer according to BODMAS.

(‘Order’ may be an unfamiliar term to you in this context but it is merely an alternative for the more common term, ‘power’ which means a number is multiplied by itself one or more times. The ‘power’ of one means that a number is multiplied by itself once, i.e., 2 x 1, 3 x 1, etc., the ‘power’ of two means that a number is multiplied by itself twice, i.e., 2 x 2, 3 x 3, etc. In mathematics, however, instead of writing 3 x 3 we write 32 and express this as three to the ‘power’ or ‘order’ of 2.)

Brackets are the first term used in BODMAS and should always be used to avoid any possibility of ambiguity or misunderstanding. A better way of writing 12 + 21 x 3 is thus 12 + (21 x 3). This makes it clear which operation should be done first.

12 + (21 x 3) is thus done on the calculator by keying in 21 x 3 first in the sequence:

Figure 1

Activity 2

Complete the following calculations.:

(a) (13 x 3) + 17

Answer

(a) 56

(b) (15 / 5) – 2

Answer

(b) 1

(c) (12 x 3) /2

Answer

(c) 18

(d) 17 – (3 x (2 + 3))

Answer

(d) 2 (Hint: did you enter the expression in the inner brackets i.e. (2 +3) first?)

(e) ((13 + 2) / 3) –4

Answer

(e) 1

(f) 13 x (3 + 17)

Answer

(f) 260

1.2 Use of calculator memory

A portable calculator is an extremely useful tool for a bookkeeper or an accountant. Although PCs normally have electronic calculators, there is no substitute for the convenience of a small, portable calculator or its equivalent in a mobile phone or personal organiser.

When using the calculator, it is safer to use the calculator memory (M+ on most calculators) whenever possible, especially if you need to do more than one calculation in brackets. The memory calculation will save the results of any bracket calculation and then allow that value to be recalled at the appropriate time. It is always good practice to clear the memory before starting any new calculations involving its use. You do so by pressing the MRC key, representing Memory Recall or its equivalent, twice. (Note: this key is often labelled R.MC or R.CM. The first time the key is pressed memory is recalled and the second time it is cleared. If in doubt about your calculator, consult its manual.)

Figure 2

Taking the previous example we can recalculate it using the memory function.

12 + (21 x 3) = 75

Figure 3

Activity 3

Use the memory on your calculator to calculate each of the following:

(a) 6 + (7 – 3)

Answer

(a) 10

(b) 14.7 / (0.3 + 4.6)

Answer

(b) 3

(c) 7 + (2 x 6)

Answer

(c) 19

(d) 0.12 + (0.001 x 14.6)

Answer

(d) 0.1346

1.3 Rounding

For most business and commercial purposes the degree of precision necessary when calculating is quite limited. While engineering can require accuracy to thousandths of a centimetre, for most other purposes tenths will do. When dealing with cash, the minimum legal tender in the UK is one penny, or £00.01, so unless there is a very special reason for doing otherwise, it is sufficient to calculate pounds to the second decimal place only.

However, if we use the calculator to divide £10 by 3, we obtain £3.3333333. Because it is usually only the first two decimal places we are concerned about, we forget the rest and write the result to the nearest penny of £3.33.

This is a typical example of rounding, where we only look at the parts of the calculation significant for the purposes in hand.

Consider the following examples of rounding to two decimal places:

  • 1.344 rounds to 1.34
  • 2.546 rounds to 2.55
  • 3.208 rounds to 3.21
  • 4.722 rounds to 4.72
  • 5.5555 rounds to 5.56
  • 6.9966 rounds to 7.00
  • 7.7754 rounds to 7.78

Rule of rounding

If the digit to round is below 5, round down. If the digit to round is 5 or above, round up.

Activity 4

Round the following numbers to two decimal places:

(a) 0.5678

Answer

(a) 0.57

(b) 3.9953

Answer

(b) 4.00

(c) 107.356427

Answer

(c) 107.36

Activity 5

Round the same numbers as above to three decimal places:

(a) 0.5678

Answer

(a) 0.568

(b) 3.9953

Answer

(b) 3.995

(c) 107.356427

Answer

(c) 107.356

1.4 Fractions

So far we have thought of numbers in terms of their decimal form, e.g., 4.567, but this is not the only way of thinking of, or representing, numbers. A fraction represents a part of something. If you decide to share out something equally between two people, then each receives a half of the total and this is represented by the symbol ½.

A fraction is just the ratio of two numbers: 1/2, 3/5, 12/8, etc. We get the corresponding decimal form 0.5, 0.6, 1.5 respectively by performing division. The top half of a fraction is called the numerator and the bottom half the denominator, i.e., in 4/16, 4 is the numerator and 16 is the denominator. We divide the numerator (the top figure) by the denominator (the bottom figure) to get the decimal form. If, for instance, you use your calculator to divide 4 by 16 you will get 0.25.

A fraction can have many different representations. For example, 4/16, 2/8, and 1/4 all represent the same fraction, one quarter or 0.25. It is customary to write a fraction in the lowest possible terms. That is, to reduce the numerator and denominator as far as possible so that, for example, one quarter is shown as 1/4 rather than 2/8 or 4/16.

If we have a fraction such as 26/39 we need to recognise that the fraction can be reduced by dividing both the denominator and the numerator by the largest number that goes into both exactly. In 26/39 this number is 13 so (26/13) / (39/13) equates to 2/3.

We can perform the basic numerical operations on fractions directly. For example, if we wish to multiply 3/4 by 2/9 then what we are trying to do is to take 3/4 of 2/9, so we form the new fraction: 3/4 x 2/9 = (3 x 2) / (4 x 9) = 6/36 or 1/6 in its simplest form.

In general, we multiply two fractions by forming a new fraction where the new numerator is the result of multiplying together the two numerators, and the new denominator is the result of multiplying together the two denominators.

Addition of fractions is more complicated than multiplication. This can be seen if we try to calculate the sum of 3/5 plus 2/7. The first step is to represent each fraction as the ratio of a pair of numbers with the same denominator. For this example, we multiply the top and bottom of 3/5 by 7, and the top and bottom of 2/7 by 5. The fractions now look like 21/35 and 10/35 and both have the same denominator, which is 35. In this new form we just add the two numerators.

(3/5) + (2/7) = (21/35) + (10/35)

= (21 + 10) / 35

= 31/35

Activity 6

(a) Convert the following fractions to decimal form (rounded to three decimal places) by dividing the numerator by the denominator on your calculator:

(i) 125/1000

Answer

(i) 0.125

(ii) 8/24

Answer

(ii) 0.333

(iii) 32/36

Answer

(iii) 0.889

(b) Perform the following operations between the fractions given:

(i) 1/2 x 2/3

Answer

(i) 1/3

(ii) 11/34 x 17/19

Answer

(ii) 187/646 = 11/38 (if top and bottom both divided by 17)

(iii) 2/5 x 7/11

Answer

(iii) 14/55

(iv) 1/2 + 2/3

Answer

(iv) 7/6 or 1 1/6

(v) 3/4 x 4/5

Answer

(v) 12/20 simplified to 3/5

1.5 Ratios

Ratios give exactly the same information as fractions. Accountants make extensive use of ratios in assessing the financial performance of an organisation.

A supervisor’s time is spent in the ratio of 3:1 (pronounced ‘three to one’) between Departments A and B. (This may also be described as being ‘in the proportion of 3 to 1.’) Her time is therefore divided 3 parts in Department A and 1 part in Department B.

There are 4 parts altogether and:

  • 3/4 time is in Department A
  • 1/4 time is in Department B

If her annual salary is £24,000 then this could be divided between the two departments as follows:

  • Department A 3/4 x £24,000 = £18,000
  • Department B 1/4 x £24,000 = £6,000

Activity 7

A company has three departments who use the canteen. Running the canteen costs £45,000 per year and these costs need to be shared out among the three departments on the basis of the number of employees in each department.

Table 1
Department Number of employees
Production 125
Assembly 50
Distribution 25

How much should each department be charged for using the canteen?

Answer

Production

(125 / (125 + 50 + 25) x £45,000 = £28,125)

Assembly

(50 / (125 + 50 + 25) x £45,000 = £11,250)

Distribution

(25 / (125 + 50 + 25) x £45,000 = £5,625)

1.6 Percentages

Percentages also indicate proportions. They can be expressed either as fractions or as decimals:

45% = 45/100 = 0.45

7% = 7/100 = 0.07

Their unique feature is that they always relate to a denominator of 100. Percentage means simply ‘out of 100’ so 45% is ‘45 out of 100’, 7% is ‘7 out of 100’, etc.

A company is offered a loan to a maximum of 80% of the value of its premises. If the premises are valued at £120,000 then the company can borrow the following:

£120,000 x 80% = £120,000 x 0.80 = £96,000

Fractions and decimals can also be converted to percentages. To change a decimal to a percentage you need to multiply by 100:

0.8 = 80%

0.75 = 75%

To change a percentage to a decimal you need to divide by 100:

60% = 0.6

3% = 0.03

To convert a fraction to a percentage it is necessary to first change the fraction to a decimal:

4/5 = 0.8 = 80%

3/4 = 0.75 = 75%

If a machine is sold for £120 plus VAT (Value Added Tax – a sales tax in the UK) at 17.5% then the actual cost to the customer is:

£120 + (17.5% of 120) = £120 + (0.175 x 120) = £141

Alternatively, the amount can be calculated as:

£120 x (100% + 17.5%) = £120 x (1.00 + 0.175) = £120 x 1.175 = £141

If the machine were quoted at the price that included VAT (the gross price), and we wanted to calculate the price before VAT, then we would need to divide the amount by (100% + 17.5%) = 117.5% or 1.175. The gross price of £141 divided by 1.175 would thus give the net price of £120. This principle can be applied to any amount which has a percentage added to it.

For example, a restaurant bill is a total of £50.40 including a 12% service charge. The bill before the service charge was added would be:

£50.40 / 1.12 = £45.00

Activity 8

(a) Convert the following to percentages

(i) 0.9

Answer

(i) 90%

(ii) 1.2

Answer

(ii) 120%

(iii) 1/3

Answer

(iii) 33.33%

(iv) 0.03

Answer

(iv) 3%

(v) 1/10

Answer

(v) 10%

(vi) 1 1/4

Answer

(vi) 125%

(b) A company sells its product for £65 per unit. How much will it sell for if the customer negotiates a 20% discount?

Answer

£65 x (1 – 0.2) = £52

(c) If a second product is sold for £65.80 including 17.5% value added tax, what is the net price before tax?

Answer

£65.8 / 1.175 = £56

1.7 Negative numbers and the use of brackets

Numbers smaller than zero (shown to the left of zero on the number line in the figure below) are called negative numbers. We indicate they are negative by putting them in brackets as shown in the figure below.

Figure 4

Rules of negative numbers

The rules for using negative numbers can be summarised as follows:

Addition and subtraction

  • Adding a negative number is the same as subtracting a positive 50 + (-30) = 50 – 30 = 20
  • Subtracting a negative number is the same as adding a positive 50 – (-30) = 50 + 30 = 80

Multiplication and division

  • A positive number multiplied by a negative gives a negative 20 x -4 = -80
  • A positive number divided by a negative gives a negative 20 / -4 = -5
  • A negative number multiplied by a negative gives a positive -20 x -4 = 80
  • A negative number divided by a negative gives a positive -20 / -4 = 5

Try to confirm the above rules for yourself by carrying out the following exercise either manually or by means of a calculator.

Activity 9

Calculate each of the following. (In this activity we will assume the convention that if a number is in brackets it means it is negative).

(a) (2) x (3)

Answer

(a) 6

(b) 6 – (8)

Answer

(b) 14

(c) 6 + (8)

Answer

(c) -2

(d) 2 x (3)

Answer

(d) (6)

(e) (8) / 4

Answer

(e) (2)

(f) (8) / (4)

Answer

(f) 2

Important note

Always remember that while a single number in brackets means that it is negative, the rule of BODMAS means that brackets around an ‘operation’ between two numbers, positive or negative, means that this is the first operation that should be done. The answer for a series of operations in an example such as 12 + (-8 – 2).would thus be 2 according to the rules of BODMAS and negative numbers. Note: if 12 + (-8 – 2) was given as 12 + ((8) – 2) the answer would still be 2 as (8) is just another way of showing -8.

1.8 The test of reasonableness

Applying a test of reasonableness to an answer means making sure the answer makes sense. This is especially important when using a calculator as it is surprisingly easy to press the wrong key.

An example of a test of reasonableness is if you use a calculator to add 36 to 44 and arrive at 110 as an answer. You should know immediately that there is a mistake somewhere as two numbers under 50 can never total more than 100.

When using a calculator it is always a good idea to perform a quick estimate of the answer you expect. One way of doing this is to round off numbers. For instance if you are adding 1,873 to 3,982 you could round these numbers to 2,000 and 4,000 so the answer you should expect from your calculator should be in the region of 6,000.

Test your ability to perform the test of reasonableness by completing the following short multiple choice quiz. Do not calculate the answer, either mentally or by using an electronic calculator, but try to develop a rough estimate for what the answer should be. Then determine from the choices presented to you which makes the most sense, i.e., the choices that are most reasonable.

Activity 10

Choose the correct answer purely on what appears to be most reasonable.

Table 2
(1) 126 / 7= (2) 17 x 26 = (3) 6,460 / 760 =
a. 180 a. 44.2 a. 850
b. 0.18 b. 442 b. 0.85
c. 18 c. 4,420 c. 8.5
d. 1.8 d. 44,420 d. 85
(4) 330 x 8.4= (5) 269 + 378= (6) 562 – 268 =
a. 277.2 a. 547 a. 194
b. 2,772 b. 747 b. 294
c. 27,772 c. 647 c. 394
Answer

(1) c. 18

(2) b. 442

(3) c. 8.5

(4) b. 2,772

(5) c. 647

(6) b. 294

1.9 Table of equivalencies

The next activity in developing your numerical skills required for bookkeeping and accounting is to give you practice in converting between percentages, decimals and fractions. It is a very useful numerical skill to be able to know or to work out quickly the equivalent between a number given in percentage form and in other forms.

Activity 11

Use the box below to record your answers for the gaps in the table. The first one is done for you. Answers required in decimals should be rounded off to two decimal points. Answers required in fractions should be written in the lowest possible terms.

Table 3
Percentage Decimal Fraction
1% 0.01 1/100
2%
0.05 1/20
20%
0.25
33 1/3 %
0.5
2/3
75%
1.0
2/1
Answer
Table 4
Percentage Decimal Fraction
1% 0.01 1/100
2% 0.02 1/50
5% 0.05 1/20
10% 0.1 1/10
20% 0.2 1/5
25% 0.25 1/4
33 1/3% 0.33 1/3
50% 0.5 1/2
66 2/3% 0.67 2/3
75% 0.75 3/4
100% 1.0 1/1
200% 2.0 2/1

1.10 Manipulation of equations and formulae

The final activity in developing your numerical skills is to revise the manipulation of simple equations.

Being able to understand and express the Accounting Equation in different forms is crucial to understanding a fundamental accounting concept (the dual aspect concept) and the principal financial statements (the profit and loss account and the balance sheet). You will learn more about the Accounting Equation in sections 2 and 3.

An equation is a mathematical expression which shows the relationship between numbers through the use of the equal sign. An example of a simple equation might be 2 + 3 = 5.

A special type of equation is an algebraic equation where a letter, say ‘x’, represents a number, i.e. in x + 2 = 5, ‘x’ represents 3 in order to make the equation true.

Algebraic equations are solved by manipulating the equation so that the letter stands on its own. This is achieved in the equation x + 2 = 5 by the following two steps.

  1. x = 5 – 2
  2. x = 3

The principal rule of manipulating equations is whatever is done to one side of the equal side must also be done to the other as was shown in step 1 above, i.e.:

(1) x = 5 – 2 is achieved by subtracting 2 from both sides of the equation x + 2 = 5, i.e.:

  • x + 2 – 2 = 5 – 2
  • x + 2 – 2 = 5 – 2

Manipulating an equation to get the algebraic letter to stand on its own involves ‘undoing’ the equation by using the inverse or opposite of the original operation. In the example of x + 2 = 5, the operation of adding 2 must be undone by subtracting 2 from either side of the equal sign.

The following table shows a number of examples of how equations are manipulated to obtain the correct number for the algebraic letter.

Table 5

Operation Inverse Equation
add 7 subtract 7 a+ 7 = 9
a + 7 – 7 = 9 – 7
a = 2
subtract 5 add 5 b – 5 = 6
b – 5 + 5 = 6 + 5
b = 11
multiply by 3 divide by 3 (or multiply by 1/3) c x 3 = 18
c x 3 / 3 = 18 / 3
c = 6
divide by 6 multiply by 6 d/ 6 = 2
d / 6 x 6 = 2 x 6
d = 12

An equation such as a x 3 = 12 can also be expressed as a3 = 12 or 3a = 12, i.e., if an algebraic letter is placed directly next to a number in an equation it means that the letter is to be multiplied by the number.

The correct number for the algebraic letter ‘a’ in the equation 3a = 12 will be obtained thus:

  • 3a = 12
  • 3a / 3 = 12 / 3
  • a = 4

Manipulating or rearranging formulae involves the same process as manipulating or rearranging equations.

Important note

A formula is simply an equation that states a fact or rule such as S = D / T or Speed is equal to Distance divided by Time.

In the formula S = D / T, S is the subject of the formula. (This simply means that S stands on its own and is determined by the other parts of the formula. By convention the subject is always placed on the left-hand side of the equal sign, although S = D / T means the same as D / T = S)

As we learnt to rearrange or manipulate an equation, the formula S = D / T can also be manipulated to make D or T the subject.

S = D / T

D / T = S (turning the formula around)

D = S x T (multiplying both sides of the formula by T)

Or, from D = S x T

D / S = T (dividing both sides of the formula by S)

T = D / S (turning the formula around)

Activity 12

Solve the following algebraic equations below.

(i) c + 9 = 11

Answer

(i) c =2

(ii) a – 15 = 21

Answer

(ii) a = 36

(iii) d x 7 = 63

Answer

(iii) d =9

(iv) b / 13 = 13

Answer

(iv) b = 169

Activity 13

Rearrange the formula h = 3dy – r to make:

(i) r the subject

Answer

(i) h = 3dy – r

h + r = 3dy

r = 3dy – h

(ii) y the subject

Answer

(ii) h = 3dy – r

h + r = 3dy

3dy = h + r

y = (h + r) / 3d (Hint: did you remember to use brackets?)

2 Double entry and the balance sheet

Section learning outcomes

By the end of this section you should be able to:

  • understand and explain the need for financial records and financial statements
  • understand the business entity and the dual aspect concepts
  • define assets, liabilities and capital
  • understand and explain the relationship between the accounting equation and double-entry bookkeeping
  • record transactions in the appropriate ledger accounts using the double-entry bookkeeping system
  • understand a simple balance sheet in a vertical format
  • balance off accounts at the end of an accounting period
  • prepare a trial balance.

2.1 Accounting records and financial statements

Accounting records store information about all the financial transactions and events of a business. A small business may only have a few financial transactions a day to record while a large, multinational business may have many thousands.

Information point

This unit focuses on business organisations but the core concepts and principles of bookkeeping also apply to non-profit organisations.

Why do all businesses need to keep accounting records?

  • They keep track of where money comes from and how it is spent.
  • They are required by law.
  • They help to keep control of goods and property owned by a business.
  • They are used as the basis for financial statements.

What are financial statements?

Financial statements are summaries of accounting records that are drawn up to satisfy the information needs of owners and other stakeholders in the business. These stakeholders are presented with the financial records in the form of two main financial summaries or statements. The first of these is a balance sheet which shows the financial state of affairs of a business at a specific date; the second is a profit and loss account which records the income and expenditure of a business for a period of time.

Who are the typical stakeholders of a business and what information do they need?

Table 6

Stakeholders Information needs
Owners Owners, whether they own all or part of a business, want information on the risk and return of their investment in a business.
Managers Managers need to have reliable financial information on which to base their decisions.
Lenders Lenders and potential lenders need to have information about the ability of the firm to repay loans and to pay interest.
Suppliers Suppliers, if they give credit to the business, want to know if they will be paid.
Employees Employees are particularly interested in the ability of the firm to pay wages and pensions.
Customers Customers, especially if they are dependent on a supplier, need to know if the business will continue to exist.
Governments and their agencies Reliable financial information from businesses is used as the basis for taxation. In some countries it is also used to compile information about the economy.
The public Financial statements often include information relevant to the public interest, such as environmental information or policies on employment of disabled people, etc.

The biggest businesses have the most stakeholders. Whatever the size of the business, active and responsible stakeholders will always be interested in how a business, in which they have an informed interest, is financed, and how this finance is used to run the business.

2.2 Accounting records and the business entity concept

The accounting records for even the simplest business must be kept separate from the personal affairs of the owner or owners. This concept that the business stands apart from the owners is known as the business entity concept.

What is the simplest type of business entity?

The simplest type of business is known as a sole trader or a sole proprietor. It is a business that is owned and controlled by one person, although the business may employ other people. Sole traders normally adopt a trading name, but the business has no separate legal existence from the owner. As a result, the sole trader (i.e. the owner), although entitled to receive all of the profit or net income of the firm, is also personally liable for the debts of the business. This is referred to as unlimited liability. For bookkeeping and accounting purposes, however, the sole trader will run his or her business as a separate entity following the ‘business entity concept’.

2.3 Definitions of assets, capital and liabilities

A business when it starts has no money. The owner puts money in (known as owner’s capital) and perhaps borrows money as well, and this money is used to buy assets that are expected to bring financial benefits for the business in the future. If it were a retail business, these assets might be premises, equipment and goods for resale. A service business might only need an office, furniture and computers.

The accounting records separate out the finance put into the company by the owner (owner’s capital) and the finance borrowed (a liability or debt that needs to be repaid). The accounting records also separate out the assets bought from the finance used to buy the assets. The firm can only have as many assets as it has finance available. The accounting records consequently will always reflect that:

Assets = finance put into the business either from the owner or borrowed

or

Assets = capital + liabilities (i.e. finance from the owner/s + finance borrowed)

2.3.1 What are assets, capital and liabilities?

Assets are the economic resources belonging to a business. Assets could be money in a cash register or bank account, or items such as property, fixtures and furniture, equipment, motor vehicles, and stock or goods for resale. An important asset in businesses which sell goods or services on credit is money owed to the enterprise by customers. This asset is known as debtors.

Capital is the value of the investment in the business by the owner(s). It is that part of the business that belongs to the owner; hence it is often described as the owner’s interest.

Liabilities are the debts owed by the firm. The main types of liabilities are creditors (money owed by the business to suppliers of goods and services), bank overdrafts and bank loans.

Activity 14

A business at the end of its first year of trading has assets of £10,000 and liabilities of £8,000. What important information is contained in the difference between these two figures?

Answer

Assets of £10,000 less liabilities of £8,000 mean that the business has positive or net assets of £2,000. Another way of saying that the business has net assets of £2,000 is that the business has a net value of £2,000 belonging to the owners. (As defined above, this is the owner’s interest or capital.) Whatever the size and nature of a business, the assets minus the liabilities of the business will always equal the capital belonging to the owners.

What is the importance of knowing that, for all businesses, Assets – Liabilities = Capital?

Answer

This equation for the owner’s interest or capital (Assets – Liabilities = Capital) is known as the accounting equation. In the UK it is also known as the balance sheet equation because it reflects the format followed by accountants in the UK when preparing the financial summary of assets, liabilities and capital, which is known as a balance sheet.

Activity 15

Edgar Edwards sets up a small sole trader business as Edgar Edwards Enterprises on 1 July in the year 20X2. Complete the table below, in which the first six transactions of the business are listed in the left-most column.

Information point

The effect of each of the first three transactions, as well as the overall effect of all six transactions, has been completed for you to show you the following important aspects of the accounting equation:

  • i.Each transaction will have a positive (plus) and/or a negative (minus) effect on the assets or liabilities concerned.
  • ii.Assets or liabilities should be further broken down into the type of asset or liability.
  • iii.For each transaction, as well as for the overall effect of a number of transactions, the figure for capital will reflect the accounting equation: A – L=C.
Table 7
Assets £ - Liabilities £ = Capital £
1. The owner starts the business with £5,000 paid into a business bank account on 1 July 20X2. +5,000 (bank) 0 +5,000
2. The business buys furniture for £400 on credit from Pearl Ltd on 2 July 20X2. +400 (furniture) +400 Ltd) (creditor: Pearl 0
3. The business buys a computer with a cheque for £600 on 3 July 20X2. +600 (computer) –600 (bank) 0 0
4. The business borrows £5,000 on loan from a bank on 4July 20X2. The money is paid into the business bank account.
5. The business pays Pearl Ltd £200 by cheque on 5 July 20X2.
6. The owner takes £50 from the bank for personal spending on 6 July 20X2.
Summary (overall effect) Total +10,150 Total +10,150 Total +4,950
Answer
Table 8
Assets £ - Liabilities £ = Capital £
1. The owner starts the business with £5,000 paid into a business bank account on 1 July 20X2. +5,000 (bank) 0 +5,000
2. The business buys furniture for £400 on credit from Pearl Ltd on 2 July 20X2. +400 (furniture) +400 Ltd) (creditor: Pearl 0
3. The business buys a computer with a cheque for £600 on 3 July 20X2. +600 (computer) –600 (bank) 0 0
4. The business borrows £5,000 on loan from a bank on 4July 20X2. The money is paid into the business bank account. +5,000 (bank) +5,000 (loan) 0
5. The business pays Pearl Ltd £200 by cheque on 5 July 20X2. –200 (bank) –200 (creditor: Pearl Ltd) 0
6. The owner takes £50 from the bank for personal spending on 6 July 20X2. –50 (bank) 0 –50
Summary (overall effect) Total +10,150 Total +5,200 Total +4,950

How does the summary or overall change in the table above relate to the accounting equation?

Applying the accounting equation, A – L = C, we see that the overall change in assets in the period (+£10,150) less the change in liabilities in the period (+£5,200) is equal to the change in capital in the period (+£4,950).

What is noticeable about the accounting equation after every transaction in the table above?

The accounting equation remains in balance as every transaction must alter both sides of the equation, A– L= C, by the same amount. This can be shown by looking at the six transactions above as follows:

  1. The accounting equation remains in balance as every transaction must alter both sides of the equation, A– L= C, by the same amount. This can be shown by looking at the six transactions above as follows:
  2. £400 – £400 = £0 (both sides of the equation increase by £0)
  3. (£600 – £600) – £0 = £0(both sides of the equation increase by £0)
  4. £5,000 – £5,000 = £0 (both sides of the equation increase by £0)
  5. –£200 – (–£200) = £0 (both sides of the equation increase by £0)
  6. –£200 – (–£200) = £0 (both sides of the equation increase by £0)

Every transaction above is thus recorded twice in order to keep the accounting equation in balance. This dual effect is known as the dual aspect concept and is the basic principle associated with both the double-entry bookkeeping system and the production of the balance sheet. We will look at the double-entry bookkeeping system in more detail later in this section, but will look more closely at the balance sheet in ’2.4 A simplified UK balance sheet formula’.

What then is the dual aspect concept and how does it relate to the accounting equation?

The dual aspect concept is that every transaction has two aspects which must be equal in order to keep in balance the accounting equation, A – L= C.

2.4 A simplified UK balance sheet format

How do businesses in the UK most commonly present information in the balance sheet?

In the UK, balance sheets are commonly prepared in a vertical format of the accounting equation. This gives the owners clear information about the net assets of the enterprise, which always equals their capital or owner ’s interest in the enterprise. The balance sheet is normally produced at the end of each trading or financial year and is a snapshot of the financial position of the business on the last day of the financial year. For learning purposes we will compile a UK balance sheet for Edgar Edwards Enterprises above at the end of its sixth day of trading.

A simple vertical balance sheet format could look like this:

Table 9 Edgar Edwards Enterprises Balance Sheet as at 6 July 20X2

Assets £
Furniture 400
Computer 600
Bank (£5,000–£600+£5,000–£200–£50) 9,150
Total assets (A) 10,150
Liabilities
Bank loan 5,000
Creditors (£400-£200) 200
Total liabilities (L) 5,200
Net assets (A – L) Total 4,950
Capital (C) Total 4,950

Activity 16

Use the box below to fill in the answers to the template, in order to prepare a new balance sheet after each of the six transactions by Edgar Edwards Enterprises we have seen in Section 2.3. (The first and last columns have been done for you.)

Table 10
1 July 20X2 2 July 20X2 3 July 20X2 4 July 20X2 5 July 20X2 6 July 20X2
£ £ £ £ £ £
Assets
Furniture 0 400
Computer 0 600
Bank 5,000 9,150
Total Assets (A) 5,000 10,150
Liabilities
Bank loan 0 5,000
Creditors 0 200
Total liabilities (L) 0 5,200
Net Assets (A-L) Total 5,000 Total 4,950
Capital (C) Total 5,000 Total 4,950
Answer
Table 11
1 July 20X2 2 July 20X2 3 July 20X2 4 July 20X2 5 July 20X2 6 July 20X2
£ £ £ £ £ £
Assets
Furniture 0 400 400 400 400 400
Computer 0 600 600 600 600
Bank 5,000 5,000 4,400 9,400 9,200 9,150
Total Assets (A) 5,000 5,400 5,400 10,400 10,200 10,150
Liabilities
Bank loan 0 0 0 5,000 5,000 5,000
Creditors 0 400 400 400 200 200
Total liabilities (L) 0 400 400 5,400 5,200 5,200
Net Assets (A-L) Total 5,000 Total 5,000 Total 5,000 Total 5,000 Total 5,000 Total 4,950
Capital (C) Total 5,000 Total 5,000 Total 5,000 Total 5,000 Total 5,000 Total 4,950

It can be clearly seen in the six balance sheets above that each new financial transaction leads to new figures in the accounting equation A – L =C and thus a new balance sheet. Normally, however, it is not seen as useful information to have a new balance sheet after each transaction. Rather, an ongoing record or account is kept of each sub-heading or sub-category in the balance sheet (Furniture, Computer, Bank, Bank loan, etc.) and at the end of the financial period the final figures or balances for all the individual sub-categories are put together to produce an end-of-period balance sheet.

These sub-categories in the balance sheet correspond to the accounts in a book called the nominal ledger or general ledger or ledger for short. (Ledger is an old word that means book.) There would thus be a ledger account called ‘Bank’, for example, which records every financial transaction affecting the bank. After each relevant transaction involving the bank account, the net figure or balance in the bank account would either go up or down.

Information point

With the advent of computerised accounting, a new balance sheet, reflecting the new figures in the accounting equation, can automatically be generated after each business transaction. Businesses, however, only publish the balance sheet at the end of a financial period, normally a year, as it is this balance sheet that is required by law and other forms of regulation.

2.5 T-accounts, debits and credits

What do all accounts look like in a double-entry system?

Traditional double-entry bookkeeping divides every account into two halves as follows:

Figure 5

This T appearance has led to the convention of ledger accounts being referred to as T-accounts.

Convention, which has not changed for hundreds of years, prescribes that the left-hand side of a T-account is called the debit side, and the right-hand side is called the credit side.

Figure 6

What is the main reason that all accounts are divided into a left or debit side and a right or credit side?

As we have seen in Sections 2.3 and 2.4, because of the dual aspect of double-entry bookkeeping, if one account changes as a result of a financial transaction, then another account needs to change to keep the accounting equation in balance. This is shown in ledger or T-accounts by recording each transaction twice, once as a debit-entry in one account and once as a credit-entry in another account. This is done according to time-honoured rules which treat asset accounts differently from liability accounts and the capital account.

What are the rules of double-entry bookkeeping?

If a transaction increases an asset account, then the value of this increase must be recorded on the debit or left side of the asset account. If, however, a transaction decreases an asset account, then the value of this decrease must be recorded on the credit or right side of the asset account. The converse of these rules applies to liability accounts and the capital account, as shown in the three T-accounts below:

Figure 7

Pause for thought

These rules need to be memorised initially as they are not intuitive. Through seeing how they work in practice and doing exercises they will become second nature – a little bit like learning to swim or ride a bicycle.

The balance on an asset account is always a debit balance. The balance on a liability or capital account is always a credit balance. (Later on in this section you will learn how to work out the final or closing balance on an account which has both debit and credit entries. The process of determining the closing balance on an account is known as ‘balancing off ’ an account.)

The best way to understand how the rules of double-entry bookkeeping work is to consider an example. We will now record the six transactions carried out by Edgar Edwards Enterprises in the appropriate T-accounts.

Example

Transactions:

  1. The owner starts the business with £5,000 paid into a business bank account on 1 July 20X2.
  2. The business buys furniture for £400 on credit from Pearl Ltd on 2 July 20X2.
  3. The business buys a computer with a cheque for £600 on 3 July 20X2.
  4. The business borrows £5,000 on loan from a bank on 4 July 20X2. The money is paid into the business bank account.
  5. The business pays Pearl Ltd £200 by cheque on 5 July 20X2
  6. The owner takes £50 from the bank for personal spending on 6 July 20X2.

Transaction 1: The owner starts the business with £5,000 paid into a business bank account on 1 July 20X2. (Following the rules we learnt, we thus need to debit an asset account and credit the capital account.)

Figure 8

* Each T-account, when recording a transaction, names the corresponding T-account to show that the transaction reflects a double entry in the nominal ledger.

Transaction 2: The business buys furniture for £400 on credit from Pearl Ltd on 2 July 20X2. (We need to debit an asset account and credit a liability account.)

Figure 9

Transaction 3: The business buys a computer with a cheque for £600 on 3 July 20X2. (We need to debit an asset account and credit an asset account.)

Figure 10

Transaction 4: The business borrows £5,000 on loan from a bank on 4 July 20X2. The money is paid into the business bank account. (We need to debit an asset account and credit a liability account.)

Figure 11

Transaction 5: The business pays Pearl Ltd £200 by cheque on 5 July 20X2. (We need to debit a liability account and credit an asset account.)

Figure 12

Transaction 6: The owner takes £50 from the bank for personal spending on 6 July 20X2. (We need to debit the capital account and credit an asset account.)

Figure 13

In Section 2.3 we recorded the consequences of these transactions in a balance sheet for Edgar Edwards Enterprises dated 6/7/20X2. Did you find it easy to do that? As there were only six transactions, it was probably not too difficult. However, many enterprises have to record hundreds of transactions per day. Having individual T-accounts within the nominal ledger makes it much easier to collect the information from many different types of transactions. The next section will explain what is done with the balances in each of these accounts.

2.6 Balancing off accounts and preparing a trial balance

What is a trial balance?

A trial balance is a list of all the balances in the nominal ledger accounts. It serves as a check to ensure that for every transaction, a debit recorded in one ledger account has been matched with a credit in another. If the double entry has been carried out, the total of the debit balances should always equal the total of the credit balances. Furthermore, a trial balance forms the basis for the preparation of the main financial statements, the balance sheet and the profit and loss account.

How do we prepare a trial balance?

In order to prepare a trial balance, we first need to complete or ‘balance off ’ the ledger accounts. Then we produce the trial balance by listing each closing balance from the ledger accounts as either a debit or a credit balance. Below are the T-accounts in Edgar Edwards’ nominal ledger. We need to work out the balance on each of these accounts in order to compile the trial balance.

Figure 14

What is the procedure for balancing off accounts?

Accounts are straightforward to balance off if they consist of only one type of entry, i.e. only debit entries or only credit entries. In this case, all the account entries are simply added up to get the balance on the account. If, for instance, a bank account has three debit entries of £50 each, then the balance on the account is a debit balance of £150. However, when accounts consist of both debit and credit entries, the following procedure should be used to balance off these accounts:

  1. Add up the amounts on each side of the account to find the totals.
  2. Enter the larger figure as the total for both the debit and credit sides.
  3. For the side that does not add up to this total, calculate the figure that makes it add up by deducting the smaller from the larger amount. Enter this figure so that the total adds up, and call it the balance carried down. This is usually abbreviated as Balance c/d.
  4. Enter the balance brought down (abbreviated as Balance b/d) on the opposite side below the total figure. (The balance brought down is usually dated one day later than the balance carried down as one period has closed and another one has started.)

Using the rules above we can now balance off all of Edgar Edwards’ nominal ledger accounts starting with the bank account.

Figure 15

We balance off the capital account in the same way as we did the bank account.

Figure 16

The furniture account has a single entry on one side. This amount is the total as well as the balance in the account.

Figure 17

The account for the creditor, Pearl Ltd, has a debit and a credit entry so we will use the method we used for the bank and the capital accounts.

Figure 18

The computer and bank loan accounts have single entries on one side, like the furniture account, so they need to be treated in the same way.

Figure 19

Making a list of the above balances brought down produces a trial balance as follows.

Table 12 Edgar Edwards Trial Balance as at 6 July 20X2

dr cr
£ £
Bank 9,150
Capital 4,950
Furniture 400
Pearl Ltd (a creditor) 200
Computer 600
Bank loan 5,000
Total Total 10,150 Total 10,150

Information point

From the trial balance we can see that the total of debit balances equals the total of credit balances. This demonstrates for every transaction we have followed the basic principle of double-entry bookkeeping – ‘for every debit there is a credit’.

2.7 Summary

  • Accounting records are the day-to-day records of all financial transactions and other relevant financial information concerning a business.
  • Financial statements are summaries of accounting records to satisfy the relevant financial information needs of stakeholders of a business.
  • The owner(s) of a business is (are) the main stakeholder(s) in a business but there are a number of other stakeholders.
  • In accounting terms, the business is a separate entity from its owner(s) even if the business is owned by a sole trader with unlimited liability for the debts of the business.
  • In accounting terms, the business is a separate entity from its owner(s) even if the business is owned by a sole trader with unlimited liability for the debts of the business.
  • Liabilities are debts owed by the business.
  • Capital is the owner’s investment in the enterprise.
  • The vertical balance sheet of a business reflects the accounting equation: Assets – Liabilities = Capital.
  • Financial transactions have two aspects which must be equal to keep the accounting equation in balance.
  • Financial transactions are recorded by debits and credits in the ledger accounts (also known as T-accounts).
  • Assets are represented by debit balances while liabilities and capital are represented by credit balances.
  • The following rules apply to asset, liability and capital accounts.

Figure 20
  • To calculate the balance in an asset account we calculate the excess of debits over credits to get the net debit balance.
  • To calculate the balance in a liability or capital account we calculate the excess of credits over debits to get the net credit balance
  • The balance carried down figure within an asset account is always on the credit side of the account and is brought down as a debit balance.
  • The balance carried down figure within a liability or capital account is always on the debit side of the account and is brought down as a credit balance.

3 Double entry and the profit and loss account

Section learning outcomes

By the end of this section you should be able to:

  • understand the difference between generating cash and making a profit
  • understand how profit relates to owner’s capital in the balance sheet and the accounting equation
  • understand what the profit and loss account is
  • measure profit and loss
  • account for closing stock
  • state the double-entry rules for income accounts and expense accounts.

3.1 Making a profit and generating cash

What is the main objective of business activity?

Generally speaking, the main reason for the existence of a business is to make a profit for the owner(s) over a defined period. (There are, of course, other objectives that a business might have and the business has to work within the laws and customs of society.)

Profit over a period is achieved by trading successfully, i.e. a business is able to sell goods or services for more than the expenses incurred in producing them in the same period. A loss over a period, on the other hand, is when a business is only able to sell goods or services for less than the expenses incurred in producing them in the same period. If we say that the start of a period is time 0 and the end-date of a period is time 1 then the profit or loss for this length of time can be expressed by the formula:

Profit or loss1–0 =Income1–0 –Expenses1–0

Information point

Income is a wider concept than sales as it includes all earnings in a period. Income thus includes interest received, rent received, etc. as well as cash and credit sales.

What is the difference between making a profit and generating cash in an accounting period?

Profit is when income earned, by cash or credit, is greater than expenses incurred, by cash or credit, in the same accounting period.

Generating cash over an accounting period, by contrast, is when cash inflows are greater than cash outflows in the same period. Cash inflows and outflows in a period may be completely unrelated to income and expenses as they may be based, for example, on a financial event that is unrelated to income and expenses, such as the owner introducing capital into the business or drawing capital out of the business.

What is the formula to work out how much cash is generated in a period?

To work out how much cash is generated in a period we need to work out the difference between the cash balance at the end of a period (time 1) and the cash balance at the beginning of a period (time 0). This can be expressed in the formula:

Cash generated1–0 = Cash1 – Cash0

The next activity should give you an insight into the common situation in business where the profit made in a period is not the same as the cash generated in the same period.

Activity 17

Andrew and Barry have recently started exactly the same business – buying and selling music CDs. They each started their trade on 1 January 20X1 with £1,000 entirely borrowed from the bank. Both Andrew and Barry bought their CDs for cash but Andrew decided to allow his customers to buy CDs on credit as he believed this would generate more sales.

In the first week of trading Andrew bought CDs for £800, all cash, and sold them all for £1,600 – all on credit. Barry, on the other hand, bought CDs for £400, all cash, and sold them all for £800 cash.

Required

(a) Assuming that Andrew and Barry had no other income and expenses in the week, use the formula Profit 1–0 = Income 1–0 – Expenses 1–0 to calculate each of their profit for the week.

Answer

Andrew’s profit for the week = £1,600 – £800 = £800

Barry’s profit for the week = £800 – £400 = £400

(b) Assuming that Andrew and Barry had no other transactions in the week, use the formula Cash generated 1–0 = Cash 1 – Cash 0 to calculate each of their cash generated for the week.

Answer

Andrew’s cash generated for the week = (£1,000 – £800) – £1,000 = –£800 (i.e. £800 of cash is lost in the week)

Barry’s cash generated for the week = (£1,000 + £800 – £400) – £1,000 = £400

(c) What do your answers to (a) and (b) tell you about the effect of credit sales on profit earned and cash generated in a business?

Answer

The answers tell us that credit sales may generate more profit in a period (Andrew’s profit compared to Barry’s) at the expense of losing cash (Andrew’s negative generation of cash compared to Barry’s).

From the activity above we have seen that it is possible for a business to make a profit in a period but lose cash in the same period. The reason for this is that the different transactions in the activity above had different effects on profit earned and cash generated in the same period. The next activity should help you to better understand this.

Activity 18

Use the box below to complete answers for Table 13. Indicate the effect (either none, increase or decrease) on profit and/or cash of the following eight transactions. The first four transactions relate to the transactions completed in Activity 17 while the last four transactions refer to likely further transactions of the businesses in Activity 17.

Table 13
Effect on profit Effect on cash
1. Receipt of a loan
2. Buying stock for cash
3. Making a cash sale
4. Making a credit sale
5. Receiving cash from a debtor
6. Buying stock on credit
7. Payment for stock bought on credit
8. Repayment of a loan
Answer
Table 14
Effect on profit Effect on cash
1. Receipt of a loan none increase
2. Buying stock for cash none* decrease
3. Making a cash sale increase** increase
4. Making a credit sale increase** none
5. Receiving cash from a debtor none increase
6. Buying stock on credit none* none
7. Payment for stock bought on credit none decrease
8. Repayment of a loan none decrease

* It is only when stock is sold that there is an effect on profit. Later in this section you will see that when stock is sold the value of the stock that is sold becomes an expense called cost of sales. At that stage there is an effect on profit, but only an effect on cash if the goods or stock is sold for cash not credit.

** This increase in profit assumes the normal situation where goods are sold for more than they are bought – such as the example of the CDs in Activity 17. If goods are sold for less than they are bought then the effect will be a decrease in profit.

How does making a profit in a business relate to the capital of a business?

We have already learnt that the capital of a business is the value of the investment in the business by the owner(s). If the business makes a profit then the value of the investment by the owner (or capital) increases. The best way to understand how this works is to look at the effect of profit on the accounting equation.

3.2 The effect of profit on the accounting equation

In Section 2 we looked at the three elements of the accounting equation – assets, liabilities and capital – and how these three elements are presented in the balance sheet. However, a business’s trading activities, i.e. its income and expenses incurred in order to generate profit, are not shown in the balance sheet.

Below is an abridged balance sheet of a firm at the beginning of a financial period and before any trading has taken place.

Table 15 Peter’s Photographic Enterprises Balance Sheet as at 1 January 20X1

Assets £
Premises and equipment 40,000
Stock Total 6,000
Total assets (A) 46,000
Liabilities
Creditors Total 19,000
Total liabilities (L) Total 19,000
Net assets (A – L) Total 27,000
Capital (C) Total 27,000

Included in the firm’s stock account at the beginning of the year are seven cameras that cost £100 each. On the second day of the year, the business sells one of these cameras for £175 cash. The firm will thus have gained £75 on this transaction.

How is this profit-making sale reflected in the accounting equation?

If we analyse the transaction, Peter’s Photographic Enterprises (PPE) has received £175 cash from the customer, so that means net assets are increased by £175.

(Net assets of £27,000 + £175 = £27,175)

At the same time, an asset has disappeared. The stock will be down by one camera, and so that must be reflected in the accounts.

(Net assets of £27,000 + £175 cash – £100 stock reduction = £27,075)

If you remember, we established that the main objective of the business was to generate profit for the owners. That is what has happened here, the business has gained an asset of £175 against giving up a camera that cost £100. In other words, the transaction has resulted in an income of £175 and an expense of £100. The transaction has thus created a profit of £75 (£175 – £100) for the owners assuming there are no other expenses.

(Net assets of £27,075 = Owner ’s capital of £27,000 + £75 profit or increase in owner ’s capital)

The accounting equation thus balances, but the business has other expenses that need to be taken into account. Suppose PPE buys advertising for £30 cash. This will reduce the profit created by £30 as well as reducing cash.

(Net assets of £27,075 – £30 (decrease in cash) = Owner’s capital of £27,075 – £30 (decrease in capital))

What would be the effect on the balance sheet of the two transactions above?

After this a new balance sheet can be drawn up showing net assets of £27,045 and capital of £27,045. The business has made a profit or financial gain of £45 since the previous balance sheet. The balance sheet, however, does not give a breakdown of profit into income and expenses and for that we need the profit and loss account that will be discussed in more detail in the next section.

What is the new accounting equation once Income (I) and Expenses (E) are included?

The net figure of income less expenses is calculated at the end of the financial period in the profit and loss account. This net figure, either a profit or a loss, is then transferred to the capital account. The accounting equation can be extended to show this change to capital: A – L = C + (I – E).

Information point

You should realise from the equation A – L = C + (I – E) that if a business makes a profit in a financial period (i.e. I > E) then capital (C) will have increased for the business over the financial period. If a business has made a loss in a financial period (i.e. I < E) then capital (C) will have decreased over the same period. Always remember that capital (or the owner’s interest) increases with profits and decreases with losses.

3.3 The profit and loss account

The profit and loss account is a financial statement which sets out the results of the trading activities of an enterprise in a detailed breakdown of income generated and expenses incurred. Different businesses have different breakdowns of income and expenses and hence present financial information in the profit and loss account in different formats. However, the overall or net profit recorded in the profit and loss account for any business is also the amount by which the balance sheet value of the business has increased.

What are the formats of the profit and loss account?

The format of the profit and loss account (P&L account) will vary depending on whether the business is a manufacturing concern (i.e. making goods they sell) or a non-manufacturing concern (i.e. either buying goods for resale or selling a service for a fee).

Information point

Whatever the nature of the business, each type of income or expense has its own account in the nominal ledger like the balance sheet items we looked at in Section 1.

What is the difference between net profit and the other important form of profit?

The most important profit for a business is the net or overall profit. It is the increase in the financial value or worth of a business after all expenses have been deducted from income. The second most important form of profit is the gross profit. This is the difference between sales and the cost of the goods or stock sold, known as the cost of sales. Gross profit is thus the profit earned by a business before the overheads or general expenses of running the business such as advertising, rent, salaries, and heating and lighting are deducted. The difference between gross profit and net profit will become clearer to you as we look at a number of examples in this section.

3.4 Income and expense accounts

A successful business will have many transactions and, rather than take the profit or loss to owner’s capital on each transaction, similar income or expenses are collected together in separate accounts in the nominal ledger. These accounts are totalled at the end of a time period (at least once a year but probably each month as well) to measure the total profit or loss for that period. The P&L account, when published as a financial statement, is a summary of all the income and expense accounts that reflect the year’s trading transactions.

As with assets and liability items, items of income and expense are recorded in nominal ledger accounts according to set rules. Expenses are always recorded as debit entries in expense accounts and income items are always recorded as credit entries in income accounts.

We will now look at Peter’s Photographic Enterprises’ initial transactions as they would be dealt with in the nominal ledger.

Figure 21

We could prepare a P&L account from those T-accounts that we indicated were either income accounts or expense accounts.

Table 16 Peter’s Photographic Enterprises Profit and loss account

£
Sales (Income account) 175
Cost of sales (Expense account) Total 100
Gross profit 75
Expenses
Advertising (Expense account) Total 30
Net profit for the period Total 45
The effect on the balance sheet would be:
Assets
Increase in cash +£145 (the increase in the cash T-account)
Decrease in stock –£100 (the decrease in the stock T-account)
Liabilities
No change
Change in net assets +£45
Capital
Profit +£45

Information point

In the example above the net profit of £45 is not the same as the increase in cash of £145. As we learned in Section 3.1, net profit is often very different from the increase or decrease in cash in the same period.

Activity 19

A business carries out the following cash transactions:

  • a.business buys stock of bicycles for £1,000
  • b.customer pays £300 for one bicycle (cost of bicycle is £200)
  • c.business pays £45 for electricity.

Enter these on the T-accounts below, and draw up a P&L account.

Figure 22
Answer

Figure 23
Profit and loss account
£
Sales 300
Cost of sales Total 200
Gross profit 100
Expenses Total 45
Net profit Total 55

3.5 Accounting for closing stock

The bookkeeping for stock transactions can be done in a number of different ways.

In an ideal world, the bookkeeping entries would follow the physical flow of the goods:

  1. accumulate purchased supplies in a stock account – an asset account in the nominal ledger
  2. when an item is sold, transfer it to a cost of sales account – an expense account in the nominal ledger
  3. at the end of the period, transfer the balance in the cost of sales account to the P&L account in order to work out the gross profit.

This is how we did it in the example above of Peter ’s Photographic Enterprises’ sale of a camera. In practice, however, this method is inefficient in a context where there are many transactions and they each have a low unit value. For example, if you were running a grocery store, you would not want to carry out a bookkeeping transaction to transfer each item sold from stock to expense.

From here on we will therefore use a simplified procedure that assumes that as the business buys goods for resale, they are immediately treated as an expense, called purchases, in the ledger. Then, at the end of the accounting period, the value of the closing stock (i.e. stock remaining at the end of the period) is deducted from purchases to show as cost of sales only the value of stock or goods sold in the period.

Information point

This section deals only with closing stock, the stock that is normally determined at the stocktake on the last day of the accounting period.

What would be the T-account entries for a business which, in the course of the financial year ended 31/12/20X7, bought goods for cash to the value of £2,180 and had a closing stock of £220 on the last day of the financial year?

Figure 24

Information point

Unlike the stock account, the cash account has not been ‘balanced off’. This is because cash purchases (i.e. £2,180) were not all of the cash transactions for the business during the year. In the real world, cash and stock are both assets of a business and they need to be ‘balanced off’ at the end of the period.

The P&L account now shows cost of sales, the value of stock used up in the period, i.e. £2,180 (Purchases) – £220 (Closing stock) = £1,960.

All accounts are ruled off at the period end to show the end-of-period balances that are transferred to the trial balance. Liability and asset accounts (like the stock account above) are said to be ‘balanced off ’. This involves bringing the balance forward to the next accounting period. On the other hand, income and expense accounts (like the purchases account above) are ‘closed off ’ because no balance is brought forward to the next accounting period. The balance in every income and expense account is brought to zero at the period end by a double entry to the P&L account.

In the example above, what was the double entry to ‘close off’ the purchases account?

The purchases account was ‘closed off ’ for the year by crediting the purchases account by £2,180 and debiting the profit and loss account by the same amount.

Information point

You should have noticed from the example above that the P&L account is not only a financial statement like the balance sheet, but is also the name of a nominal ledger account. In general, when we refer to a P&L account we are referring to its meaning as a financial statement and not as an account in the nominal ledger.

The following activity shows how we complete the P&L account, in its conventional form as a financial statement, from closing balances in income and expense accounts.

Activity 20

A small business, with no opening stock, has the following closing balances in its income and expense accounts for the financial year just ended on 31 December 20X5:

  • Sales £21,568
  • Purchases £10,261
  • Rent £4,568
  • Heating and lighting £756
  • Insurance £329
  • Office expenses £287

At the last day of the year a stocktake was carried out and the stock figure for the year was £987.

Using the template for the P&L account given below, ‘close off’ or transfer the balances above to the P&L account and work out the net profit for the year.

Figure 25

*In the format of the P&L account as a financial statement, the two columns do not represent debits and credits. The purpose of the first column is to give sub-totals, when required, for the totals that make up the second column.

Answer

Figure 26

*The cost of sales in the profit and loss account above is £987 less than the purchases for the year because it excludes the closing stock of £987, which is included in the purchases figure.

Income and expense accounts, like asset and liability accounts, reflect the accounting equation and the rules of double-entry bookkeeping, as will be shown in the next section.

3.6 The accounting equation and the double-entry rules for income and expenses

As we saw in Section 3.2, the accounting equation, extended to include income and expenses, can be expressed as follows:

A – L= C+ (I – E)

This equation can be rearranged as A+ E =C+ L+ I according to the rules of mathematics.

The next activity should help you to understand the importance of both forms of the accounting equation.

Activity 21

A business has assets of £110,000, liabilities of £30,000, income in the year of £20,000 against expenses incurred of £10,000 and capital at the beginning of the year of £70,000. Using the two forms of the accounting equation, insert these figures into each equation to show that the equation holds true in both cases.

Answer

Each form of the equation is correct as both sides of the equal sign in each case would have the same figure.

In the first form of the accounting equation, A – L= C+ (I – E), the answer would be:

£80,000 (£110,000 – £30,000) = £80,000 (£70,000 + (£20,000 – £10,000))

In the second form, A+ E =C+ L + I, it would be:

£120,000 (£110,000 + £10,000) = £120,000 (£70,000 + £30,000 + £20,000)

What is the point of knowing the second form of the accounting equation?

This second form of the equation, i.e. A + E =C + L + I, is very useful to remember as it gives you all the rules of double-entry bookkeeping, including the ones for income and expense accounts.

Assets (A) and expenses (E) are on the left side of the equation representing debit balances. The double-entry rule is thus: if a transaction increases an asset or expense account, then the value of this increase must be recorded on the debit or left side of these accounts.

Likewise in the equation, capital (C), liabilities (L) and income (I) are on the right side of the equation representing credit balances. The double-entry rule is thus: if a transaction increases a capital, liability or income account, then the value of this increase must be recorded on the credit or right side of these accounts.

The following T-accounts may help you to learn these ‘golden rules’ of double-entry bookkeeping.

Figure 27

In the final activity of this section, you will need to apply your knowledge of the double-entry rules, the P&L account, the balance sheet and the accounting equation.

Activity 22

Jane Michaela, trading as Michaela Enterprises, has the following closing balances in ledger accounts for her first year in business, the financial year just ended on 31 December 20X7:

  • Opening capital £5,000
  • Cash and bank £2,853
  • Furniture £3,200
  • Computers and equipment £2,010
  • Debtors £790
  • Creditors £1,100
  • Bank loan £2,000
  • Purchases £21,565
  • Rent £6,053
  • Heating and lighting £1,256
  • Insurance £988
  • Office expenses £2,615
  1. Using the template below, complete the trial balance for the year.
  2. Using the formula I – E (Income – Expenses), calculate the net profit for the year ended 31/12/20X7 if the closing stock was £200.
  3. Using the formula C+ (I – E) (Capital + (Income – Expenses)), calculate the capital as at 31/12/20X7.
  4. Using the formula A – L (Assets – Liabilities), calculate the net assets as at 31/12/20X7.
  5. What do you notice about your answers to 3 and 4?

Figure 28
Answer

Figure 29
  1. £33,230 – (£21,565 – £200 closing stock) + £6,053 + £1,256 + £988 + £2,615 = £33,230 – £32,277 = £953 net profit for the year ended 31/12/20X7.
  2. £5,000 + £953 net profit = £5,953 capital as at 31/12/20X7.
  3. (£2,853 + £3,200 + £2,010 + £790 + £200 closing stock not included in trial balance) – (£1,100 + £2,000) = £9,053 – £3,100 = £5,953 net assets as at 31/12/20X7.
  4. The answers to 3 and 4 are exactly the same. This again demonstrates that the accounting equation in the form A – L = C + (I – E) is always true.

Information point

Closing stock is not included in the trial balance as it does not reflect a transaction that has a dual aspect – it is merely the purchases that have not been sold in the year. If there is any opening stock it is included in the trial balance at the year end.

3.7 Post trial balance nominal ledger accounts

In Activity 22, the trial balance of Michaela Enterprises as at 31/12/20X7 did not include the effect of the closing stock on the nominal ledger accounts. As shown in the answer to Activity 22, once the closing stock is known then the profit or loss for the period can be determined and the relevant ledger accounts can be finalised. The following activity should remind you how to complete the account for closing stock in the nominal ledger. Activity 23 will also show how the P&L account in the nominal ledger is ‘closed off ’ to the capital account at the end of the period.

Activity 23

Insert the missing entries of closing stock of £200 and profit for the period of £953 in the stock, P&L and capital accounts for Michaela Enterprises for the year ended 31 December 20X7.

Figure 30
Answer

Figure 31

3.8 Summary

  • Profit = Income – Expenses (P = I – E).
  • Gross profit = Sales – Cost of sales.
  • Net profit = Sales – Cost of sales – Other expenses.
  • In this unit, goods bought for sale are initially treated as an expense (purchases) in the accounts.
  • Goods bought for sale that are unsold at the period end are an asset called stock and are carried forward to the next accounting period.
  • Closing stock at the period end must be deducted from purchases in order for the cost of sales for the period to be worked out.
  • The balance sheet at the end of a period reflects the following expanded accounting equation:
  • Capital + (Income – Expenses) =Assets – Liabilities
  • The accounting equation can also be represented as:Assets + Expenses = Capital + Liabilities + Income
  • Capital + Liability + Income accounts are increased via credit entries and decreased via debit entries.
  • The trial balance (TB) records all the credit or debit balances from the accounts.
  • The P&L account and the balance sheet can be produced from the TB.

4 Conclusion

This unit has covered the skills and knowledge required to understand double-entry bookkeeping, the trial balance and the two principal financial statements: the balance sheet and the profit and loss account. Perhaps the most important aspect of accounting that you learnt is the knowledge that for all organisations and individuals their financial position or worth can be in expressed in the accounting equation i.e. Assets (A) – Liabilities (L) = Capital (C). By extending this simple equation to include income (I) and expenses (E) the accounting equation can also be expressed as A – L = C + (I –E).

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Fundamentals of Psychology

Starting with psychology

Introduction

What makes us who we are? This unit will look at a number of different explanations that psychologists put forward in their attempts to understand why people feel, think and behave the way they do.

This unit is an adapted extract from Y183 Starting with psychology, a course which is no longer taught by The Open University, but which was part of our Openings Programme which has been replaced by our Access modules. This unit gives a good idea of the level of study on these modules.

Learning outcomes

After completing this unit you should be able to:

  • analyse a range of factors within and outside individuals which influence mind and behaviour;
  • consider multiple influences in case studies;
  • describe the way that influences are interlinked in complex ways;
  • discuss the multiple factors involved in what makes us happy.

1 Studying people

The British Psychological Society defines psychology as:

The scientific study of people, the mind and behaviour.

(British Psychological Society, 2007)

If you are reading this you are probably interested in people and curious about what is going on in other people’s minds and you want to understand more about why people behave as they do.

However as you study psychology you will probably find that you will be asking more and more questions rather than finding straightforward answers. The reason for this is that when you study psychology you are studying people, and people are complicated and can be changeable.

Try out the activity below and you’ll start to see why trying to give a single simple explanation for human behaviour is almost impossible.

Activity 1: Boys’ toys and girls’ toys

0 hours 5 minutes

In the photograph below there are two children playing with toys. You will see that the boy is playing with the truck and the girl with the doll. Most children, when given a free choice of toys, tend to select the toys that are thought to be appropriate for their sex. Can you explain why they behave in this way? You can give as many explanations as you want, even some that you don’t agree with but think other people might come up with.

Figure 1

Jack Jones/© f1 online/Alamy
Figure 1 Children playing

Discussion

There are lots of possible explanations for this. Have a look at the list below and compare it with yours. It doesn’t matter if your responses are different, that only goes to show how complicated explaining behaviour is!

  • It is because boys and girls are biologically different. Girls are naturally more motherly and they pick dolls whereas boys are naturally more interested in cars and trucks.
  • I think that sometimes boys might want to play with the dolls but they think that because they are a boy they should pick boys’ toys.
  • It is to do with the way they have been brought up as the adults around them tend to give girls dolls and boys trucks. Also children are often influenced by their friends. Boys will often make fun of other boys who play with dolls.
  • It has a lot to do with television and particularly adverts aimed at children. When they are trying to sell dolls, advertisers show girls, not boys, playing with them.

In trying to understand the children’s behaviour we have a number of explanations that suggest the reasons for the choice of toys could be related to:

  • the child’s biological sex
  • what they think is the right kind of behaviour for their sex
  • their upbringing and the way they are treated by adults and their friends
  • wider cultural influences from television and other forms of media.

In the following sections you will be able to have a brief look at a number of different explanations that psychologists use in their attempts to understand people. You’ll start with the influence of biology, specifically the brain, on behaviour and then consider how the way people think about their world will affect their behaviour. Next you’ll explore the influence of close relationships and finally you’ll see how identity is shaped by groups and the wider culture.

2 A brain of two halves

2.1 Introduction

If you are not too squeamish, imagine you have lifted the top off someone’s skull and peeled back a thin protective membrane. You are now looking down on the brain sitting in a pool of liquid. You have probably heard the phrase ‘grey matter’ and one of the first things you would see is that the outermost layer of the brain is indeed slightly grey in colour. It also has many dips and folds.

You would also notice that the brain is divided into two halves or hemispheres with the division running from the front to the back of the brain.

These two hemispheres are joined together by a bundle of approximately 200 million nerve cells that pass messages between the two hemispheres. This connecting bundle of cells is called the corpus callosum.

Figure 2

Figure 2 Looking down on the brain

Although these two hemispheres look the same, so they have a similar structure, there are differences in the way they function so they control different responses. For example the left hemisphere controls and receives information from the right side of the body and the right hemisphere controls and receives information from the left side of the body.

The two hemispheres may also differ in the extent to which they control certain functions such as producing speech, daydreaming or recognising someone’s face. Some functions may be more under the control of one hemisphere, so that hemisphere will dominate the other. Other functions may be shared equally by both hemispheres. For example our speech area is usually located in the left hemisphere except in some, but not all, left-handed people who may have areas controlling speech on both the left and the right hemisphere. Conversely both hemispheres play a role in vision although it is the right hemisphere that receives information from the left visual field and the left hemisphere that receives information from the right visual field.

You will have noted from the mention of left-handed people above that not all brains are organised in the same way. Another finding in this area is that males, especially right-handed males, have greater left hemisphere dominance for speech than females. If a man suffers damage in the speech area of his left hemisphere this will have a greater impact on his speech compared to a woman who has suffered similar damage.

However, bearing in mind that there will be some differences between people in the way that their brains are organised, we do have a range of evidence that suggests that generally the two hemispheres are dominant in different areas. The left hemisphere dominates for speech, writing, mathematical ability, logic and analysis. The right hemisphere dominates for perception, spatial ability, musical and artistic abilities, imagery and dreaming. The right hemisphere also seems to be more emotional and negative compared to the positive and rational left hemisphere.

Evidence to support the proposal that one hemisphere may dominate the other for a particular function, or hemispherical specialisation, has come from a number of sources. In this section you will consider what has been learned through research with people who have had an operation that splits the left hemisphere of the brain from the right hemisphere of the brain.

2.2 The story of the split brain patients

A surgical procedure that cuts through the corpus callosum has provided evidence to support the different specialisations of the left and right hemispheres of the brain. This procedure is used very rarely and always as a last resort when someone has frequent and major epileptic seizures that do not respond to drug treatment. The frequency and severity of their epileptic fits is very disabling and their quality of life is poor. The attacks can even be life threatening. In these patients epileptic activity would start in one area of the brain and then spread across the corpus callosum to all areas of the brain. By cutting these connections between the two hemispheres epileptic activity is contained in one hemisphere only. The operation usually leads to a significant decrease in the frequency and severity of the seizures without any apparent interference in normal functioning.

Early researchers were puzzled by the fact that people who had undergone this operation did not show any noticeable changes in behaviour, personality or their scores on intelligence tests despite such extensive surgery. In fact they wondered what the purpose of the corpus callosum was if you could cut through it with so little effect. However careful testing by Roger Sperry (1968) and colleagues did uncover behaviour that was far from normal. This work was to gain him a Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1981.

Sperry et al, devised a number of split brain experiments using people who had had split brain surgery as participants and comparing their responses to people who had not had this surgery. In one experiment the split brain participant was blindfolded and given objects to explore with their left hand. Information from the left hand goes to the right hemisphere but speech is generally controlled by the left hemisphere.

Participants were unable to tell the experimenter the name of the object they were holding in their left hand even though they could obviously recognise the object because they would make appropriate gestures with it. For example, if the object was a key they would hold it out as though putting it in a lock and turn it. Because the right hemisphere does not talk and could not transfer information to the left hemisphere the object cannot be named. However as soon as the participant touched the object with the right hand they were able to name it instantly.

In another experiment the participant would sit at a table with a screen in front of them. They would be asked to place their hands round the sides of the screen so that their hands were hidden from view. They would then be asked to fix their eyes on a spot in the centre of the screen.

Figure 3

Figure 3 A split brain study

A word is then flashed onto one side of the screen very briefly (approximately one tenth of a second). The word has to be flashed very quickly so that the participant does not have time to move their eyes and the information will only go to one of the brain hemispheres.

When a word is flashed on to the left-hand side of the screen the information will go to the right hemisphere of the brain. The information cannot be passed to the talkative left hemisphere so the participant cannot tell the experimenter what the word was.

However the participant can use their left hand to explore a pile of objects behind the screen and easily pick out the object that corresponds to the word that has been flashed up. They still won’t be able to tell the experimenter what the left hand is doing as sensory information from the left hand is going to the silent right hemisphere only. Also they can’t find the right object with their right hand as the right hand is controlled by the left hemisphere and the left hemisphere did not see the flashed word.

Activity 2: Sorting out right from left

0 hours 10 minutes

Reading about split brain experiments can be a little confusing as you try and sort out right and left hands, hemispheres and sides of the screen. Taking some time to do this activity should help to make things clearer.

1 If a word is flashed on the right hand of the screen will a person with a split brain be able to:

Yes No
(a) name the word
(b) pick out the corresponding object from behind the screen with their right hand
(c) pick out the corresponding object from behind the screen with their left hand
Discussion

Don’t worry if you found this activity difficult. Many people find following a path from a word on the right side of the screen to the left hemisphere of the brain and then to the right hand far from easy.

In question 1 the word was flashed on the right side of the screen so the information will go to the left hemisphere of the brain. As speech is usually controlled by the left hemisphere the person should be able to name the word. As the left hemisphere also controls the right side of the body the person will be able to pick out a hidden corresponding with their right hand but not with their left hand.

So the answers to question 1 are

  • (a) yes
  • (b) yes
  • (c) no

2 If a word is flashed on the left hand of the screen will a person with a split brain be able to:

Yes No
(a) name the word
(b) pick out the corresponding object from behind the screen with their right hand
(c) pick out the corresponding object from behind the screen with their left hand

Answer

The word is flashed to the left side of the screen so the information will go to the right hemisphere. The person will not be able to name the word and will not be able to pick out a corresponding hidden object with their right hand. This is because the right hemisphere does not control speech or the right side of the body. The right hemisphere controls the left side of the body so the left hand will be able to select a corresponding object.

So the answers to question 2 are the opposite to those for question 1:

  • (a) no
  • (b) no
  • (c) yes

In split brain experiments the techniques used will limit information to one hemisphere only and the person behaves as if they have two separate brains with each hemisphere appearing to operate with no conscious awareness of what is happening in the other hemisphere.

Of course in everyday activities split brain people can operate normally because they can move their eyes and make sure that incoming information is available to both hemispheres. Occasionally odd behaviours do occur, especially in the early days after surgery. A patient might find that they are buttoning up a shirt with one hand and unbuttoning it with the other hand or that their left hand suddenly closes a book that they were engrossed in.

3 It’s the thought that counts

3.1 Organisation and improved recall

This section will concentrate on thinking and specifically how we organise our thoughts, how we make sense of our world and how we remember (or sometimes forget) what is relevant.

Psychologists who study thinking are working in the area of cognitive psychology. Cognition means knowledge so cognitive psychologists are interested in what knowledge people have, how they have acquired this knowledge and how they use this knowledge. This means that the areas they study include attention, perception, memory, problem solving and language.

Organising our thoughts involves:

  • using mental images
  • forming concepts (putting information into categories)
  • developing schemas (constructing mental packages of related information).

We will now look at these three types of organisation in more detail.

3.2 Using mental images

As adults, we tend to do most of our thinking in words. However numerous experiments have been carried out that support the suggestion that we will remember verbal or written information better if we also form a mental image of the information. The mental image will give us another cue when we come to recall the information. In addition the effort we make in forming the image will help to fix it in our memory. This works best if the images we form are large colourful and bizarre as we tend to remember distinctive items rather than everyday items.

Using mental images when you first start to learn a new language has proved very effective for helping people grasp basic vocabulary. This is the key word technique. For example take the French word ‘poubelle’ (pronounced pooh-bell) which translates as ‘bin’ in English. The first step is to think of an English word or words that sound like the French word or part of the French word. This will give you your key word. Then you make a mental picture of the key word with the English translation. So in this example you could picture yourself lifting the lid off your bin which has turned into a bell and holding your nose because of the ‘pooh’.

Figure 4

Figure 4 La poubelle

This might sound complicated, but doing it is much simpler than describing it. It is very successful as well as being a lot less effort and more fun than learning lists of vocabulary by repeating the words over and over again.

Michael Raugh and Richard Atkinson (1975) developed this key word technique and carried out an experiment on two groups of participants. The participants were asked to learn a list of 60 Spanish words but only half of them were taught to use the key word technique. When they were tested later the participants using key words scored an average of 88 per cent compared to only 28 per cent for the participants who did not use key words.

This study by Raugh and Atkinson is a good example of a simple experiment. The experimenters had two groups of participants and they manipulated one difference between the two groups. The experimental group were taught to use key words and the control group were not. Both groups were then given a memory test. In experiments the thing that the experimenter manipulates is called the independent variable and the thing that the experimenter measures is called the dependent variable. When researchers design experiments they do need to consider whether any other factors or variables might be influencing their results. It is important that the experimenter tries to eliminate or control these variables.

Activity 3: Identifying variables

0 hours 5 minutes

In the Raugh and Atkinson experiment can you identify the following variables?

  1. the independent variable
  2. the dependent variable
  3. a variable that should be controlled.
Discussion
  1. The independent variable is the variable that the experimenter manipulates so this is the instruction to use the key word technique.
  2. The dependent variable is the variable that alters as a result of the manipulation of the independent variable. The experimenter measures this variable and it is the number of Spanish words recalled.
  3. One variable that the experimenter might need to control is to make sure that none of the participants had learnt any Spanish before the experiment as this could affect their score on the memory test.

A number of mnemonics or memory strategies are based on using mental images. A mnemonic is a strategy for improving memory and you are probably familiar with several mnemonics such as the rhyme ‘30 days hath September, April, June and November, all the rest have 31 except February which has 28…’ or ‘Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain’ to remember that the rainbow is made up of Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo and Violet.

An ancient mnemonic device called the ‘method of loci’ was developed by the poet Simonides who lived in Ancient Greece in the year 500 bc. This technique works by the learner linking mental images of the items they are trying to remember with a sequence of locations that they already know.

Activity 4: Method of loci

0 hours 10 minutes

Let’s take a simple example. Suppose you wanted to remember a list of ten items that you need to shop for.

Figure 5

Figure 5 A shopping list

You would imagine each of these items at various locations around your home or placed at different points down a street that you know well. Remember this technique works best if the images are outstanding and silly rather than sensible. I have suggested some images for our list in the passage below. Please read through the passage and take a moment to make the mental pictures but don’t worry too much about trying to remember the items. However it is very important that you do make the picture in your mind.

Try to imagine your front door but with a huge banana instead of the usual handle. When you open the door and walk into the entrance the floor is covered in eggs and you have to walk over the eggs to get to the living room. Imagine the eggs cracking under your feet and the mess! Anyway it gets much messier because when you open the living room door you are almost knocked off your feet by the river of milk that comes gushing out. You stagger over to the window to pull the curtains which have turned into two giant slices of bread. You try to turn on the TV but fail because that has been replaced by a very large packet of cereal. Time to have a sit down, but when you collapse on the sofa you sink down into a sofa sized ginger cake. Go to the kitchen for a drink. Walking across the kitchen floor is a bit difficult as it is knee deep in sugar and when you have reached the kettle you find it has turned into a bottle of wine. I prefer white but you can visualise red if you want. Give up and go for a mug of water. Unfortunately when you reach down a mug from the cupboard it is filled with a bouquet of flowers and when you turn the tap on it is chocolate not water that comes out.

Figure 6

Figure 6 Your shopping
Discussion

Leave the shopping list now at least for an hour and in the meantime try not to keep checking whether you have remembered the items. You will probably find that an hour or so later you will be able to remember most of the items on the list. You will even find that a few days later you will still be able to recite most of the list.

This is a fairly trivial example and that most of us would just write our shopping list down. However hopefully it has demonstrated for you that making mental images can be a powerful aid to memory. The technique can be adapted for other more relevant situations. It has been tested on students revising for exams where it has been found to improve recall. For example if you had to take a psychology exam you could make up mental images of some of the research you have read about and arrange these images in a logical sequence around your home.

Using mental images to organise our thoughts can make our thinking and remembering much more efficient. However there are other organising principles which can also be useful such sorting information into categories.

3.3 Forming concepts

When we think about the world one of the ways that we organise our thoughts is by putting them into categories. This process of developing categories is called concept formation. For example ‘animal’ is a concept that contains other sub-concepts and then further sub-concepts. We could divide animals into birds, fish, mammals, etc. We could then divide birds into robins, sparrows, owls, etc. When we apply our concepts we tend to use a set of defining features. For example we would classify the sparrow as a bird because it has a number of defining features that we associate with birds such as wings, feathers, beaks and flying. However although we may have a set of defining features for a concept such as a bird we don’t apply these rigidly. Penguins and ostriches are still classified as birds even though they don’t fly.

Activity 5: Defining a simple concept

0 hours 5 minutes

What makes a table a table? We all have a concept of what a table is and can easily recognise a table whether it is a dining table, garden table or coffee table. Can you take a moment to write a list of the defining features of a table?

Discussion

Most people when asked this relatively simple question will tell you that a table has a flat surface, four legs to raise it off the ground and you can put things on it. They may add other features such as it is an item of furniture or it is often but not always made of wood, but the first three features are the most frequent responses.

However look at the picture below.

Figure 7

Figure 7 A non-typical table

This table doesn’t have four legs but most of us would still recognise it as a table as it has a flat surface that we can put things on.

Similarly our definition of a table as a piece of furniture with a flat surface with four legs could just as easily be applied to a stool.

Figure 8

Profimedia International S.R.O/Alamy
Figure 8 A stool

So while we would find it difficult to specify a way of distinguishing between a small occasional table and a stool we would not walk into someone’s living room and sit on their occasional table because it shares the same the features as a stool. So our concepts are not clearly defined and seem to depend on what we expect to do with an object rather than how we define them. You may have heard the phrase ‘fuzzy concept’ which reflects our difficulty in providing precise definitions.

So we recognise the object in Figure 7 above as a table because we could use them to put things on such as a book, our drink or an ornament. The object in Figure 8 is a stool because we would sit on it. We will group objects within the same category or concept if we do the same thing with them.

We use concepts so automatically that we are rarely aware that we are using them. Perhaps it is easier to see this process in action when we observe children developing their thinking as they struggle to develop concepts. Children often make mistakes by overgeneralising a concept that they are trying to get to grips with. They may have developed a concept for a dog as an animal with hair, four legs and a tail, but then they may also apply this label to a cat or a sheep or even a horse. Similarly they may learn that the tall person with the deep voice is called Daddy and then may embarrassingly identify any passing man as Daddy.

It may also become evident how much we use concepts when we look at a few memory experiments. Try the first experiment for yourself in the activity below.

Activity 6: A memory test

0 hours 10 minutes

Read once through the list of words below trying to remember them and then scroll the screen until the list disappears but you can still see the ‘Reveal discussion’ link. Once you have written down as many words as you can remember click to read the discussion.

  • Bed
  • Peach
  • Hat
  • Armchair
  • Daffodil
  • Shirt
  • Rose
  • Lemon
  • Sock
  • Daisy
  • Strawberry
  • Table
  • Buttercup
  • Apple
  • Sideboard
  • Trousers
Discussion

Now that you have written all the words down that you can recall, I would like you to see if you can remember any more words with the help of some cues. The list contains items belonging to the following categories; furniture, fruit, clothing and flowers. Have the cues helped you remember any more words?

Have a look at your first try at recalling the words. Did you realise that the words belonged to categories and did you recall them in category clusters?

If possible you could try this out on some other people and compare their results with yours.

This experiment is a simplified version of an experiment by Weston Bousfield (1953). Bousfield asked participants to learn a list of 60 words that could be divided into four categories. Though the words were presented in a random order, the participants tended to remember them in groups which belonged to the same category, so if they remembered apple, then they would remember peach, lemon and strawberry.

In our version of the experiment you were also asked to have a second go at recalling the words after you had been given the category headings. Most participants in these types of experiments find that although they think they have recalled all the words they will be able to remember, they can actually access more words once they have been given category headings as cues.

This illustrates that this information must have been available but without the cue they could not access it. When we try to recall information that has been organised it seems each bit of the information cues the next bit because we have it stored in an organised rather than haphazard fashion.

Some research from George Mandler (1967) suggests that by organising information we learn it even though we are not making any effort to memorise it. Mandler carried out an experiment where two groups of participants were given a pack of 100 cards each. Each card had a word printed on it. Both groups of participants were told to sort the cards into groups. They were allowed to have several tries at sorting the cards. The only difference between the two groups of participants was that the first group were told to try and memorise the words on the cards while they were sorting them but the other group were only told to sort the cards. When both groups were later tested by being asked to write down all the words they could remember the group who were only told to sort the words remembered as many words as the group who were told to sort and memorise the words.

Activity 7: Identifying variables again

0 hours 5 minutes

In the Mandler experiment can you identify the following variables?

  1. the independent variable
  2. the dependent variable
Discussion
  1. The independent variable is the variable that the experimenter manipulates so this is the instruction to try and memorise the words which was given to one group only.
  2. The dependent variable is the number of words recalled.

You may rightly argue that being able to remember lists of words in category groups is not a particularly useful skill for everyday life. However the principle of organising information so that it is grouped with related items can be applied to activities like reading this unit. You may be aware of mind mapping, which is simply a way of organising information so you can see which items go together and how they are related to other items.

Skim reading is a good way to get an overall idea of what is going to be covered in the material you are looking at. The titles, subtitles, bullet point lists and diagrams can help you see how the material has been organised. Keeping this organisation in mind can be a useful aid to study. You can start out with a rough sketch of how the material is organised and then add to it or amend it as you do your close reading.

We’ll now look at a third way of organising our thoughts which is very similar to concept formation but is more extensive, and that is using schemas.

3.4 Schemas

A schema is the word psychologists use to describe a mental framework in which you would file all your knowledge about certain objects, situations, groups of people and even yourself. It would include the whole package of your thinking when you think about something. For example, if you apply concept formation to the word dentist you would probably categorise dentist as an occupation. However if you list everything that you associate with the word dentist this would give you your dentist schema. Your schema may include items such as a waiting room, dread, a dentist’s chair, the sound of the drill, the smell of the antiseptic mouth wash and so on.

The term schema (plural schemas or schemata) was used by an influential Swiss psychologist named Jean Piaget. Piaget, who died in 1980, spent over 50 years investigating the way that children developed their thinking or cognitive skills. He proposed that they did this by developing schemas which are built up from their experience of the world.

It is as if your memory is a huge filing cabinet and each file in the cabinet is a schema. If you opened the schema labelled ‘going to the cinema’, it would contain all your knowledge about trips to the cinema (e.g. buying a ticket, sitting in the dark, seeing a film, other people around, eating popcorn). If you visited a cinema that you have never been to before you wouldn’t have to start from the beginning in trying to work out what to do. You would simply activate your ‘going to the cinema’ schema to guide your actions. In this way schemas help us deal more efficiently with the world around us so when we encounter a new situation we can apply our knowledge of similar past situations to help us act appropriately.

A lot of the knowledge that we hold in our schemas will be shared with other people who have had similar experiences to ourselves. However where our experiences are different our schemas will also be different. For example, if you love football your schema for football will contain a lot of detailed information about particular teams, leagues, championship competitions and even the intricacies of the off-side rule. If you dislike football your football schema may only include the information that it is an outdoor game involving a ball, a number of players and an audience and that you should avoid it whenever possible.

Schemas can help us recall information as they provide an organising framework so that the information is stored appropriately and they can provide cues to prompt our memory.

John Bransford and Marcia Johnson (1972) carried out a number of experiments which illustrated the role of schemas in our understanding and recall of information. In one experiment the participants were read the passage below and then asked to recall it as accurately as possible. However half of the participants were given a title for the following passage and the other participants were given the passage without the title.

The procedure is actually quite simple. First you arrange things into different groups… Of course, one pile may be sufficient depending on how much there is to do. If you have to go somewhere else due to lack of facilities that is the next step, otherwise you are pretty well set. It is important not to overdo any particular endeavour. That is, it is better to do too few things at once than too many. In the short run this may not seem important, but complications from doing too many can easily arise. A mistake can be expensive as well… At first the whole procedure will seem complicated. Soon, however, it will become just another facet of life. It is difficult to foresee any end to the necessity for this task in the immediate future, but then one never can tell. After the procedure is completed one arranges the materials into different groups again. Then they can be put into their appropriate places. Eventually they will be used once more and the whole cycle will have to be repeated. However, that is part of life.

(Bransford and Johnson 1972 p. 722)

Most people report that they have great difficulty in understanding the passage let alone trying to recall the details. However if you reread the passage with the title, ‘Washing Clothes’ in mind everything should fall into place. The title provides a schema so that the information can be stored appropriately and recalled more easily.

4 Adult and intimate relationships

4.1 Introduction

As young people in the UK grow into adulthood the potential for establishing more intimate relationships opens up considerably when they leave home for university, enter vocational training, or move directly into the workforce. Each of these changes provides new opportunities for contact with a range of different people. These new settings often include opportunities to form close intimate relationships.

The bulk of research on relationships has concentrated on those in western societies, with its underlying idea of romantic love and free choice of partners. It should be remembered that this is far from the universal approach to long-term relationships. Would you be surprised to hear that the majority of marriages that take place in the world are more or less arranged or based on considerations beyond notions of romantic love? David Buss (1994) studied the citizens of different countries and found they tended to highlight different reasons for getting married. To give some examples, he found that in Iran factors such as education, ambition and chastity were seen as more important for choosing a spouse while in Nigeria, citizens ranked good health, refinement/neatness and desire for home/children highest. Also, most of the research carried out in this area has focused on heterosexual relationships. However it has been found that there are far more similarities between homosexual and heterosexual relationships than there are differences.

This section focuses on people’s experiences of intimate relationships both in terms of what attracts us initially and what keeps us together in the longer term.

4.2 Attraction

What is it that attracts us to other people for these more romantic relationships? Psychologists have identified a number of factors to explain why we might be attracted to one person but not to another. Three of the most important influences are:

  • Proximity and familiarity
  • Similarity
  • Physical appearance

4.3 Proximity and familiarity

Proximity means geographical closeness. An obvious and basic requirement for forming a relationship is that the people involved need to be geographically close enough to have opportunities to interact with each other. You may find a certain film star very attractive but if you never get the chance to meet them or talk to them then you’ll have no chance of forming a relationship. If you examine friendship patterns of people living in blocks of flats then they will be much more likely to be friendly with the people who live near them on the same floor than with people living on different floors just because they have more opportunities to meet and get to know each other. Similarly people are more likely to form friendships at work with the people working near them and students will be more likely to form friendships with people studying the same subject and attending the same classes.

Having more chances to interact with another person means that we become more familiar with that person and numerous studies have shown that we prefer people who are familiar to us rather than strangers. This is known as the ‘mere exposure effect’ (Robert B. Zajonc, 1968) which states that the more often we are exposed to a stimulus whether it is a sound, picture or person the more positively we will rate that stimulus. The reason why we are more likely to be attracted to people we meet more often may be because we feel more secure with people that we know. However, we are also more likely to be in regular close proximity to people with whom we share interests: working together, undertaking leisure activities, being within the same friendship group and similar social circumstances. You will see in the next section that similarity also has a part to play in attraction.

4.4 Similarity

The old adage ‘opposites attract’ is not particularly born out by research. In fact numerous studies suggest that we tend to be attracted to people who are similar to ourselves. This applies to whether we are considering friendships or more intimate relationships. Similarities can be seen in age, ethnicity, religion, social class, intelligence, interests and some aspects of physical appearance. However, research suggests the most important similarities are those concerning beliefs, values, attitudes and how people see the world. Steven Duck (1992) explained this is because seeing the world in the same way as someone else makes it easier to interact with them. It also increases our confidence in our own attitudes which in turn bolsters our self-esteem.

4.5 Physical appearance

Our society places particular value on physical characteristics. Curvy body shapes, long legs and luxurious hair are characteristics that are often seen as desirable in women. For men it might include characteristics such as muscularity, tallness and a firm jawline. For both sexes there is youthfulness, white even teeth, and facial symmetry. There is a vast amount of media coverage implicitly favouring, and in the case of the advertising industry explicitly promoting, these models of attractiveness. Films, magazines and television all contribute to what might be termed the tyranny of body shape images. There is a whole industry that aims to mould consumer preferences, and so sell products, by distorting the reality of normal into the unreality of ideals such as the so-called ideal of women being size zero.

Because the ideal of attractiveness based on physical characteristics rather than personality traits (such as kindness, intelligence, thoughtfulness, sense of humour) is continually being promoted in western societies, you might assume that relationships in the west would be based on physical characteristics. This assumption has been found to be true, but only up to a point. Whether or not it is true might be to do with the reason for the relationship, short-term fun or longer-term commitment.

Research suggests that what is valued in a partner also differs along gender lines. Catherine Cameron et al (1977) in a study of personal adverts found that women tended to promote themselves in terms of socially favoured personality and physical characteristics, such as sense of humour, outgoing, slim, attractive and so on. On the other hand, men tended to highlight their economic status, so will often use terms such as ‘professional’ or ‘homeowner’. This difference seems to suggest that women ‘think’ that men look for personal attractiveness whilst men ‘think’ that women want security – the wording of the adverts reflecting what each gender ‘thinks’ that the other is looking for – is supported by a range of research.

Activity 8: Testing Cameron’s research

0 hours 25 minutes

Find the personal ads section of a magazine or local newspaper. Go through the first twenty ‘women seeking men’ and make a brief note of how the women describe themselves, then do the same with the first twenty ‘men seeking women’. Do your findings support Cameron et al’s findings?

Discussion

In this activity you started with a research question related to gender differences in how people promote themselves to potential partners. You then identified relevant ‘gender samples’ and then you undertook an analysis of the samples in relation to defined categories, which are items in the adverts that promote ‘socially favoured characteristics’ and those ‘promoting economic status’. So your research involved you taking a considered approach to ‘testing’ Cameron et al’s findings.

Clearly the sample would be too small and the source too limited to provide a thorough test of gender differences in how people promote themselves in personal ads these days.

Some psychologists suggest that in order to understand why particular physical attributes are deemed attractive we need to consider human evolution. Darwin’s theory of evolution and natural selection states that characteristics that give an animal or human the best chance of survival and of reproducing themselves will be prized. These psychologists would suggest that attraction based on physical characteristics is related to features which indicate healthiness and especially fertility.

Viren Swami and Adrian Furnham (2006) have undertaken an overview of recent research which examined this suggested influence on attraction based on physical characteristics. Their research focused on the heterosexual male perspective.

They pose the question of whether there are physical characteristics that are found to be attractive across cultures. If so, do these characteristics signal procreative potential as predicted by psychologists taking an evolutionary approach to explaining behaviour? Swami and Furnham conclude that there is research evidence to suggest that there are characteristics that have been shown to be attractive across cultures. The physical characteristics for females focus on body shape, especially the waist to hip measurement ratio (WHR). A WHR measure of 0.8 means that a person’s waist measurement is 80 per cent of their hip measurement.

Figure 9: Waist/hip ratio

For a woman a WHR of around 0.7, is better than a high WHR, of 0.9 and over, in terms of health and fertility. In most cultures men will rate women with a 0.7 WHR as more attractive than a woman with a higher WHR. Popular evidence to support this is the fact that present day catwalk supermodels, as well as film stars of the 1950s such as Marilyn Monroe and, going back even further, the famous (armless) statue of the Venus de Milo all have WHRs in the 0.7 range.

However body weight may be even more important than WHR in determining attractiveness and Swami and Furnham report on research that shows some variation among cultures when they looked at this measure. Generally, in economically developed societies men tend to prefer women with a lighter build, while men in economically developing societies tend to prefer a heavier build. These cultural differences are explained by evolutionary psychologists suggesting that in societies where food supplies were poor or uncertain it was understandable that women with a high body weight would be seen as better choice of partner. In economically developed societies these more basic considerations which are focused on survival in difficult environments are not relevant and other factors may come into play.

The evolutionary approach is controversial, with most psychologists viewing it as much too simplistic, but it does offer a wide-ranging explanatory framework within which to begin to understand and interpret human behaviour.

The work of Swami and Furnham above has introduced some of the cultural variation in what people consider to be attractive for potential intimate relationships. There are a range of other features that have been considered to influence attractiveness. Whereas signs of healthiness are most important, once these have been considered, signals of wealth or status may be taken into account. In the last few decades in western societies people have often valued suntanned skin and slimmer builds as this indicates someone has the resources to eat a healthy diet and take part in exercise as well as go on expensive holidays or at least to a tanning salon. Interestingly with the dangers of sun tanning being researched and publicised people with tans or at least sunburned skin are now viewed more negatively.

There are numerous examples, taken from different cultures, of more unusual physical adornments that have been considered to be attractive. In China the practice of female foot-binding was carried out for hundreds of years before being banned in 1911. The process was started when girls were about five years old and the ideal was to have feet no longer than four inches. As you can imagine this was an extremely painful process and girls and women were often unable to walk more than the shortest distance. This was a status symbol and only carried out on girls from wealthy families who would be expected to marry into a similarly wealthy family. Girls from poorer backgrounds would be expected to work, which would be impossible with bound feet. Similarly in Renaissance Europe women would often blacken their teeth to appear more attractive. The explanation for this is that sugar was only available to the very wealthy and sugar did cause teeth to rot and turn black so by painting your teeth black you could appear to be of high economic status and therefore a desirable person.

Rex Features
Figure 10: A bound foot

More recently, tattoos and skin piercing (currently popular in western societies) have become a must-have adornment for many people. These are just some examples of the kaleidoscopic range of body adornments that have been found to be attractive for different cultures. And there is the world-wide industry of male and female make-up, clothing design and cosmetic surgery that focuses so obviously on enhancing physical features. Our desire to establish intimate relationships will lead us to seek out certain people and present ourselves in the way that we feel will be most attractive to others. This in turn is shaped by the particular culture that we live in.

The emphasis our society places on physical attractiveness would suggest that each of us would seek long-term romantic relationships with the most attractive people we meet. But some of the research into relationship formation suggests that we are in fact more realistic and that we tend to form relationships with partners who are more of a physical ‘match’ to ourselves. This is called the matching hypothesis and has been supported by a number of studies. In one Bernard Murstein (1972) showed pictures of ninety-nine couples to participants. The pictures were separate so the participants could not know who paired with whom. Participants were asked to rate each picture for physical attractiveness. The scores for physical attractiveness of the real couples were much more similar than scores for randomly assigned couples.

This matching hypothesis does not contradict the previous view that we are attracted to people who are physically very attractive, but just highlights how, when it comes to actually making a choice, we temper ideals with a sense of realism. This process is sometimes explained in terms of costs and rewards. The costs of searching for a dream partner would be so high, if you consider the time needed and the likelihood of rejection if they are much more attractive than you are. Similarly people are not usually attracted to someone who is much less attractive than they are, because while the costs would be low, so would the rewards. Other psychologists suggest that, rather than being afraid of rejection, we are actually happier with someone more like ourselves, which ties in with what you were reading earlier about being attracted to people who are similar to us in all sorts of ways.

Think back to the information about schemas in Section 3.4/?printable=1″>Section 3.4. A schema is defined as a mental framework in which you would file all your knowledge about certain objects, situations, groups of people, even yourself. The view being suggested here on relationship formation suggests that people carry a mental schema that includes a set of characteristics that they would favour in a partner and that they seek out people who more or less conform to this. Research on schemas shows that factors other than appearance or physical attractiveness are seen as being more important when seeking a long-term partner. David Buss (1994), for example, studied unmarried college students in the US and found that the three top characteristics looked for in an ideal partner were: kind and understanding; exciting personality; and intelligent.

4.6 Staying together or falling apart

An initial attraction between two people begins a journey into the growing intimacy of a relationship. Psychologists have tended to describe and explain these intimate relationships in different ways. Robert Sternberg (1999), for instance, distinguishes between three different components of love as being ‘passion’, ‘intimacy’ and ‘commitment’. Romantic love, a combination of passion and intimacy, tends not to last when commitment is low. Equally, partnerships may last through high levels of intimacy and commitment while having low levels of passion.

But how are these intimate relationships nurtured and maintained? Why do some couples stay together for decades and others split within weeks? Is it possible to identify factors that could help us to evaluate the likelihood of a relationship lasting beyond the initial attraction?

Any relationship involves a complexity of layers of interaction. Each relationship has two perspectives, two sets of needs and expectations that have to be at least sufficiently met for the relationship to continue. These perspectives are not fixed, they change as people’s needs and ambitions develop. This building of a relationship is carried out in different social settings in which there is usually a range of socially recognised norms and values influencing how people should behave towards each other – and in some cultures norms and values operate through quite strict guidelines, especially in relation to how opposite sexes should interact.

Activity 9: Your relationships

0 hours 10 minutes

Think about your own relationship with a long-term partner or another couple you know who have stayed together (perhaps your parents or grandparents). Using Sternberg’s idea of love involving passion, intimacy and/or commitment, to what extent are the different components important for your chosen relationship? Can you identify any specific strategies that you think might have contributed to keeping the relationship going?

Discussion

Every couple is unique (like the individuals involved) so you can’t generalise your experience to others and assume that what works in one relationship will work in another.

You may have noted strategies such as sharing interests including hobbies or going out together, humorous interactions, positive comments about each other and similar mutually bonding activities.

Observing interactions between couples can be a fascinating and rewarding approach taken by psychologists as they attempt to understand the internal dynamics of any relationship. For example, Kathryn Dindia and Leslie Baxter (1987) interviewed fifty married couples to try to identify strategies used to try to maintain relationships. They found that they could distinguish two types of behaviours, maintenance and repair. They identified forty-nine different strategies:

Maintenance strategies included:

  • talking about the day
  • giving compliments
  • regular contact (telephone calls) when apart during the day
  • socialising together with others
  • giving presents
  • joint discussion of purchases such as cars and holidays.

Repair strategies included:

  • talking about problems
  • seeking outside help
  • conceding to the wishes of the partner
  • issuing ultimatums.

You can see that there is clearly the potential for some strategies to be included in both categories for example, ‘gift giving’ and ‘keeping in touch’ when apart can be maintenance or repair strategies depending on the motivations involved and the needs of the situation.

Dindia and Baxter found differences in the type of behaviours adopted that related to the length of marriages. Those that had been married longer tended not to use maintenance behaviours as much as those who had only been married for a short time. It was suggested that the long-married couples knew each other better and were more familiar with each other, so did not feel the need for specific maintenance behaviours as much as those in the early stages of marriage. Another suggestion was that couples who had been together for a long time took maintenance strategies for granted and in a sense failed to notice the significance of their behaviours. It could be that they had already invested so much in the relationship that each felt the other did not need to be actively maintained.

John Gottman (1999) analysed videotapes of many couple’s interactions over a period of 14 years. Through this extensive observational study, he found that couples who divorced tended to have four main problems: one or both partners spent a lot of time being critical of the other; one or both became very defensive when their faults were criticised; one or both tended to show contempt for the other; and one or the other refused to respond to the other during disagreements. Couples in more happy and successful partnerships seem to find a positive way of dealing with the four problem areas of criticism, defensiveness, contempt and unresponsiveness. Gottman found that couples who were more successful tended to be more supportive and less critical of each other which led to being more tolerant about each others’ weaknesses (in other words, they weren’t trying to change each other).

This section has looked at a range of research findings on the kinds of relationships we engage in as adults and how close intimate relationships evolve. The factors that help to maintain an intimate relationship can vary considerably between couples but research suggests that such things as shared interests, the length of time the couple has been together, children, economic circumstances, individual expectations, past relationship experience and family support and culture are all relevant. And as for ‘romance’ and ‘love’… well this elusive area of human psychology is perhaps the most difficult to evaluate! The bonding power of love can help to overcome all of the factors that might inhibit relationship maintenance, and the absence of love might not be compensated for by the presence of most or even all of the positive factors that help to maintain an intimate relationship.

5 Group pressure

5.1 Introduction

Do you remember hearing about ‘Heaven’s Gate’, the Californian doomsday cult which combined elements of Christianity with belief in the existence of UFOs? (A number of popular TV programmes, including CSI and The Simpsons, have based storylines on this cult.) In March 1997, thirty-nine members of the group, led by Marshal Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles, committed suicide in the belief that their souls would be transferred to a spaceship hiding behind the Hale-Bopp comet. Most of the cult members had severed contact with their families and had sold their worldly belongings. They had committed themselves to a celibate life, with eight of the men submitting to voluntary castration (seemingly in preparation for a new gender-free level of existence).

Why did these group members engage in such extreme behaviours? Had they been brainwashed? Were they just weak and vulnerable, in effect easy targets for manipulation? While psychologists offer a variety of explanations, most would recognise a combination of emotional and social factors at work and most would say that these go beyond the individual, their personality and their roles. Cult bonds are often created through such factors as the emotional attachment to the group and fear of powerful leaders making people feel dependent on the group (Margaret Singer, 1995). People can be highly attracted by the security offered by membership of a group, where friends are apparently all around you and you feel cared for and safe.

It’s worth looking more deeply at how social psychologists have explored the ways in which groups and group identity influence the way people think and act. In this section you explore different strands of research to do with ‘in-groups/out-groups’, and ‘group pressure and conformity’.

5.2 ‘In-groups’ and ‘out-groups’

The two activities you did in Section 4 show how we associate ourselves with several different social categories and groups. These group identifications can promote a sense of identity and belonging – identities which help us define ourselves and others to define us. They can also raise our self-esteem and sense of status. The sense of group identity is then enhanced when we make comparisons between people like ‘us’ (the in-group) and people who are different, ‘them’ (the out-group). You can see this ‘us’ and ‘them’ thinking in many of the conflicts around the world today.

You can also see this thinking in everyday life, for instance played out with rival gangs or sporting teams. Teenage fashion is another great example. Consider, for instance, ‘skateboard culture’ and the dress code of this image-conscious group described by Janine Hunter (2006):

Members of the group are dressed in a very relaxed and informal style. Baggy jeans, T-shirts, maybe a hooded top and a key chain hanging from the side of a leg. Some have a favourite band or rock legend printed on their T-shirt, whilst others have a logo… Some of the skaters [are] wearing cut off shorts or rolled up jeans to three-quarter length, showing off their socks and trainers.

(Hunter, 2006)

Here is how one skateboarder describes the groupings demonstrating that group identity influences not only clothes but also the behaviour and ‘style’ that group members adopt:

…there’s the punk skaters and then there are the rap hip-hop skaters and then … there are the people that are just, I dunno, whatever. Erm, basically you belong to one of those groups, you know, and it’s the punk skaters that tend to be the ones that just throw themselves down the steps and do hand rails and stuff … and hip hop skaters tend to be like all techy, flippy crap and stuff …

(Hunter, 2006)

David Young-Wolff/Alamy
Figure 11: Skateboarder group

Activity 10: Us and them

0 hours 20 minutes

Read the newspaper article below. Can you spot any indications of an ‘us and them’ kind of thinking? There is more than one ‘us and them’ indirectly being referred to in the article.

Ross asks BBC: ‘Where are all the black faces?’

Jonathan Ross sealed his reputation as a man willing to flirt with the unsayable yesterday when live on BBC radio he criticised the concentration of black people in low paid jobs. The target of his wrath? The BBC itself.

Ross, renown as a ‘motormouth’ chat show host, did not let his reported £6m annual pay stop him speaking his mind about his employer. Presenting his BBC Radio 2 show, he described a visit to the Chris Moyles show on Radio 1 where he met an employee with a small ‘Afro’ hairstyle. Ross demanded: ‘How many black people have they got working on proper shows there? You know the BBC still haven’t really come up to speed. I mean they are trying, God bless them.’

‘Most of the guys you see there are either working on the door, carrying a cloth in there and cleaning up. We haven’t really made the effort yet.’

The subject, which many employers would rather avoid, is especially sensitive at the BBC. Last year Mary FitzPatrick, its ‘diversity tsar’, told The Observer she believed foreign correspondents should be from the ethnic background of the country where they are based. She later denied this should be taken as a criticism of the likes of John Simpson and Fergal Keane for being ‘too white’.

In 2001 the then director general, Greg Dyke, labelled the BBC ‘hideously white’ and incapable of retaining staff from ethnic minorities. Last night Dyke took issue with Ross on at least one point: ‘It’s certainly not true that there hasn’t been an effort. While I was there I think we increased the total representation of ethnic minorities by two per cent.’

The BBC scrambled to answer Ross’s broadside. A spokeswoman said: ‘The BBC is committed to ensuring that the organisation has a mixed and diverse workforce to guarantee a good understanding of the whole BBC audience, which includes people from a wide range of ethnic and social backgrounds.’

She said the BBC was aiming for 12.5 per cent ethnic minority employees in the workforce and seven per cent in senior management by December 2007. ‘As far as what Jonathan Ross said, he was expressing his personal opinions.’

(Smith, 2007)

Discussion

The clearest reference to ‘us and them’ is probably ‘blacks versus whites in the BBC’. Did you pick any others up such as ‘BBC workers versus front-line presenters’ or ‘BBC employees versus senior management’? Often, notions of ‘us and them’ are subtle and can be hard to spot unless you’re a part of the in-group/out-group conflict.

Interest in the process of identification with groups received a strong impetus from a series of studies conducted in the 1950s and 1960s. Muzafer Sherif et al (1961), for instance, conducted an often cited series of experiments involving a boys’ summer camp.

Robber’s Cave

The experimenters divided the boys into two groups. As expected the groups became quite cohesive involving norms of behaviour, jokes and secret codes. They set up a competition in the form of a tournament. Good sportsmanship quickly degenerated into overt group hostility with name-calling, aggression and prejudice in evidence. Within the groups, however, group loyalty, solidarity and cooperation were at its height. The experimenters then further manipulated the group situation by introducing activities which required both groups to actively cooperate and positively work together. This proved quite successful.

Experiments like these have demonstrated the significance of how conflict can arise through competition as groups interact over time. However, a series of other experiments known as the ‘minimal group experiments’ (Henri Tajfel et al 1971) shows something a little different. Tajfel and his colleagues showed that in-group favouritism and out-group discrimination can occur even when there is no history of involvement between groups. These researchers simply randomly assigned teenage boys to a kind of ‘virtual’ group. They were, in fact, working by themselves in a cubicle and just thought they were part of a group. Without any contact with others in their ‘group’ and with no real conflict of interest, they still showed in-group favouritism!

Would it surprise you to know that these results have been replicated many times in North America and Britain? However, there is also some contradictory evidence. When Margaret Wetherell (1982) applied these minimal groups in New Zealand, she found that while white European New Zealand children showed the same pattern of behaviour as North American/British children, Pacific Island and Maori children did not necessarily opt for in-group favouritism. Instead, they repeatedly chose to benefit both groups, even if this meant their group getting less than the out-group. Wetherell explains how this made sense in terms of their cultural framework. She notes, for example, that in Polynesian societies generosity is a mark of high status. Results such as these highlight the importance of wider cultural factors which affect our social identities and the extent of group influence.

Ideas about in-groups and out-groups form the basis of a psychological theory called Social Identity Theory, first developed by the psychologists Henri Tajfel and John Turner (1979). The theory argues that our response to joining groups involves three key stages:

  1. Social categorisation: Here we put ourselves and others into categories: for example, we label someone a rapper, a snob, a trekkie, a Christian, an Essex girl, and so on. These labels then become a shorthand way of implying other things about that person. (Didn’t certain images come to mind when you read those labels?)
  2. Social identification: As soon as we are identified as belonging to one group rather than another, we take up that identity in our own and others’ eyes. We become defined in a way that also has some emotional or value significance. What we and our group do is ‘good’, ‘cool’ and so forth.
  3. Social comparison: As members of a group, we then compare our group with others. In the process, we will define our group in positive terms, thereby reinforcing our own positive view of ourselves. There is also a competitive element in our response to other groups. Out-groups are seen in negative terms, and perhaps even actively discriminated against. Thinking well of ourselves and bolstering group self-esteem therefore becomes linked with discrimination against, and hostility towards, other groups.

Social Identity Theory highlights both how people’s sense of who they are is defined in terms of a ‘we’ instead of simply an ‘I’, and that in-group categorisation occurs in ways that favour the in-group at the expense of the out-group. People want to feel their own group (and therefore themselves) as being better than other groups.

Social Identity Theory is one of many different psychological theories put forward to explain some of the causes of racist attacks and group conflicts and wars around the world. While it would be too simplistic to say that all group conflicts are down to social identity (you already know that there are multiple influences on people), research evidence backs up the ideas of in-group favouritism and out-group discrimination playing a part. Prejudice based on this is a way of bolstering self-esteem in that it allows ‘out-groups’ to be seen as inferior.

The evidence suggests that the desire for self-esteem leads to inter-group competition and that these processes can escalate into open hostility and discrimination. In other words, simply categorising people into groups may be sufficient to generate conflict and prejudice between groups. The argument here is that individual differences between members of both in-groups and out-groups tend to be ignored. This results in stereotyping: the over-simplified, distorted, and one-dimensional portrayal of people, perhaps based on their sex, race, religion, profession or age. For instance, think about the stereotype of ‘dumb blondes’ which suggests that all blonde women are stupid when the reality is that intelligence is not related to hair colour. Then there are more serious examples of stereotypes, for example, when a Muslim is wrongly assumed to be a ‘terrorist’. This occurs in people’s thinking as a way of simplifying and organising a complex world. The problem with such unfortunate stereotypes is that they can have problematic, even critical, consequences.

Psychologists who have studied this subject argue that as we seek to make sense of our complicated, confusing world, we inevitably stereotype people to some degree. In a sense, people have to simplify and make generalisations. The problem arises when negative caricatures result in prejudice and are used to justify discrimination against one group by another. Such portrayals can profoundly affect how we value ourselves and relate to one another in groups.

5.3 Groups and conformity

In the 1950s, Solomon Asch conducted what are now regarded as classic experiments on how individuals can be pressured to conform to a group’s standard. The results of his experiments dramatically showed the influence of group pressure.

Activity 11: Conformity and group pressure

0 hours 10 minutes

The following passage describes one of Asch’s experiments. As you read, try to imagine that you are a participant yourself in the experiment and guess how you might have responded.

You are seated round a table with six other people taking part in an experiment on the ways we perceive things. Your group is shown a picture of a straight line. You’re all then given a picture of three more lines of different lengths. You are asked to pick out the line equal in length to the original one, as below.

Figure 12: Different length lines

Is this line length similar to line 1, 2 or 3?

Each person at the round table identifies their own choice out loud – you’re the last but one to speak. The first five people opt for line 2. Do you agree with them?

Can you think of one occasion in real life where you have been subjected to some form of group pressure? Perhaps you were in a pub and your friends pressed you to have another drink and stay a bit longer, when really you wanted to leave. What happened and what did you do? What, if anything, would have swayed you to go along with the group? Write some brief notes describing your experience.

Discussion

In Asch’s experiment this exercise was done many times with different line lengths. What you won’t have realised is that the people in the experimental group, bar one participant, were actually in league with the experimenter and occasionally gave the same false answers deliberately! What was being tested was whether or not the one genuine participant felt the group pressure to conform to the others’ opinions. So, did you?

Of course it is impossible to say with this paper exercise whether or not you really would have actually succumbed to the influence of the group pressure. What might have happened would be for you to conform publicly but disagree privately. (This is something that happened quite a lot in Asch’s experiment too.)

Some situations and groups somehow exert more pressure than others; and at some times more than at others. If you’ve experienced the pub situation, for example, you’ve probably found it easier to resist the pressure on some occasions and harder on others. The key then is to think about what ingredients make you want to conform, for instance, perhaps you are wanting/needing to be accepted, and approved of, by that group.

Out of fifty participants in Asch’s original study, 75 per cent conformed to an obviously wrong answer given by the rest of the group at least once. However none of the participants conformed on every occasion the group gave wrong answers.

Asch went on to investigate how variations in the experimental situation would affect the frequency of conformity and resistance to conformity. He increased the difficulty of the task so that the lines were of similar lengths and found that conformity levels increased. Introducing an element of disagreement among the fixed group members encouraged the true participant not to conform. Also allowing the participant to write down their answer rather than say it out loud resulted in much lower levels of conformity. This supports the suggestion that in the original experiments many participants were publicly agreeing with the majority but privately disagreeing.

However Asch’s results from the original experiment were still surprising as the correct answer was always very obvious. Some psychologists have suggested that the results Asch obtained were linked to the historical and cultural setting of the USA in the early 1950′s as later studies or studies carried out in different countries have not always replicated Asch’s findings. In the 1950s America was very conservative. Also the participants that Asch used in his study were college students and colleges then were much more hierarchical than they became later. This cultural background could have encouraged a high level of conformity.

Rod Bond and Peter Smith (1996) reviewed a number of studies carried out in different cultures using the Asch line judgement task. They found that levels of conformity were much higher in collectivist cultures, such as China, than in individualistic cultures, such as the USA. Collectivist cultures tend to emphasise the needs of the group over the needs of the individual whereas in individualistic cultures the needs of the individual take precedence. As collectivist cultures also stress the importance of adhering to group norms and supporting group decisions then it is not surprising that conformity levels will be higher.

Conformity is sometimes presented in a negative way especially when we see participants being manipulated in an experiment to give obviously incorrect answers as a result of group pressure. However it is worth considering that a certain level of conformity is necessary for any society to operate for the benefit of the vast majority of the members. It would be difficult for an audience in a theatre to enjoy a play if one person kept interrupting the actors and commented loudly on the story. Also it would feel very uncomfortable if the person in front of you on an escalator decided to turn round and stare at you as you travel to the next floor.

In this section you’ve explored some of the work carried out by social psychologists on group identities. You’ve seen how people can take up certain group identities which can give them a sense of belonging and self-esteem or result in negatively stereotyping, and possibly discriminating against, out-groups. While pressures to conform to groups can make individuals behave in ways that go against the grain, individuals can resist such pressures. The group can both influence the individual and act as a source of individual empowerment. The influence of groups tends to work most powerfully when supported by the wider culture.

6 What makes us who we are?

6.1 Introduction

When answering the question ‘What makes us who we are?’, psychologists – as you now know – put forward a range of explanations about why people feel, think and behave the way they do. Just when psychologists seem to understand one bit of ‘who we are’, up pops some new evidence to show a different side! It is not easy to pin down all the many influences.

Each of the previous sections of this unit has focused on one approach to explaining ‘What makes us who we are?’. In this section you will have the opportunity to combine a number of different possible explanations to try and get a more complete picture of why a person thinks or acts in a certain way. You have seen, from your reading of previous sections, how people can be influenced by different aspects such as their brain and biology, thinking, relationships and social identities and how different types of psychologists (biological, cognitive, developmental and social) tend to favour certain explanations. Now it’s time to put those pieces together and recognise that there are invariably multiple influences at work. This is the key lesson of this section.

This section will examine the multiple and interlinking influences at work on people’s minds and behaviour coming from both inside and outside the individual.

6.2 Multiple influences

Human beings are complex and it’s rarely easy to work out exactly why someone thinks or behaves in a certain way. An interplay of factors are invariably involved both within the individual themselves and outside to do with their wider social context. Factors within the individual include their biology, their thoughts and their feelings. Influencing factors coming from outside include things like relationships, social identities and the wider culture.

However, what is happening ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ a person is invariably interconnected. For example, when we think about something, it’s usually related to something outside ourselves. Other psychologists argue that the inside is really a reflection of what’s going on outside so it can’t be separated out. ‘There is no inner man’, a philosopher called Maurice Merleau-Ponty explains, ‘man is in the world, and only in the world does he know himself’ (1962, p. xi). That said, the words ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ offer a useful short-hand description (and one that fits this unit nicely): ‘inside’ factors are the ones discussed in Sections 2 and 3 while the ‘outside’ factors are explored in Sections 4 and 5. Looked at another way, you can see the ‘inside’ referring to personal factors to do with the individual themselves, while the ‘outside’ relates to social influences where other people are involved.

What follows is a case study which will give you an opportunity to think about a number of different influences on a person’s behaviour.

6.3 The Zidane head-butt

The case study to be considered is an incident from the 2006 World Cup Final between France and Italy. The two players involved are Zinedine Zidane, playing for France who head-butted the chest of Marco Materazzi, who was playing for Italy.

Copyright Popperfoto/Alamy
Figure 13: Zidane

Activity 12: The incident

0 hours 15 minutes

Read the following description of the incident, and note down any thoughts you have about what happened.

The incident happens in the second period of extra time (around 110 minutes into the match). Materazzi moves to stand behind Zidane and then holds onto him with an arm round his chest. Both players are looking in the direction of the ball. Materazzi lets go of Zidane and Zidane looks towards him. Materazzi says something and pats Zidane on the back. Both players start to move down the field in the direction of play while talking to each other and then Zidane begins to jog so that he is in front of Materazzi. Materazzi is still speaking in the direction of Zidane. Zidane turns to face Materazzi and then steps towards him whilst lowering his head. He then head-butts Materazzi in the chest. Materazzi drops to the ground.

Discussion

What notes did you make about what you read above? Did they include some interpretations of the behaviour? Did you wonder why the players were behaving as they did? Imagine you were actually watching this incident happen rather than reading about it.

It is very tempting when observing behaviour to go beyond what you see and start to make inferences. For example if you watched someone being told a joke by another person and then laughing it would seem reasonable to describe the situation by saying that the person found the joke funny and laughed. The laughing is an observable action but the suggestion that they did so because they found the joke funny is an inference. We don’t know they found the joke funny we just think we know. There could be a number of other reasons for the laughter. Some people laugh when they feel nervous or the joke may have caused feelings of anger which the person was attempting to disguise or they may even be laughing at something else they can see or something else they are remembering.

There is nothing wrong about making inferences and trying to interpret or explain behaviour – much of this unit has been concerned with attempts to interpret behaviour by looking at different possible explanations. However it is important to distinguish between what you observe and how you might interpret this behaviour because several different interpretations may be possible.

In the Zidane incident, now that we have a description of what happened, the next step is to attempt some explanations for this behaviour. However, first it might help if you have some more background information about Zidane.

6.4 Zidane’s background

Zidane was born in 1972 in the French city of Marseille to parents who came originally from Algeria. He is the youngest of five children and the family lived in a working class district of the city called La Castellane. Zidane began his football career early and was playing in the junior league at the age of 14 and in First Division football at the age of 17. He developed into a world class player and was three times named World Player of the Year. The 2006 World Cup Final was to be his last game of professional football before he retired.

The head-butting incident occurred in the 110th minute of the game, when the game had gone into extra time, and it resulted in Zidane being sent off. He was not able to take part in the penalty shootout which Italy won 5–3. This was a very sad end to an outstanding football career for Zidane, his fans and for France.

What followed was hours of debate and discussion in the media and at social gatherings when people tried to answer the question of why? What made this footballer react so aggressively and some would say stupidly in such an important match and at such an important time in the match? Zidane stated he had been provoked by Materazzi who had made insulting remarks about his mother and sister. Materazzi insisted that he had made some trivial remarks and had said nothing about Zidane’s mother.

Even if you’re not very interested in football, perhaps you have some views about why footballers might behave in this way. In the next activity, you are given the opportunity to hear different people’s views. You will explore the different explanations people put forward about what made Zidane behave that way.

Activity 13: Why did he do it?

0 hours 20 minutes

Before watching the video below make some notes listing all the different explanations for why Zidane head-butted Materazzi you can think of. It might help if you think about the different influences you have read about in this book. Can you suggest any factors related to Zidane’s biological state, his thinking, relationships and social identities that could help to explain what happen?

Once you have completed your notes watch ‘Everyday explanations’, which shows some members of the general public offering their views on what happened. Compare your explanations with theirs.

Video clip 1: Every day explanations
Discussion

Did you find that your explanations covered more sources of influence than those of the general public? It is worth thinking about the way you would normally regard the behaviour of a footballer who ‘hits out’. Have you been inclined to explaining such behaviour in simple or straightforward terms, such as saying, ‘it all comes down to…’? Has doing this reading helped you see some other possibilities?

Next you’ll examine the explanations proposed by three psychologists who are focusing on three different types of influence.

Activity 14: Explanations from three psychologists

0 hours 30 minutes

Now listen to ‘Psychological explanations’. This shows three psychologists, one biological, one cognitive and one social giving their interpretation of what happened. Make notes of the key points of each explanation

Please note: the audio clips below are taken from the Y183 course DVD and so you will notice references to chapters in the course which are not represented here.

Psychological explanations
Figure 14

Figure 14: Pat Spoors – Biological psychologist
Figure 15

Figure 15: Dr Peter Naish – Cognitive psychologist
Figure 16

Figure 16: Dr Jovan Byford – Social psychologist
Discussion

The biological psychologist suggested that there may be a genetic predisposition for men to react to provocation with physical aggression more than a women would. The role of testosterone is not clear, although there is a link between this male sex hormone and aggression. However the stress engendered by the situation that Zidane was in would have caused a release of adrenalin and biological arousal which in turn would intensify any type of emotional response.

The cognitive psychologist highlighted the role of schemas and top-down processing in influencing the interpretation of the situation and the response to the situation. He also highlighted selective attention in that provocation might be unnoticed or ignored when attention is focused elsewhere. Interestingly the football schema may also have determined the type of response so that Zidane head-butted Materazzi rather than punched or hit him.

The social psychologist emphasised the role of social identities. He described a number of identities for Zidane – a man, a football player, a team member, a French person, a symbol of multiculturalism and a person with a working class background. It is interesting that Zidane himself tried to explain his behaviour by referring to the idea of having to be a ‘man’ (his gender identity) and his need to stand up to anyone who insulted his mother and sister. In addition in his North African culture a female relative is seen as being sacrosanct and dealing with insults would be a matter of ‘family honour’(cultural identity).

To attempt a complete explanation you could suggest a rush of chemicals in the body was precipitated by the stress of the wider social situation (including public and media pressures) which the footballer didn’t deal with particularly well given his relationships with people involved, upbringing and culture. Most psychologists today would accept that any useful explanation, such as the one given for the Zidane head-butt, is going to describe an interaction of both internal and external influences.

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References

Bond, R. and Smith, P. B. (1996) ‘Culture and confirmity: a meta-analysis of studies using Asch’s (1952b, 1956) line judgement task’, Psychological Bulletin, vol. 119, no. 1, pp. 111’37.
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Bousfield, W. A. (1953) ‘The occurrence of clustering in the recall of randomly arranged associates’, Journal of General Psychology, vol. 49, pp. 229–40, cited in Gross, R. (1996) Psychology: The Science of Mind and Behaviour, London, Hodder and Stoughton Educational.
Bransford, J. D. and Johnson, M. K. (1972) ‘Contextual prerequisites for understanding: some investigations of comprehension and recall’, Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behaviour, vol. 11, pp. 717–26. Available from http://memlab1.eng.yale.edu/PDFs/1972_Bransford_Johnson_JVLVB.pdf [Accessed 27 July 2009].
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Buss, D. M. (1994) ‘Mate preferences in 37 cultures’ in Lonner, W. J. and Malpass, R. (eds) Psychology and Culture I, Boston, Allyn and Bacon.
Cameron, C., Oskamp, S. and Sparks, W. (1977) ‘Courtship American style: newspaper ads’, Family Coordinator, vol. 26, pp. 27–30. Available from www.jstor.org/ [Accessed 27 July 2009].
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Gottman, J. M. (1999) Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, New York, Three Rivers Press.
Hunter, J. (2006) ‘“Flying-through-the-air-magic”: skateboarders, fashion and social identity’. From http://www.shef.ac.uk/socstudies/Shop/7hunter.pdf [no longer available].
Mandler, G. (1967) ‘Organization and memory’ in Spence, K. W. and Spence, J. T. (eds) The Psychology of Learning and Motivation: Advances in Research and Theory, New York, Academic Press. Reprinted in Bower, G. H. (ed.) (1977) Human Memory: Basic Processes, New York, Academic Press.
Merleau-Ponty, M. (1962) Phenomenology of Perception (C. Smith, trans.), London, Routledge & Kegan Paul. (Original work published in 1945.)
Murstein, B. I. (1972) ‘Physical attractiveness and marital choice’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 22, pp. 8–12, cited in Atkinson, R. L., Atkinson, R. C., Smith, E. E., Bem, D. J. and Nolen-Hoeksema, S. (1990) Hilgard’s Introduction to Psychology (12th edition), Florida, FL, Harcourt Brace and Company.
Raugh M. R. and Atkinson R. C. (1975) ‘A mnemonic method for learning a second language vocabulary’, Journal of Educational Psychology, vol. 67, pp. 1–16.
Sherif, M. et al. (1961) Intergroup Conflict and Co-operation: The Robber’s Cave Experiment, Norman, OK, University of Oklahoma Press, cited in Gross, R. (1996) Psychology: The Science of Mind and Behaviour, London, Hodder and Stoughton Educational.
Singer, M. T. (1995) Cults in our Midst, San Francisco, CA, Jossey-Bass Publishers.
Smith, D. (2007) ‘Ross asks BBC: “Where are all the black faces?”’, The Observer, 4 March. Available from http://www.guardian.co.uk [Accessed 27 July 2009].
Sperry, R.W. (1968) ‘Hemisphere deconnection and unity in conscious awareness’, American Psychologist , vol. 23, pp. 723–33. Available from http://people.uncw.edu/puente/sperry/sperrypapers/60s/135-1968.pdf [Accessed 27 July 2009].
Sternberg, R. J. (1999) Cupid’s Arrow: the Course of Love Through Time, New York, Cambridge University Press.
Swami, V. and Furnham, A. (2006) ‘The science of attraction’, The Psychologist, vol. 19, no. 6, pp. 362–5. Available at /www.thepsychologist.org.uk [Accessed 3 May 2007].
Tajfel, H. and Turner, J. C. (1979) ‘An integrative theory of intergroup conflict’ in Austin, W. G. and Worshel, S. (eds) The Social Psychology of Intergroup Relations, Monterey, CA, Brooks/Cole.
Tajfel, H., Billig, M., Bundy, R. P. and Flament, C. (1971) ‘Social categorization and intergroup behaviour’, European Journal of Social Psychology, vol. 1, pp. 149–77.
Wetherell, M. (1982) ‘Cross-cultural studies of minimal groups: implications for the social identity theory of intergroup relations’ in Tajfel, H. (ed.) Social Identity and Intergroup Relations, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
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Text

Extract from Smith. D. ‘Ross asks BBC: “Where are all the black faces?”’ on http://observer.guardian.co.uk. Guardian.; extract from Kondo, D.K. (1990) Crafting Selves: Power, Gebder and Discources of Identity in a Japanese Workplace, The University of Chicago Press.

Figures

Figure 1 Jack Jones/© f1 online/Alamy;

Figure 8 © Profimedia International S.R.O/Alamy;

Figure 10 © Rex Features;

Figure 11 © David Young-Wolff/Alamy;

Figure 13 Copyright © Popperfoto/Alamy.

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How to Write an Essay

Essay and report writing skills

Introduction

Most academic courses will require you to write assignments or reports, and this unit is designed to help you to develop the skills you need to write effectively for academic purposes. It contains clear instruction and a range of activities to help you to understand what is required, and to plan, structure and write your assignments or reports. You will also find out how to use feedback to develop your skills.

Learning Outcomes

After studying this unit you should be able to:

  • understand what writing an assignment involves;
  • identify their strength and weaknesses;
  • consider the functions of essays and reports;
  • develop writing skills, whatever the stage they have reached.

1 Good practice in writing

This unit is a general guide and will introduce you to the principles of good practice that can be applied to all writing. If you work on developing these, you will have strong basic (or ‘core’) skills to apply in any writing situation. For assistance with specific aspects of any course you are to study, always refer to any guidance notes or handbooks that have been provided.

This unit won’t solve all your difficulties immediately; developing your writing skills is an ongoing process, and one that involves frequent reflection on the way you tackle assignments. By the time you have come to the end of the unit, however, we hope that you will be able to break down the task of essay or report writing into separate elements, identify which of these elements you want to work on, and develop an action plan to enable you to manage your own improvement.

How to use this unit

You can use this unit in a variety of ways. You can dip into it, choosing the sections that you feel are most relevant to your needs, or you can work through it from start to finish. However, we suggest that you don’t use it in isolation but in conjunction with your current study, ideally while you are working on an assigment or report. It is essentially a workbook, and includes a number of activities, which we hope you will do as you study your chosen course. There is also an action plan. You can only really improve through practice. Like swimming, no-one learns assignment writing by reading a book, although it may give useful advice on technique.

2 Identifying key concerns

2.1 Your feelings about writing

Think for a moment about your reasons for studying this unit. Is it perhaps because you don’t understand what is expected of you in your assignments, or that you aren’t clear about how to improve? What are your feelings about your writing skills? What previous experience have you had (if any) of essay or report writing?

Activity 1

You might find it helpful to write down your thoughts at this stage in your Learning Journal and keep them for future reference. You can look back on them at another time and see if they have changed in any way.

Discussion

Don’t be despondent if some of your responses are negative. It’s the aim of this unit to turn those negatives into positives. In a few months’ time, you should be able to look back on these initial responses and feel that you have made progress.

Do any of the following relate to your own circumstances?

  • It’s a very long time since I’ve done anything like this. I’ve forgotten how to do it.
  • I’m not familiar with the British educational system. What I was taught seems to be quite different from what is expected here.
  • I feel I’m putting myself up just to be shot down. I’m really exposing my weaknesses.
  • I enjoy writing, but there seems to be a mystique to this kind of ‘academic’ writing that I can’t fathom.
  • I love writing essays but this course requires reports, and I feel frustrated because they constrain my style.
  • I find that I write in one way for one tutor, and that’s acceptable to her, but then the next tutor says I should do it differently. What is right?

2.2 Developing writing styles

If any of the statements on the previous page rings true, let us reassure you: many other students are feeling the same as you. Writing skills can be learned. We want to emphasise straightaway that this is a process that can be continually developed.

There is no single ‘correct’ way of writing: different academic disciplines demand different styles. This can be confusing if you feel that you’ve mastered what is required for one course, only to find that something different is expected on another. You might feel more comfortable with one particular style of writing or presentation rather than another. You will also have your own individual way of writing, which reflects your personality or your culture: think of this as a strength that can be built on.

3 The purpose of writing

Let’s take a step back and think about why you are writing assignments. As with most tasks, if you have an understanding of why you are doing something and how it fits into the bigger picture, it is easier to define what is required of you and therefore to do a good job.

So, what do you see as the reasons for writing assignments? Here are some suggestions:

  • to meet the assessment requirements of my course;
  • to demonstrate my understanding of particular topics to my tutor;
  • to check that my writing is at the right level for my course.

Most students tend to view the writing process in these terms: that it provides evidence of their understanding and skills to whoever is marking their work. It is possible to engage with the course materials for a while without knowing whether or not you have really understood what the writer is conveying. If you have the opportunity to attend tutorials, you may be able to listen to what is going on without feeling you have to say very much. Then comes the crunch. An assignment is due, and you are forced to expose your thinking and understanding to someone else – and be awarded marks for it. For many students, anxiety about assessment can overshadow the enjoyment and personal growth that the writing process can offer.

But what if you change the focus? While formal assessment is obviously important, take a moment to ask yourself ‘What can I gain from the writing process?’

Activity 2

Would you agree with the following statements? An assignment:

  • (a) provides an opportunity for me to think about different viewpoints or perspectives;
  • (b) helps me to come to a better, personal understanding of important theories and concepts; to internalise knowledge and ideas, ‘making them my own’;
  • (c) builds on my ability to analyse and apply new ideas;
  • (d) allows me to obtain feedback from my tutor and advice on how to improve;
  • (e) helps pull the course together and enables me to check out my progress.

Discussion

Assignments are not just about producing something to please your tutor and gaining good marks, nor about moving bits of course material around into a slightly different form. The process of writing is an integral part of your personal learning development, improving your skills and understanding of the subject area.

4 Understanding the task

4.1 Writing requirements

Being a successful writer in one area doesn’t always make it easy to know what is required in another. Here are some general questions that you can ask to help define the requirements for particular pieces of writing:

  • What will my tutor be expecting? (this is sometimes phrased as ‘think about the audience’)
  • What is the most appropriate format: report or essay? Do I have a choice, or is it stipulated in any guidance notes I’ve been given?
  • What is the question asking?
  • Is the aim to inform, to analyse or to recommend – or perhaps something else?
  • Is there a recommended length?
  • Is there advice about how to distribute the word allocation between sections?
  • Is a formal style required (‘it could be argued …’) or a more personal tone (‘I think…’)?

Your answers to these questions will depend on the type of assignment you are being asked to write and the advice or guidance given for that assignment, or for the course more generally. Your tutor will be able to help if you are unsure.

We will concentrate on two forms here, the report and the essay.

4.2 Reports

Let’s look at reports first.

Activity 3

Note down in your Learning Journal what you consider to be the purpose of a report.

Discussion

Your answer may well depend on the subject you are studying, and again we would recommend that you refer to any guidance notes that you may have been given. Essentially a report can be simplified into three general principles:

  • How was it done?
  • Why was it done?
  • What does it mean?

Once you are clear in your mind about these questions in relation to a particular assignment, you will be in a position to think how best to proceed in answering them.

In general, a good report is one that you don’t need to reread, it is clear and the information that it contains is easy to find. The structure is fairly rigid, usually divided into sections, probably with subheadings, each performing a very specific task. For example a scientific report will be a structured account of an investigation or experiment that you have carried out, whereas a business report may require you to imagine that you are making recommendations to your boss or colleagues for a particular course of action. You need to strive for relevance and conciseness, and your report should proceed in a logical and ordered way.

4.3 Essays

Now let’s turn to essays.

Activity 4

Note down in your Learning Journal what you consider to be the purpose of an essay.

Discussion

Michel de Montaigne, a French philosopher, developed the essay form in the 16th century. The term itself derives from the French word essai meaning ‘testing’ or ‘trying out’. The purpose was (and still remains):

To try out or test a proposition or ideas in the context of other thinkers and in the light of personal experience and judgement.

In Montaigne’s day, the idea of applying your personal assessment to issues, rather than deferring to authority, was quite revolutionary. If you look ahead to the sample essay questions in Activity 9 (don’t worry about how you would answer these questions; they are drawn from a wide range of subjects and levels), you can see how this approach applies. In most of them, you are given a statement to test, to try out the arguments and opinions for and against a particular position by demonstrating a use of evidence.

The essay should guide the reader from the issue(s) raised in the title to a conclusion, by developing a clear and logical line of thought so that the reader is not side-tracked by points that are not directly relevant. It is normally in the form of continuous prose, using paragraphs but probably not using headings or numbers. This means that, while the essay may be broken up into paragraphs, generally the writing flows along without interruption.

An essay needs:

  • an introduction, telling the reader what the essay is about;
  • a main body, containing the ‘meat’ of the essay, where you outline your particular point of view, while demonstrating awareness of other perspectives or interpretation;
  • a conclusion, summarising the content of the essay clearly and concisely.

4.4 Stages in assignment writing

Activity 5

Note down in your Learning Journal what you think the stages are that you have to go through in producing an assignment, from beginning to end.

Discussion

You may well have thought of some, if not all, of the following stages:

  • preparation
  • planning
  • drafting
  • polishing
  • letting go
  • reflecting on the feedback.

Let’s break down these stages further.

Preparation

This stage consists of:

  • estimating the time available for the task
  • identifying what the question is asking of you
  • taking note of the guidance you have been given
  • researching or carrying out an experiment or collecting data
  • making notes
  • thinking over your ideas.
Planning

Planning your assignment involves:

  • working out an appropriate and logical structure
  • identifying what is relevant and what is not
  • taking account of the word limit
  • refining your ideas
  • selecting appropriate evidence or quotations.
Drafting

This stage comprises a single task:

  • writing the assignment, perhaps with one or more early drafts.
Polishing

Polishing your assignment means:

  • reviewing what you have written and making changes
  • checking your spelling and grammar
  • making sure your references are correct
  • checking the word count.
Letting go

This is more than just sending off your assignment. Letting go includes:

  • deciding when the assignment is finished
  • submitting the assignment
  • conducting a self-review.
Reflecting on tutor feedback

And finally:

  • comparing your self-review with your grade and tutor comments.

As you can see, the actual writing of the assignment is only one part of the process.

4.5 A different perspective

If we present the list in a different way (Figure 1), you can also see that this process is not linear. It is not simply a case of beginning with an analysis of the assignment and ending with a consideration of your tutor’s comments. It involves frequent revisiting of earlier stages, checking and reflecting: two steps forward, one step back. You may notice how much depends on a constant referring back to the question.

Figure 1 Assignment writing: a different perspective

5 Preparation

5.1 Estimating the time for the task

First you need to know how much time you have available for your assignment. The pacing of your studies comes outside the scope of this unit, but it can be very de-motivating when you no longer feel in control of your studies because – for whatever reason – you have fallen behind. So it is extremely important to meet the deadlines set by the course team in your course calendar whenever possible.

Activity 6

Look ahead to the submission date of your next assignment. How much time can you allow yourself to go through all the stages? Take account of your known personal commitments and how much time you think that they will involve. Do you know much about the topic or will it require a great deal of extra work? How long does it usually take you to write down your thoughts? Try to set aside blocks of time in your study calendar or diary.

Discussion

You need to be both realistic and flexible. Almost certainly you won’t have the amount of time you would ideally like, and it’s also possible that something will happen at work or home which will affect your timetable. However, having blocked out the time in your study calendar or diary, see how far you can stick to it. If you find that you need more time for certain stages, then have another go for the next assignment, allowing the extra time in order to make it more workable.

5.1.1 Do you dread deadlines?

Of course, there are lots of different patterns of working: some students can only work to deadlines at the very last minute; while others prefer to work in shorter snatches over longer periods. The main problem with the former is that you may have to skip over some of the points we are now discussing, which could be counter-productive.

Waiting until the last minute may be because you are afraid to begin. If this applies to you – as it will to many others – you might find it helpful to pause here and consider why you feel this way.

Activity 7

Spend a few minutes answering the question: Why do I always seem to look for excuses to delay beginning work on my assignment?

Discussion

Is it because you are frightened by the prospect of starting? Perhaps you have looked at the title and felt that you just don’t understand what is wanted. You have some ideas but don’t know how to put them together. Maybe you just don’t want to do it; it seems a daunting task. Or is it because you need to develop your reading or note taking skills? Try reflecting on your own experience. Then you will be in a better position to help yourself, if procrastination is a problem. You can ask yourself, ‘What am I going to do about this?’ What help do I need?’ We hope this unit will provide some of that help.

5.1.2 ‘Good enough’ is OK

We can almost hear you saying that you never have enough time for your assignments, whatever your approach, and we empathise with this view. This may be even more of a problem if English is not your first language. It is well known that time constraints are a barrier in distance learning, and you may well have to be satisfied with doing what is good enough, whatever your circumstances. Your aim should not be to submit the ‘perfect’ assignment (even if there were such a thing). Look again at the discussion of the purpose of an essay in Activity 4. Your aim should be to do the best you can in the circumstances, to learn from the experience and benefit from your tutor’s comments so that you can improve for the next time.

5.2 The question

5.2.1 When to look at the question

At what stage do you look at the title of your next assignment?

Activity 8

Note down in your Learning Journal what you think are the advantages and disadvantages of looking at the title before and after starting to work through the relevant section of your course.

Discussion

Your answer may contain some of the following points.

Looking at the title first Looking at the title later
Advantages
It can help you to use your time more productively because you are looking out for, and making a note of (either on paper or in your head) the most useful points. You are likely to gain more from the experience of reading the course materials because your mind is open to more than the assignment question. There is more to studying a course than submitting assignments.
It can help avoid ‘writers’ block’ because you are effectively preparing for the assignment before you have to get down to it in earnest.
It helps you to be questioning as a reader and to read actively.
It can help you focus more clearly, noting points and identifying useful quotations, which are relevant to the question.
Disadvantages
It can be daunting because, not having read the material, you may think ‘I shall never be able to answer that’. If you see the course only through the assignment questions, there is a danger that you will miss other important areas.

There is no right or wrong approach and again, much may depend on the amount of time you have available and your own preferred style of learning.

5.2.2 Opening up ideas: analysing the question

What do you need to know about your assignment? Most importantly, what it’s about (i.e. the topic). Once you have worked this out, you are in a better position to gauge how much you already know and how much you will need to find out.

Activity 9

Here are some assignment titles from a range of different courses. Although the subject matter may not be familiar, try to put into words how you would explain to someone else what each question is about.

  1. Outline the Marxist model of class divisions. How does the growth of the middle class affect the model?
  2. Compare and contrast the differences in state development of any two nineteenth century European countries or empires.
  3. In general, Victorian culture was activated by a dislike of industrialisation and urbanisation: the country was seen as a repository of enduring values. Do you agree?
  4. Based on knowledge of your organisation, or one you know well, and using concepts and methods from Unit 13:
    • (a) explain with the help of a diagram how you identify the critical issues within your organisation’s environment
    • (b) how do managers in your organisation typically cope with environmental issues? Discuss relevant coping strategies as they are applied, or could be applied, to these issues.
  5. Describe and contrast two African poems and either one African story or piece of African music, which you have studied in the course so far. Relate this to the economics and politics of contemporary development.
  6. What are the similarities and differences between the mineralogical compositions of the basalt, S3, and the meteorite, EETA 79001?
Discussion

It isn’t easy, is it? Take, for example, question 3: is it just ‘about’ Victorian culture? What would your tutor say if you wrote all you know about Victorian culture? He or she would surely comment that you have not focused on the Victorians’ dislike of industrialisation and urbanisation and their preference for country life. So, what would your tutor say if you had covered these specific aspects of Victorian culture, but in a purely descriptive way? The feedback could well say that, although you showed a good understanding of these issues, you did not say whether or not you have agreed with this suggestion, as the essay title requires. If you had done that, you would get a good grade. However, you would have achieved an even higher grade if you had commented on the significance of the words ‘in general’ and defined some of the terms, which could need clarification, such as ‘culture’ and ‘enduring values’.

Activity 10

Take another look at the titles in Activity 9. For each of them, indicate which of the following tasks you are being asked to do:

  • (a) describe ‘x’
  • (b) present a case for ‘x’
  • (c) state whether you agree with ‘x’
  • (d) explain why ‘x’ happens
  • (e) put ‘x’ into its context
  • (f) compare and contrast ‘x’ and ‘y’
  • (g) explore ‘x’
  • (h) describe how far it is true to say that ‘x’ …
Discussion

Do you agree with our choices?

  • 1) (a) and (h)
  • 2) (d) and (g)
  • 3) (b), (c) and (h)
  • 4) (d) and (g)
  • 5) (a), (e) and (f)
  • 6) (f)
Activity 11

Now look at the title of your next assignment. Ask yourself, ‘What is this question asking me to demonstrate?’ For example:

  • (a) specific subject knowledge – from your recent reading/tutorials/TV programmes/audio cassettes, are there particular aspects of the course that are being sought by this question?
  • (b) understanding and application of theories and concepts – is there a combination of these to draw on? (Even if you are being asked to comment on one particular set of ideas or concepts, it is usually expected that you have considered alternatives – and these may contribute to your analysis.)
  • (c) an ability to identify links to related sections of your course – are you expected to make new links for yourself or to notice and comment on links pointed out in course material?
  • (d) personal experience – are you expected to draw on this?
  • (e) skill development – what particular skill(s) in writing assignments do you feel you need to work on?
Discussion

Do any of these questions apply to your assignment, or are you being asked to do something quite different? If so, what? If you are still not sure, contact your tutor for reassurance or clarification. Try the approach ‘I’m not quite clear whether this assignment is asking me to … or …’. Or perhaps you could check your reading of the question with another student, to see if your interpretation of it is similar to his or hers.

Remember, this is still your first – almost surface – reading of the question. It is important to keep your options open. Don’t rule anything out at this stage.

5.3 Researching

‘Research’ may sound rather a grand word for what you feel you do at this point of preparation for your assignment. Don’t worry: essentially all it involves is finding out more about the topic in hand.

Let’s use a dictionary as an example. In looking up a word, you are effectively ‘researching’ it. We tried looking up the word ‘research’ in a couple of standard dictionaries, not so much to find out what the word means, but to see if a definition might provide a useful slant for this section of the unit. Indeed it did, for three phrases not only confirmed our understanding of the word but also gave us a way forward that might be helpful to you. These three phrases tell us that research is:

  • a systematic investigation
  • a critical investigation
  • a careful search.

‘Systematic’ and ‘careful’ suggest a thorough-going search of the material available to you, making sure that you don’t leave anything important out. ‘Critical’ suggests something else: deciding what is relevant to the subject, whether something you have found out should be included or not. If you look again at Figure 1 you will see that there is an arrow linking the researching stage with the question. This is to make sure that your answer will be focused and really address what the question is looking for. (You might also like to look back at Activity 9, which dissects a question). Note, too, the reference to ‘search’: it is very unlikely that the question is going to be answered just by looking at a single section of your course.

In short, researching something can clarify or explain, but also may spark off further thoughts which can lead you deeper into your topic.

5.4 Identifying sources

So what material do you have available to you?

  • Your materials are likely to be your first sources of information.
  • Any guidance notes you may have been given will sometimes tell you exactly which sections you need to look at. But don’t forget that your course materials encompass more than just these texts.
  • Make use of any handouts you’ve been given.
  • Your own notes of what you have been reading or watching; from tutorials, or from observations or experiments you have been carrying out.
  • Newspaper articles or reviews, chosen carefully, can be a useful extra up-to-date source for some courses.

Of course, there are many more sources available to you through libraries or the internet. Your course materials may also provide reading lists. If you have time to undertake further research, that’s fine and is good academic practice. Certainly you will not lose marks if you restrict yourself to the course materials; it is how you answer the question that gives the grade, not how much you know. You can always follow up some of the suggested extra reading once the course has finished.

At this point you are likely to have a great deal of material and many ideas to hand, most probably in note form. Now is the time to start refining and focusing. You may have been doing this already, as you have carried out your research and thought over your findings.

Let’s move on to the more detailed planning.

6 Planning

6.1 Why plan a piece of writing?

Planning is about creating a framework that will help you to make choices about what needs to be included in your assignment and what doesn’t. Some people feel they don’t need to plan: starting to write helps them know what it is they are going to say. If you recognise yourself here, we suggest you consider the points we raise in this section.

Activity 12

Why is planning a piece of writing important? Take a few moments to jot down your thoughts in your Learning Journal.

Discussion

Your list probably includes at least some of the following:

  • helps me to separate what’s essential from what’s less so
  • enables me to express my ideas more effectively
  • ensures that what I want to say doesn’t get lost
  • assists in building an argument
  • makes sure that I don’t exceed the word limit
  • gets the sequence of ideas right.

Even short pieces require planning so that you are concise and to the point. As the required length and level of complexity of a piece of writing increase, so does the need to organise your ideas.

6.1.1 Report planning

Table 2 highlights the elements of a science or technology report, though the same general principles apply in other disciplines too.

Table 2 The main elements of a science or technology report
Element Purpose Description
title attracts the reader’s attention explanatory of the content, concise and relevant
abstract gives a brief summary short paragraph clarifying the scope of the report and the main findings
introduction gives the purpose of the investigation being reported explains why the investigation was undertaken and gives essential background information
main text describes how the study was conducted the ‘meat’ of the report containing, for example (depending on the discipline):
gives results of the study • method of investigation/ approach taken and why
interprets results • record of observations or measurements
• references to appropriate theories
• discussion
• unique or distinctive facts and explanation of how these relate to the broader context or body of evidence
conclusions describes what the study has shown includes the meaning of the results of the investigation, what has been demonstrated and any recommendations for action

You need to assemble and order your material, perhaps under a set of headings (which can be added to or sub-divided). Your plan will help you to include material that is relevant and to the point.

6.1.2 Essay planning

Carefully read the following short essay. Try to identify its strengths and weaknesses in terms of planning. Take your time, but don’t think you need to be familiar with the content, you are trying to find what provides the writing’s framework.

Then try to answer the questions that follow in Activity 13.

There are advantages to studying as a mature student. Do you agree?

Government bodies and the universities are committed to a policy of widening access to higher education. In the attempt to develop a trained, educated workforce, there is greater flexibility in terms of entrance requirements and routes to a degree. If you are 21 or over and do not have conventional qualifications you may be given credit for your life and work experience.

An Open University lecturer wrote that teaching mature students:

… is sometimes an unnerving experience: at a lecture on Dickens’s Hard Times I suddenly realised that I was explaining the rigour of industrial work … to ex-steel workers. Everyone of them knew more than I did and indeed they all knew more than Dickens about the lives of workers in heavy industry.

(Philippa Gregory, 1994)

The mature student has often learned a powerful work discipline and can find self-directed learning difficult to adjust to. The mature student may also work full-time and have a home to run. Despite enthusiasm for returning to study, the mature student may be scared by comparing themselves to younger students who seem very quick (having spent their recent years in full-time education).

Your degree certificate is evidence that you have taken the opportunity that you missed when you were younger, it tells people that you have reached a certain level of academic attainment, that you have time management and priority setting skills, and that you have shown sustained interest, commitment and self-discipline.

As I mentioned earlier, increasingly people all over Europe are realizing that education and learning are lifelong processes, much too valuable to belong only to the young. The oldest Open University graduate is 92. More and more mature students are entering Higher Education. In 1971, the first 24 000 Open University students began their studies. In 1994, there were more than 200 000 students registered. At least 2 million people have studied with the Open University. People are living longer and having fewer children. Changes in the workplace may mean that older workers have to retrain and seek a new career.

The mature student may find it difficult to make room in their lives and their homes for study. Many people like to shut themselves off from the rest of the family, without interruptions (but this is almost impossible without the support of your partner and children). It is much easier for young people to be selfish and shut themselves off. They don’t have as much to worry about as older students. It is even more difficult if you are a single parent who has to go out to work as well as taking care of children, along with studying.

It is a really big step to add to a busy life at work and at home and start to study, but you do broaden your outlook and the range of ideas and people that you are acquainted with. The self-discipline and motivation that you need to develop will be a great help in the future. Once you have finished studying it may still be difficult to find a different job because of ageism, employers may think that you can’t be as quick or as full of ideas as a younger graduate.

Reference

Philippa Gregory (1994), Foreword in Taggart, C. (1994), The Essential Handbook for Mature Students, London, Kyle Cathie Ltd.

Activity 13
  1. Is there an introduction and a conclusion, which help to guide the reader?
  2. Are important concepts or ideas communicated?
  3. Does the writing build and have a sense of direction?
  4. Can you discern an overall plan?
Discussion

This essay contains some interesting and important points; but does it work?

1 Is there an introduction and a conclusion, which help to guide the reader?

There is no introduction and no conclusion – in fact, at the end the essay is almost left ‘hanging’ by a throw-away remark about ageism. For the reader, it is rather like undertaking a journey without a map and, instead of being in ‘safe hands’, finding that the driver is inexperienced.

2 Are important concepts or ideas communicated?

The writer does seem to know what is important to get across. But, there doesn’t seem to be much of a framework and so the ideas tend to get lost.

3 Does the writing build and have a sense of direction?

This seems to be one of the major problems. There is good material here but the writer doesn’t seem to know which facts are more important than others, there is no real attempt to classify or group points in order to create a sense of flow, of building an argument.

Here are two examples of this lack of order.

  • Information about the ‘big picture’ (presumably obtained through careful research) that is, government policy, numbers entering higher education and changes in the workplace, is sprinkled throughout the essay, rather than gathered together. The focus changes back and forth between this ‘big picture’ and the personal quite frequently. The writer certainly has opinions about the issues that a mature student needs to overcome, but these don’t appear to be in any particular order.
  • The quote about the steelworkers is really appropriate and grabs the attention of the reader, but it isn’t linked to the idea of the mature student’s life experience mentioned at the end of the first paragraph. This takes away some of its impact and probably means that the writer would not get as many marks for its inclusion as she or he might have done.

The original topic is ‘There are advantages to studying as a mature student. Do you agree?’ We don’t really know whether the writer has a point of view on this or has just put ideas in because the words or phrases look right and may be relevant. The important thinking over of the issues doesn’t seem to have happened.

4 Can you discern an overall plan?

Well? What do you think?

  • Is the presentation of evidence or supporting material effective?
  • Which points are prioritised or do they all have equal billing?
  • Are links made between different points?
  • Does the essay flow?
  • Has the writer made the ideas his/her own?
  • Are chains of logic created?

The more time we spent thinking about this – reflecting on it – the more it seemed to us that the key is direction: if you can give your writing direction, then the rest will follow. In other words if you have a case to put, an argument to make, this provides the essay’s direction; the elements listed above will then slip into place much more easily.

6.2 Turning the spotlight on your work

Having established some general principles, try now to subject your own work to the same scrutiny.

Activity 14

Take one of your most recent essays or reports and ask yourself, ‘What does it look like?’ That is, describe its physical appearance on the page.

Discussion

On a superficial level, even the appearance of work can be a give-away and betray a lack of planning. Solid blocks of text can look overwhelming. You should normally aim for an average of three or four paragraphs per side of word-processed A4 paper. Solid blocks of text imply that the writer hasn’t taken the time or is unable to organise the material. At the other extreme, written work with the appearance of being very ‘broken up’ – lots of separate sentences, each treated as a paragraph – conveys the same impression: that the writer doesn’t have a plan or hasn’t developed his or her ideas in sufficient detail.

  • No paragraphs? Go back and look at your plan.
  • Too much in brackets? Something is in the wrong place or is not strictly relevant, go back to planning.
  • ‘As I mentioned earlier’, ‘As I said before’ If you need to say this often, you are going round in circles; you need a better plan.

Can you think of some other warning signs, things that you write when you have lost your way in an assignment?

Try to dig a little further and apply the questions from Activity 13. They were:

  • Is there an introduction and a conclusion, which help to guide the reader?
  • Are important concepts or ideas communicated?
  • Does the writing build and have a sense of direction?
  • Can you discern an overall plan?

6.3 Planning stages

Having discussed the reasons to plan writing and the impact planning may have, now we need to look at planning itself and its two stages.

6.3.1 Stage 1 Brainstorm

To begin your planning, you need to generate ideas or brainstorm. At this stage, you are including everything that you think may be relevant. Nothing should be dismissed yet; this part is about gathering your resources and your thoughts.

For instance, using the essay title ‘There are advantages to studying as a mature student. Do you agree?’, we tried to brainstorm for ideas and produced this list (but, of course, it wasn’t this tidy):

  • Gregory quote (steelworkers) – life experience
  • degree certificate – what does it say about you?
  • home commitments and comparison with younger students
  • government policy – numbers studying
  • changes in the workplace, need to retrain
  • need for family support
  • self-discipline and motivation
  • agree or disagree with statement
  • define mature? – no – too obvious.

This isn’t everything, but it is a start and is helpful in understanding what the question requires.

Activity 15

Try to do the same for your next assignment. Brainstorm all your ideas and sources.

Discussion

The important thing to remember is that anything that comes to mind may be relevant, leave nothing out at this stage.

6.3.2 Stage 2 Create a mind map

Now you need to think about grouping the ideas, creating a flow for your assignment.

We started by grouping together our ideas and material for the essay on the possible advantages of being a mature student. This helped us to create a mind-map by seeing where links could be made and so made it much easier to decide where the weight of evidence was taking our argument (Figure 2).

Figure 2 Mind-map for essay on advantages of being a mature student

Can you see the advantages of using this type of approach to planning? Grouping the parts of your assignment together and making links helps to ensure that you avoid a disjointed response to the question. It can also show how balanced your answer is going to be: are there too many points on one side or does it appear to be balanced?

Activity 16
  • Part 1 Now return to your most recent assignment and try to construct a similar map in order to reveal its underlying structure.
  • Part 2 Having done this, make a note of what worked well and what you might do differently next time.
  • Part 3 Try to apply this by making a plan for your next assignment.
Discussion

Try to use this activity as an opportunity to improve how you approach future assignments. Did you consider all parts of the question? Did you write yourself into a dead-end? Was the balance right? Was there a clear sense of direction? Take account of these points and see how you can make things better next time.

7 Drafting

7.1 Translating your plan

You have now reached the stage when it is time to translate your plan, whatever its form, into the assignment itself. It is likely that this will be a first attempt at the exercise – a first draft. You may be one of the lucky few who only needs to write one draft. Or, if you have taken some time over your planning, one draft before the final version may be enough. But if you are finding it difficult to reconcile opposing points of view or to fit in a great deal of information, you may need two or three drafts. If this is the case, take a step back and check that you are sticking to your plan and are not trying to include too much ‘just in case’. Finally, if you feel you need to write lots of drafts before you are satisfied with the final product, ask yourself why it is necessary. What might you do to reduce the number of drafts and thus save time?

Activity 17

What is the difference between the appearance of your plan and the assignment itself? Note down the steps that you must take to convert one to the other.

Discussion

Your plan only needs to make sense to you. It may be diagrammatic in form, using circles and arrows and abbreviations. It is the bare bones of your assignment. It is also disposable and changeable.

The assignment itself must be understandable to anyone who is marking it, as certain expectations will need to be met. You will find help in any guidance notes you’ve been given for your course. Reading these is just as important as interpreting the assignment title as they will explain the conventions that you are expected to abide by in shaping your piece of writing. For instance: if it asks for 1500 words in continuous prose, it would not be a good idea to write 2000 words and use sub-headings.

A useful way of converting your plan into a first draft of your assignment is to number each of the areas you want to include (you may have already linked them with arrows). This confirms the order in which you want to present ideas and ensures a logical flow. Then, cross off each area once you have written about it, so there is no danger of repeating yourself. This can be encouraging by showing you how much progress you are making. If you would like some practice in this, try using Figure 2 as a model to work on.

7.2 Drafting reports

As you may remember from Activity 3, the three general principles of a report (whether it is of a social sciences investigation or a scientific experiment) are:

  • Why was it done?
  • How was it done?
  • What does it mean?

You will need to make some decisions, not only about what to leave out (because it isn’t particularly relevant) but also about how to present what you are including to best effect:

  • Do you wish to present your findings in chronological order?
  • Would subject area, types or categories be preferable?
  • What will make your findings clearer?

Diagrams, tables and graphs may help to present your results with greater clarity. Headings or sub-headings, numbered paragraphs and bullet points can also help to emphasise the main issues.

Here is a plan on how to lay out the report of a social sciences investigation, though there are common elements with reports produced for other purposes.

  1. Introduction
    • 1.1 Background or context
    • 1.2 Aims and objectives
  2. Methods
    • 2.1 The questionnaire framework
    • 2.2 The sample
    • 2.3 Numerical significance of sample
  3. Findings
    • 3.1 Response rates
    • 3.2 Principal findings
    • 3.3 Analysis (here you may wish to break the findings and analysis down into further subsections (3.2.1, 3.2.2 as appropriate)
  4. Conclusions
  5. Recommendations/implications
  6. Further research
  7. References
  8. Appendices
    • 8.1 Sample questionnaire
    • 8.2 Summary of findings (tables etc.)

The language used in a report is usually straightforward and to the point. The report’s structure and organisation make it easy to identify the various parts, and to find specific items of information quite quickly.

7.3 Drafting essays

As you may remember from Activity 4, the main elements of an essay are:

  • the introduction
  • the main body
  • the conclusion.

7.4 Writing the first draft

Now that you are beginning to draft, keep the assignment’s title in front of you. Refer back to it regularly in ordering your material. Are you doing what you are asked to do, or are you writing about what you want to write about?

7.4.1 The introduction of a report

The introduction of a report has a very specific role, and the range of approaches you may take is fairly limited. The function of such an introduction is to:

  • outline the aim of the investigation or experiment: list the objectives
  • provide background information in order to clarify why the investigation or experiment was undertaken.

7.4.2 The introduction of an essay

What is the introduction of an essay and what is its purpose?

Activity 18

Write down your own understanding of the term ‘introduction’ in relation to essays.

Discussion

How does your understanding compare with ours? Potentially the introduction to an essay can:

  • lead the reader into the main body of the assignment
  • grab the reader’s attention and interest
  • explain how you are going to answer the question
  • set the scene or provide a context
  • give a brief answer to the question before the fuller explanations in the assignment itself
  • set out the aims of the assignment
  • indicate the position you will be taking in answering the question.

It may not do all of these things. The introduction you write for an assignment may be short and seek only to ‘engage’ or draw the reader in. A fuller introduction, which may be preferable if you are still developing confidence in your writing, could include any or all of the following points:

  • an identification of the essay’s topic and how you plan to define it; here you are establishing what you intend to write about and making clear, perhaps by implication, what you don’t intend to write about – thus indicating the scope of your essay
  • a brief definition of important terms or concepts, for purposes of clarity
  • highlights of the important debates that lie behind the question; an essay title often acts as a doorway to an area of controversy or debate
  • a signpost to the content and shape of your argument or response to the question.

Look back at Section 1/?printable=1″>Section 1. It is longer than the introduction that will be required for one of your assignments: our constraint was the number of pages, not the number of words. But does it fulfil any of the above criteria? We have certainly outlined our aims and objectives; we have indicated the limits to the unit – our writing assignment; but we haven’t provided much background information or context.

7.4.3 When to write the introduction?

At what stage should the introduction to an assignment be written?

Activity 19

A group of students attending a writing workshop were asked to identify the first task in preparing an assignment. Some answered ‘Writing the introduction’.

  1. Do you agree that writing the introduction should be your first priority when working on your first draft? If you disagree, why?
  2. What are the advantages and disadvantages of beginning your first draft with the introduction?
Discussion

People vary in whether they prefer to write the introduction at an early stage or when they have almost completed your assignment.

Here is a list of the pros and cons of beginning the first draft with the introduction.

Advantages Disadvantages
It gets over the barrier of being faced with a blank piece of paper. The main body of the assignment is far more important and needs to be given your full attention.
It clarifies the approach you are adopting in answering the question. The introduction may constrain what you subsequently want to write; once you begin the more detailed drafting, you might find that it takes off in a different direction.
Having set out your approach, it is easier to check that you are adhering to it.
It can help stimulate your thoughts or imagination.

7.4.4 The main body of the text

Presenting an argument

Students generally understand that they are required to ‘present an argument in an assignment’ but can feel unsure about what this means and how to go about it. Is this how you feel? Though an assignment is an exploration of a topic, it requires a sense of direction, of building a case or argument in a logical manner.

Activity 20

Imagine you need to ask your tutor for an extension to the cut-off date for an assignment. You need to persuade him or her that you have a good case. (In practice, of course, you would not be under so much pressure to explain. We have chosen this as an example because the situation may be familiar to you.)

What might a good case be?

  • (a) I have been called away on business at short notice.
  • (b) I have had a lot of visitors recently.
  • (c) I have just not had the time.
  • (d) My daughter was taken into hospital last Monday after a car accident, and I have had to spend a lot of time there with her.
  • (e) I have not been able to concentrate on my studies recently.
  • (f) We are short-staffed at work, and this is our busy time.
Discussion

If you were the tutor, would you consider all of these to be good reasons for the request? Would you agree that some reasons are stronger than others? Maybe those students whose circumstances have changed unexpectedly have a better case than others who could have foreseen problems and should have been able to plan around their difficulties.

Maybe you would look less favourably on (b) because you would feel that the student need not have got him or herself into that situation and in any case has got his or her priorities wrong. But look at (c) and (e) again. On the face of it, these reasons may not be as strong as, say, (d) but if you were to enquire further with your student, you might discover there were other things underlying the lack of time and concentration. Perhaps the student with reason (c) is caring for an elderly relative for whom respite care had fallen through. Maybe the student with reason (e) is depressed and on medication. These two students would both have a good case but have not presented it very well. Even the student with reason (b) may have an acceptable explanation for the sudden influx of visitors. What lies behind the suddenness? What extra demands did this place on the student? The more questions that are asked, the stronger the case could become.

There is another aspect here. How do you know that what these students are telling you is true? What pieces of evidence help to verify their reasons? What status would you accord a medical certificate or a statement from the student’s employer?

In summary

When drafting your next assignment, ask yourself:

  • is my argument logical and worth making – is there a case?
  • have I made the argument as clearly as I can?
  • have I been side-tracked by issues that are irrelevant?
  • have I explained what lies behind my argument in sufficient detail – not too much, not too little?
  • do my points follow on from each other and strengthen my argument?
  • have I provided evidence for what I say?

Making your argument usually occurs in the main body of the assignment, whether it is an essay or a report. This is where you outline your point of view while demonstrating awareness of other perspectives or interpretations. To be convincing, you need to show your reasoning as to why you favour a particular perspective, and to provide supporting evidence.

Paragraphs

You will recall from the planning activities, how important it is to group your ideas together. Once you have reached the drafting stage, these groups of ideas should be subdivided into paragraphs.

Paragraphs:

  • act as major organisers
  • individually offer something distinctive, in terms of analysis, argument, ideas or examples
  • may contain a new topic
  • often start with a statement and then expand on or explain it
  • include any related evidence, information or quotations.

Use of quotations

Throughout this unit, we have recommended that wherever possible you try to put things into your own words. But you may not be familiar with this practice if you come from a different educational or cultural background.

One of the purposes of writing assignments is to reach your own understanding of the issues and to show your tutor that you have done so. This is most effectively done by using your own words. However, there are occasions when it may be best to quote directly from your course materials: for instance, as a piece of evidence, or where you feel the author has expressed him or herself particularly memorably or effectively. Including appropriate quotations, extracts or evidence is often a good way to add weight and authority to your arguments.

Using quotations is not the same as plagiarism. Plagiarism is borrowing too heavily from someone else’s work and failing to acknowledge the debt, giving the impression that you are passing their work off as your own. Quotations should not be too long; a couple of lines is normally sufficient. Remember to acknowledge quotations by providing references. We are reluctant to be too specific here because practices do vary from academic discipline to discipline and from course to course. Once again, refer to any guidance notes you’ been given. These may provide an indication of what style of presentation is preferred or required. One guide is to see how quotations are handled in your course materials.

Whereas references serve as an acknowledgement of someone else’s words, a bibliography allows the reader (in this case your tutor) to identify in detail the source of your quotations and even ideas. Every assignment should contain a list of sources at the end (even if it is only your current course unit or TV programme). There are many ways of presenting a bibliography. Look at the way it is done for your course. Here is an example of one way of acknowledging a quotation (a) and its bibliographical reference (b):

  • (a) (Cringley 1996, p. 97)
  • (b) Cringley, R. (1996) Accidental Empires, London, Penguin Books.

7.4.5 The conclusion

Having come so far with your drafting, how will you bring it to a close?

The conclusion should summarise the content of the main body of your assignment clearly and concisely. A final reference to the assignment title is often useful, emphasising to your tutor that you have indeed answered the question. Your concluding paragraph should not include anything new, though it may suggest what needs to be considered in the future. It should emphasise the key elements of your argument.

When you have worked through this unit, you might like to consider its conclusion in the light of these statements. Are we successful in following our own advice?

8 Polishing

8.1 Why polish?

Once you have reached this stage, you have nearly finished.

What does polishing mean, and what does it involve? Imagine polishing a car or a piece of furniture. Why might you do so? Usually, to make it look better, to present it in the best possible light, either for your own pleasure, or to impress others – perhaps because you want to sell it. If it is an object that you value, it is worth making it look its very best: it deserves it. How effective your polishing is usually depends on the time and energy you devote to the task.

Activity 21

How would you interpret the analogy to polishing cars and furniture in the opening paragraph of this section?

Discussion

We hope you spotted that it referred to assignments. Your tutor’s initial reaction on opening your assignment will probably be very much related to the amount of polishing that you have been able to do.

8.1.1 Achieving a good polish

Here is a list of indicators you can use to judge your polishing techniques. Most guidance notes given to students include these points, but they are not always followed.

Positive indicators Negative indicators
It is word-processed or clearly and neatly hand-written. The assignment is written on paper that has been torn out of an exercise book.
It is double-spaced. It is illegible.
There are wide margins on either side of the script to allow for tutor comments. The writing (or word processing) fills the whole page, with no margins and no spaces between lines or paragraphs.
The title appears at the top of the first page. There is no title.
There are few, if any, spelling mistakes. There are no separate sections or paragraphs.
Paragraphs are neither too long nor too short. There are too many short sections or paragraphs.
There is space between paragraphs. There are no references and/or bibliography.
Quotations are acknowledged accurately and in sufficient detail.
There is a bibliography at the end of the assignment, to indicate which sources you have used.
The pages are numbered.
You have put your name and personal identifier on each page.

9 Letting go

This is the point where you have to make the decision that the assignment is complete and ready to be sent off. It is not always an easy decision to make. Perhaps you feel that there is always room for further improvement or there is something more that you could have done.

At a certain stage, the potential gain from further refinement is not sufficient to warrant delaying submission or to risk impeding progress with your course. Remember, you should be aiming for what is ‘good enough’, bearing in mind all your other commitments and circumstances.

If you do harbour any residual anxiety, is there anything you can do about it? Yes.

  • You can make notes for your own use on:
    • (a) what I did well in this assignment
    • (b) what I would have liked to improve.
  • You can ask your tutor if he or she is willing to look at the particular aspect of the assignment that has given you concern, and provide feedback on that point.
  • You can make a note to yourself for next time: what I’d like to do better in the next assignment.

This will help you to develop an action plan for future improvement; then put it to one side until next time.

Finally, don’t forget to keep a copy of your assignment, just in case it gets lost in the post.

10 Reflecting on tutor feedback

When you have taken the assignment as far as you can, you will benefit more from the feedback from your tutor than you will from further polishing.

  • If you have worked hard to become involved with your subject you will really appreciate having a captive audience. Someone with as much interest in the subject (and presumably greater knowledge) as you, will take time to read what you have written and to understand what you are trying to say.
  • There is recompense to be gained in the form of feedback. As well as marking the work, your tutor will provide comments and advice on the content of your assignment, and your skills in communicating your ideas.

Some tutors find that, despite their feedback, when the next assignment arrives to be marked, it can be hard to believe that the student has even read the comments, let alone tried to apply the advice.

  • Are you so keen to make progress that you read the mark, but not the comments provided in the feedback you’ve been given?
  • Do you allow yourself the time to refer back to what you did in light of your tutor’s feedback and see whether or not you can apply that advice to the next assignment?
  • Is your tutor as critical of your work as you are? Perhaps you are too self-critical and your tutor’s comments could help to provide a better sense of perspective.

If you are not reading and acting on your tutor’s feedback, you are denying yourself the opportunity to improve and to save time. You are wasting a very valuable learning resource. You may be working hard but you won’t be ‘working smart’.

11 Conclusion

Just as we have advised earlier, we are not going to introduce any new ideas in this concluding section. We are using it to reinforce what we think our main points are.

Writing essays or reports can be time-consuming; individual assignments tend to focus in depth on specific topics rather than fostering a wider sense of the whole course. However, three or four or more assignments will bring benefits as linkages start to become apparent and the total programme of written work helps you to develop your knowledge and skills across a range of areas. If you allow yourself to be open to making mistakes, to learn from feedback and to view assignment writing as a continuing, developmental process, then the same knowledge and skills should help you beyond any single assignment or any one course.

We hope we have demonstrated that there are many aspects in the process of writing an assignment and it is not just a matter of starting with x and finishing with y; you will sometimes need to take one step back in order to take one forward: moving on a stage but continually checking back over previous stages, amending as appropriate. There is a limit to what you can – and are expected – to do. Perfection is not everything. If you have to send off an assignment that is not as good as you would have liked, look for the positives. Why is it not as good? What might you have done differently? Can you transfer the answers to these questions to the next assignment? Most of all, however, think what you learned from doing it, both from the experience of writing it and from its content.

12 Further reading and sources of help

Your tutor is the first person you should contact if you are encountering difficulties with any aspect of your studies. If there are any issues raised in this unit that you would like to discuss, you should approach your tutor. Sharing your action plan with him or her would be a useful first stage.

Your chosen place of study may offer a programme of learning skills sessions that should reinforce some of the issues raised here.

Further reading

  • Chambers, E. and Northedge, A. (1997), The Arts Good Study Guide, Milton Keynes, Open University
  • Crème, P. and Lea, M. (1997), Writing at University: A Guide for Students, Buckingham, Open University Press
  • Dunleavy, P. (1986), Studying for a degree in the Humanities and the Social Sciences, Basingstoke, Macmillan
  • Fairbairn, G. J. and Winch, C. (1996), Reading, writing and reasoning: a guide for students, Buckingham, Open University Press
  • Northedge, A. (2005), The Good Study Guide, Milton Keynes, Open University
  • Northedge, A., Thomas, J., Lane, A. and Peasegood, A. (1997), The Sciences Good Study Guide, Milton Keynes, Open University
  • Redman, P. et al. (1998), Good Essay Writing: A Social Sciences Guide, Milton Keynes, Open University
  • Sherman, J. (1994), Feedback: Essential writing skills for intermediate students, Oxford, Oxford University Press

Links

These websites offer further help in developing your study skills

  • Skills for OU study
  • OpenLearn study skills

Appendix 1 Action Plan

In writing my assignments, I think I do the following things well:

I am fairly satisfied with:

I need to work on:

The first thing I am going to when I finish this toolkit is:

Good luck!

Acknowledgements

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The content acknowledged below is Proprietary (see terms and conditions )and is used under a Creative Commons licence.

All other materials included in this unit are derived from content originated at the Open University.

Grateful acknowledgement is made to the following sources for permission to reproduce material in this unit:

Unit Image

© Margo C[Details correct as of 1st August 2014]

Every effort has been made to contact copyright owners. If any have been inadvertently overlooked, the publishers will be pleased to make the necessary arrangements at the first opportunity.

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