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Success is a social concept: how to succeed in your A-Level Sociology assessments

How can you maximise the opportunity to be original and produce high quality writing for your sociology A-Level assessments?

Sociology exam

The key criteria to a successful sociology essay for A-Level is to put forward a unique and clear argument that demonstrates engagement with existing theories by applying them to recent and contemporary examples.

The A-Level syllabus even self-consciously covers Education and the attitudes, policies and events that produced the current nationalised assessment process. This is the opportunity to engage with broader sociological themes while situating them within recent experiences of the education system.

Nevertheless, Sociology assessments may be intimidating. Here are some top tips on how to prepare and tackle both short and long answers for A-Level sociology.

How To Prepare

For A-Level Sociology, students are expected to demonstrate an understanding of theories and research methods which they apply to a range of contemporary issues.

The first assessment objective (AO1) is to demonstrate knowledge and understanding of sociological theories, concepts and methods. To engage with the material on your terms, start by discovering your links between theorists and themes.

For instance, start with the word Education and consider how does this link to social class? Which theorists come to mind? Which concepts link to those theorists? By actively considering these links, you are simultaneously finding unique relationships across the syllabus. The added benefit of this is that if a term comes up in the exam, a series of connections and ideas will already be at the front of your brain. Make sure to write all these ideas down in a format that you can refer to before your exam.

Success in Sociology

Next, start considering case studies to which you can apply these theorists and themes. This addresses the second Assessment objective (A02) which considers whether you can apply sociological theories, concepts, and evidence to a range of issues.

The syllabus is designed to cover topics such as education and crime to which A-Level students can engage with through their experiences, exposure on the news and recent studies. Try imagining a conversation with a theorist: for instance, how would Foucault describe the ‘neighbourhood watch’? What would Althusser consider ‘detention’ a reflection of an ideological state apparatus (ISA), or a repressive state apparatus (RSA)? Asking different questions means you will start evaluating the usefulness of each theory and idea which will help you structure and select the most relevant ideas in the exam.

Sociology exam paper

Throughout the papers, you will be expected to justify your arguments, interpretations, and ideas with evidence through case studies, surveys, and statistics. Using relevant details in the exam is key to demonstrating to the examiner that you understand the full depth of material within the short writing space. Collect a ‘Bank of evidence’ by putting together evidence under each of the themes, perhaps in a table format. Select the statistics and case studies that are the most shocking as these will be easier to remember. Remember to make a note of the source and highlight any limitations of the statistics. Ask yourself who collected the data? What was their aim? Who might have been left out?

Last, definitions are key to the A-Level Sociology assessments. Not only might you be asked to write clear definitions for the short answer questions but defining the concepts will be key to producing an argument and interpretation to long answer questions. Prepare for this by writing your own definition of terms. It might be worth referring to the Oxford English Dictionary or another reliable source for this. Compare your definitions to those used by other sociologists and practice explaining these concepts to a friend or family member.

By linking the theorists and consistently asking yourself questions as you revise the material, this will prepare you for the third assessment objects: to analyse and evaluate sociological theories, concepts and methods and present your arguments, judgements and conclusions. Make sure to practice bringing all these points, evidence and ideas together by working through past papers available on the examination board websites, or even try writing your questions!

How to Prevail

Preparation is complete and the day has arrived for your assessment or exam. There are two types of questions in the sociology A-Level exam. Make a note of how many marks a question is worth to guide you on how long you should spend on each question and manage timekeeping.

Short answer questions

Short answer questions assess your ability to draw on specific terms and ideas within the syllabus. Three top tips to address these:

1) Use clear language especially on the questions that ask you to “define the term of X”. Ask yourself, can you say this in simpler words?

2) Give a clear example with each point; this can be a short, pertinent case example or statistic or a hypothetical example. The most important point is to think carefully which is most relevant and concise example that illustrate what you are saying.

3) Signpost your separate points to clearly show the examiner/assessor that you know you are talking about. For a 6 mark question, you would be expected to make three points with 3 short examples or illustrations. Clearly state this to the examiner with phrases such as “First…For instance..” so that there is no ambiguity.

Long answer questions

Long answer questions should be the primary focus of the exam as these are worth up to 30 marks. The challenge of these is to maintain a clear argument while demonstrating a range and depth of knowledge surrounding the key topics suggested by the question. The three top tips to excel here are:

1) Engage with the question. Even if you have revised all the material in the syllabus, the examiner will be unable to mark highly unless you can demonstrate that you are answering the question. Two practical ways to ensure this is to first define the terms of the question in your introduction. Second, to produce an argument. There is always a potential argument in long-answer question. For instance, if the question ask you to “Evaluate sociological approaches to X” do not just list different approaches. Ask yourself, which approach is the most useful?

2) A clear structure is necessary to producing an effective sociological essay response. To achieve this, you must produce a plan before commencing the essay. It is also advisable to place the most important point at the top of the essay in case you run out of time and also it allows you to discuss the most relevant point fully. Additionally, signpost to the examiner by structuring each paragraph with an adapted version of PEEL (Point, Evidence, Explanation/Evaluation and Link):

· Point – what is the purpose of the paragraph?

· Evidence - What case studies or examples supports your point? Do they also support or counter the theorist’s approach?

· Explanation - what theorist or sociological idea has previously engaged with this idea?

· Evaluation– how useful is the theorist’s idea in explaining the case study? What are the positives and negatives of this approach?

· Link – state how this point links to the overarching argument. 3) Confidence is key. Remember that during this exam, you are a sociologist too! Use the introduction and conclusion to clearly state your point of view and highlight to the reader where the essay is going to take them. Your opinion matters and will interest the assessor; a unique but pertinent approach to a question will score higher grades.

Successful A Level Sociology students

In these final weeks, with the correct preparation, practice, and clear approach to the questions it is possible to excel in these exams, despite the changes to the assessment for 2021. You might even enjoy the exam: there is a social dimension to every problem and the joy of sociology is that you are engaging with contemporary questions and experiences. At the very least, you have the chance to consider this year’s assessments from a sociological standpoint. Good luck!


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