Expository and Persuasive Elements in College Essays -->

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Expository and Persuasive Elements in College Essays

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By Mara Galvez, Writing Consultant

"Am I supposed to take a stand, or do I just summarize all my research findings?” This is a question a student recently asked me, attaching a copy of her assignment directions. The question made manifest a challenge both grads and undergrads face in writing papers for their courses: Students have a general sense that assignment directions set the parameters for their writing, but they don’t always know how to decipher those directions to determine the appointed purpose, content, or even research requirements.

Luckily, most academic essays fall into a few core categories or "genres"; once you know what types of essays are possible, deciphering assignment requirements gets less challenging. For example, assignment directions will typically indicate whether the overall purpose of the essay should be primarily expository (to inform the reader about something), persuasive (to convince the reader about something, especially about one side of a controversial issue), or a combination of the two. If an assignment asks you to explain, describe, provide an overview, or give the history of something, your purpose is going to be mostly informative. For instance, assignment questions for an expository essay might ask: Provide an overview of the treatment options for schizophrenics. Give a history of the concept of mental illness. Describe the main theories of adult learning. Notice that none of these directions asks you to choose among better or worse theories, to decide among treatment options, or to critique concepts. All of them just ask you to report the information.

On the other hand, persuasive essay assignments might ask questions along the following lines: What are the best contemporary treatment options for schizophrenics? What are the dangers of viewing mental illness as a social construct? Which adult learning theory is most applicable in the online educational environment? Notice that this trio of questions actually does require you to take a stand—to choose and defend one position (treatment x is the best because. . .; the social construction of mental illness is problematic because. . .; Knowles’s learning theory is most applicable because. . .). While both expository and persuasive essays will involve incorporation and analysis of research, then, the former essay type will foreground the informative aspects of the research, while the latter will use the data to support a particular position or argument.

Of course, most essay assignments will actually entail a combination of expository and persuasive elements. In these cases, it is still beneficial to try to break down the essay components into those aspects that are primarily information-centered and those that are mostly persuasion-centered; this will ensure that you successfully address all aspects of the assignment. Consider the following typical assignment question: Read the case study of Patient X. After comparing and contrasting the different therapeutic options available for treating the patient’s schizophrenia, choose the therapy (or combination of therapies) you believe to be most applicable in her case. Provide a rationale for your decision. Notice how this question requires that you first provide a detailed summary of treatment options (expository aspect of the assignment); then, building on that data, you are expected to convince the reader of the superiority of one treatment (persuasive aspect of the assignment). If you just summarize the data or you just present your position, you will leave half of the assignment unaddressed.

The student who came to me asking for help deciphering her homework assignment was unclear about whether she just had to provide a synopsis of research findings or if she had to take a stand regarding her findings. Her assignment turned out to be for a proposal; she was supposed to define a problem (exposition) and then propose a solution (persuasion). Once we broke down the different parts of her assignment question, she was able to determine her essay’s required focus and its purpose. From here, she was able to use the components of the assignment question to outline and organize her response, determining appropriate content for each section of her essay.


If you found this blog topic useful, keep your eyes open for Mara's next blog post, which will look at differences between definition, comparison/contrast, causal analysis, and proposal essays.

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