Get a yardstick! (An illustration using the key term, “main”)

6 07 2011

When it comes to analysing an essay question, identifying the key terms and the value terms are rarely a problem. The difficulty we often run is in truly engaging with the value term. To deal with those tricky value terms, we could consider using a yardstick.

For example,

Social media is the main agent of change in today’s world. How far do you agree?

Value term: main

Yardstick (measurement of “main-ness”):  Social media is more important than other agents of change

Note that if you use a value term in your yardstick, that too must have it’s own yardstick. In this case, you’ll need a yardstick for “more important”, and “more important” can be measured in different ways (different yardsticks) in each paragraph.  For instance, one paragraph may consider that social media is more important than other agents of change because it has become so ubiquitous that it is best able to reach large numbers of people.

Key point: I must have a clear, objective sense of how you’re measuring “main”.

Some students tend to measure “main” in numbers. In other words, their yardstick might be that social media is the main agent of change because it is the most commonly used tool to bring about change. This is possible in theory, but do note that it can be difficult to execute in practice because it often degrades into a “but-the-numbers-say-so” point, without any real, substantial, meaty argument:

“Social media is the main agent of change because 80% of the global population has used social media to bring about change.”

Even if this statistic were correct (it’s not), it’s difficult to develop this further. Of course, you could go on to develop it by arguing that because social media is so commonly used, it is the best way of reaching large numbers of people – but that brings us right back to the first yardstick – that “main” is being measured by its importance.

Aside from proving importance, another useful (and, if done well, particularly effective) yardstick is this: Social media is the main agent of change because it is the root cause of change / the underlying factor that triggered off change.

Again, you can use this yardstick throughout your essay, or you can use multiple yardsticks in your essay.


FAQ – on essay structure

Where do you put the yardstick?

If you have just one yardstick running through the whole essay, it makes sense to put it in the introduction. If you have multiple yardsticks that apply to different paragraphs, you should make it clear in the appropriate paragraph.



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