How to write brilliant essays

Dr Ursula Hackett, Department of Politics, International Relations and Philosophy

College Excellence Teaching Prize 2020

I have created a large collection of free original online resources – How to Write Brilliant Essaystohelp ambitious students reach beyond formulaic, middling-grade essays to approach a first-class standard. My Twitter account (@Dr_Essays) provides daily essay help and suggestions, and my website and YouTube channel offer bespoke video content, downloadable exercise sheets with answers, top tips, FAQs and a contact form. This creative flipped-classroom is designed to boost diverse students’ confidence and give colleagues livelier, more persuasive and original essays to mark.


How to Write Brilliant Essays offers students the opportunity to actively engage in learning that challenges and supports them. I use these resources for my undergraduate and postgraduate teaching: Government and Politics of the United States, American Political Development, and Media, Power and Public Affairs, and my resources are also embedded into my department’s study skills programme. Students are asked to watch the videos before class and utilize my techniques for controlling an argument, examining assumptions underlying a question, writing elegantly, and deploying evidence and literature successfully, inter alia.


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The approach


My practical, accessible and hands-on approach supports students to move beyond what they did at school. It gives students knowledge of what a brilliant essay looks like. Colleagues say they often struggle to articulate what is meant by ‘original thinking’, or ‘first-class analysis’; these resources support colleagues and free-up class time by following a flipped-classroom format. Students can watch videos and complete the exercises in their own time, to go through later in class or office hours with their tutor.


How to Write Brilliant Essays uses online learning technologies to develop an effective learning environment and support students inclusively. By offering self-service videos and exercises, which can be accessed for free at any time, and at any place around the world, I promote inclusivity and equality of opportunity for learners. Both weaker and stronger students can view the videos multiple times, use my website contact form for additional guidance, ask questions in the YouTube comments section (I respond to questions), and Royal Holloway students can discuss these videos with me in person during my advice and feedback hours.


I took a backward design approach to construct How to Write Brilliant Essays, starting with the goal of helping students write original, persuasive, controlled arguments, and working backwards to craft assessments and course content. Formative exercises give students opportunities to practice their skills. In a higher education environment increasingly shaped by MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) students as digital natives increasingly request online self-service opportunities to enhance their skills.


Integrated into all of my courses, How to Write Brilliant Essays helps me set clear expectations for all of my students: watching these videos shows students exactly what I look for in a good essay, calms student anxieties with an intensely practical approach, and demystifies the departmental marking rubric for higher-grade essays, thereby reassuring students about quality assurance in departmental marking.




Both undergraduate and postgraduate students value my essay resources. For example, a first-year PPE student writes that Brilliant Essays ‘provided me with a new perspective on essay writing.’ A second-year Politics and IR student writes: ‘With Dr Hackett's resources; you're given a clear, concise and structured way to formulate an essay which gets to the point and helps show off your academic writing skills. I cannot commend the website enough - it truly is a godsend!’ A third-year undergraduate IR student writes: ‘I needed this channel in my first year! …the videos look brilliant and will be a great help to anyone just starting university or even people like myself who were never explained any of this and had to slowly and painfully learn it!’ An Elections, Campaigns and Democracy MSc student writes: I have used the “How to Write Brilliant Essays” videos and website for guidance when it came to writing my postgraduate essays. I found the “excessive flagging” one particularly useful as I can be guilty of that and now trying to kick that bad habit.’


From my student feedback forms: ‘Dr Hackett has been fantastic! Very engaging – the teaching style really helped me learn and understand’; ‘Love the support we had’; ‘Dr Hackett pursued me to look at questions differently, which enabled me to be more analytical with my responses’; ‘Tutor was great, really understood and helped me to make progress’; ‘I really enjoy [the way] the understanding of essays was integrated into this class. We had so much practice tearing apart questions and having discussions about them that I feel much more confident in approaching the essay.’


Brilliant Essays book version

The book version of Brilliant Essays will be published with Macmillan’s Study Skills series in November 2020.

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