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Research Essays – Understanding Your Task

The following materials are adapted from the Guide to Academic Success.

When Essay Questions are Set by the Professor

If you are preparing a law essay in response to a set question, you must always read that question very carefully and ensure that you understand it. You generally need to address closely the terms of the topic as set, unless you have obtained approval to write on a variation of the topic. If you do have the opportunity to modify a topic, or to devise your own essay topic, you will need to think carefully about what is achievable within the prescribed word limit. Devising an achievable and interesting topic can be more difficult than it appears. Understanding precisely what your topic is and what you are doing in relation to that topic (your task/s) will be useful whether tackling a set question or a topic that you have formulated yourself.

Set Questions

If you have a set question or topic for your essay, to ensure that you address that question, it’s useful to isolate three components:

  • The topic or content field – what must your essay be about?
  • Your task – what do you have to do?
  • Any limits – what’s the scope and focus of your paper?

Spend some time picking apart your question further.

  • Try to brainstorm related words and phrases. They will come in handy when you need to enter search terms into law research databases to locate relevant primary and secondary materials.
  • Rephrase the question to yourself. Does this help you to spot any other issues?
  • ‘Carve out’ your own specific line of inquiry. Often, the set question is very broad and invites you to do this. Try to address an issue that is important and of interest to you. Is there an unusual or original angle you can take?

Understanding Your Task

The words in the question that instruct you about the required task/s are called ‘directives’ – explain, analyse, evaluate, compare and so on. If present, be sure to notice these words and frame your essay accordingly. If not present, you will need to determine what the question is implicitly directing you to do (see examples below).

DIRECTIVE DEFINITION 
Analyse Identify and investigate the components of a topic. You should also consider the way the components interrelate to produce certain outcomes or effects.
Argue Try to persuade the reader to accept your point of view or interpretation by presenting supporting reasons and evidence.
Compare and contrast Identify two or more views about the same topic and examine the similarities and differences.
Critique Give your judgment or reasoned opinion on the topic. Show its strengths and limitations. You don’t have to ‘attack’ the proposition in the question: rather, you need to identify how something could be improved.
Define Provide the meaning of a term or establish the boundaries of a concept or topic. In a legal research essay, for example, it is important to carefully define legal terms which may be open to variable interpretation.
Describe Give an account of the different aspects of a topic, process or concept.
Discuss Consider a topic from various points of view. You should describe and evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the various arguments before drawing your own conclusions.
Evaluate Pass judgement on the worth of something. Such judgement should be extensively supported by pertinent evidence.
Explain Make plain or clear.
Illustrate Use examples, comparisons, diagrams etc to explain or demonstrate a point.
Outline Briefly identify and review the most important aspects of a topic or the main points of an argument.

See also <https://student.unsw.edu.au/clue-words>.

Note in particular:

  • Some directives require expository work – for example, describe, outline, explain, detail.
  • Some directives require analytical work – for example, assess, evaluate, critically analyse, discuss.

Law essay questions are commonly framed to engage you in both types of task – exposition and analysis. This is the case whether directives are used explicitly or not.

Example: Explicit and Implicit Essay Question Directives

Question 1:

  • Explain [expository] how contract law applies to internet purchases and evaluate [analytical] reform proposals regarding the formation of contracts. (explicit directives)
  • How does the law of contract apply to internet purchases and auctions? What reforms, if any, are needed to the rules relating to the formation of contracts? (implicit directives)

Question 2:

  • Outline [expository] the current ‘right of political communication’ in Australian law and discuss [analytical] whether the law should give greater recognition to this right. (explicit directives)
  • What status does ‘the right of political communication’ have in Australian law? Should the law give greater recognition to this right? (implicit directives)

Example 3

  • Research [expository] the law in Australia that affords recognition to same sex relationships and marriage. Assess [analytical] the extent to which current levels and forms of recognition are adequate. (explicit directives)
  • To what extent does the law in Australia recognise same sex relationships and marriage? Is the law in Australia adequate? (implicit directives)

Setting Your Own Essay Topic

It takes more time and skill than many students realise to formulate an essay topic that is:

  • Interesting – that is, focused on an issue, field or question of some significance. Often this will mean that the law in this field is not settled and thus open to variable interpretation, or that its application in various contexts has been questioned. Alternatively, many emerging social issues will provide a rich context in which to provide an analysis of how the law should develop.
  • Sufficiently analytical (not only expository or descriptive).
  • Achievable within the word limit. In many law essays the challenge is to provide coverage of relevant material without ‘drowning the reader in detail’. This is a common problem for many self-selected topics.

It is important to realise that much of the success of a self-selected essay topic lies in the underpinning research. Without a comprehensive research foundation your topic may:

  • lack relevance;
  • be outdated; or
  • already been well canvassed in legal commentary.

If you are formulating your own topic, it may help to adopt the following process:

  1. Read widely: around the field or area that you are interested in. Often it will be useful to start with a general overview by reading a legal text, a legal encyclopaedia or on line source such as Lexis that provides an introduction to this field.Having established the broad parameters of the law, and its interpretation and application, notice how published commentators are approaching this area, the questions that they are posing, and their critiques of the relevant law. This background information will help to inform how you approach your essay; however, you should only include it in the essay insofar as is necessary without being too descriptive.
  2. Set the parameters of your question: define the content field you will address, including the governing law and the issues arising from its application or interpretation.
  3. Determine your approach and structure: decide what tasks you should undertake to best advance knowledge and understanding of these issues – for example, will it be useful (to your readers) for you to:
    • Review, summarise or explain the current legislation and the regulatory framework?
    • Or compare and analyse recent case law?
    • Or evaluate recommendations for law reform/change by identifying their likely effects?

The focus of your essay will shift significantly depending the task you set yourself. Be sure to set for yourself an analytical task as well as an expository task (see the ‘understanding your task’ section above).

  1. Formulate your topic and task/s as question/s that your paper will answer. Based on your research and analysis, consider: Are these interesting or worthwhile questions? Do you need to limit the scope of your inquiry (given your word limit)?
  2. Consider the kind/s of argument that you might advance in response to your question/s.

Legal Research Paper Proposals

Proposals are a way for your professor to confirm that you have set yourself a research question that is manageable within the time frame, and word limits, established in the subject. It gives you an impetus for getting to work on your paper early (the first time a student writes and submits a paper at the last minute is usually the last time he or she does so – grades suffer when you don’t have time to edit), and get feedback on the question, your outline, and the research you have begun. For some subjects you will be required to submit a proposal for approval before you can start writing. For others, you will be invited to submit a proposal but not required – in these instances we strongly (!!!) encourage you submit the proposal.

When professors include the option of a paper proposal, they may give specific guidelines on what they expect. Often they do not. In those instances when you have not been given specific guidelines, we recommend that you include:

  • A title
  • A research question
  • An outline (what questions do you need to answer in order to answer the broader research question? What law do you need to consider? What are the debates in relation to the problem you identified? Are there solutions or considerations in other jurisdictions we can draw from? )
  • An annotated bibliography with a few sources (5 – 7). You do not need extensive comments on your sources; a full cite, and a few lines with a description of the content and comments on how you plan to use it in your paper, is sufficient.

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