Key term: Should (Consider the status quo)

10 10 2011

[Update: 25 Oct 2011]
See 2002 question on police power below

When encountering “should” questions, it helps to consider the status quo. You should then provide a value judgement based on a consideration of the key issues behind the debate.

Of course, it’s possible that you’ll produce a perfectly good essay without consciously doing this – this typically means that you’re doing it subconsciously. However, I’ve noticed that some students give your typical dull-but-sensible answer when they don’t make a conscious effort to do so.

Based on an analysis of all “should” questions that Cambridge has asked from 2002-2010, this approach helps to prevent very average, dull-but-sensible answers, and move your essays towards considering the meatier issues. So if you see a “should” question and have no idea what the status quo is, have little idea of the big issues that are being debated in society, or cannot think of any big examples that would be particularly applicable to such questions, you might want to consider choosing a different question.

On the status quo: Sometimes, the status quo is embedded in the question (refer to previous posts on “embedded context” that are also “should” questions). More often, you need to figure out what the status quo is yourself.

On considering key issues and providing a value judgement: See, “should” questions call for a value judgement. A good response to a “should” questions will pause to consider why the question is being asked – there are bound to be key issues or big, current examples that have triggered off this debate. And what the question needs you to do is consider these big issues and provide a value judgement, on whether to change the status quo.

Therefore, your response to “should” questions should show an understanding of the following:

  1. Why is the question being asked? What is the status quo*?
  2. What change in the status quo is the question asking you to consider?
  3. What are some of the key issues or tensions in the status quo (reasons why you should/should not change it)?
    What is the ongoing debate on this issue? Are there key examples that have triggered off a debate on this?

Ultimately, based on a consideration of the above questions, do you think the proposed change to the status quo (point 2) is desirable?

*For some questions, the status quo itself may be debatable. In these cases, you might also consider why people might view the status quo differently.
e.g. Should play have more of a place in modern society?
SQ: Some may see the status quo as play having sufficient place, while others may see it as having too little place. These differing views of the status quo itself would, naturally, influence the argument and stand presented.
Past-year “should” questions (complete list: 2002-2010)
2010: Consider the view that most work could, and should be done from home
  1. SQ: There are types of work that could, but currently aren’t done from home
  2. Proposed change: Should most work be done from home?
  3. Key issues: e.g. Working mothers being able to look after their children and work at the same time (should work from home), inability to ensure that workers are working if they’re not in the office (should not), environmental impact of travelling to the office and even having a physical office (should), etc.
2009: ‘Only educated people should have the right to vote in elections.’ What is your view?
  1. Everyone (over a certain age limit) currently has the right to vote in elections
  2. Should we only allow educated people to vote?
  3. Likelihood of the electorate coming to informed, well-considered decisions (should), equality and fairness (should not), etc.
2009: Should a love for one’s country still be encouraged?
  1. Most countries encourage a love for one’s country
  2. Should a love for one’s country still be encouraged?
  3. Globalisation, global citizens, increasing irrelevance of the concept of a national identity (should not), despite globalisation, some reasons for encouraging patriotism endure (should)
2009: How far should religion influence political decisions?
2009: Should every country have the right to carry out unlimited scientific research?
2008: ‘Air travel should be discouraged, not promoted.’ To what extent do you agree?
2007: How far should a state have a right to monitor the actions of people within its borders?
2007: Should poorer countries develop their tourist industry when the basic needs of their people are not being met?
2007: Should research into expensive medical treatments be allowed when only a few can afford them?
2007: ‘The word failure should never be used in education.’ Discuss.
Note: The above thinking technique might not work so well for this question.
2006: Should crimes that were committed many years ago simply be forgotten?
2005: To what extent should the State involve itself in the world of business?
2005: ‘Instead of speeding up the pace of life, we should be slowing it down.’ What do you think?
2004: ‘People, not the government, should decide how to organise their lives.’ Is this a fair comment?
2003: Should medical science always seek to prolong life?
2002: ‘Conformity should be the main aim of all schools.’ How far is this true?
2002: Should the police have unlimited powers when dealing with crime?
  1. Police power is currently limited
  2. Should all current limits be removed, such that police have unlimited power in dealing with crime?
  3. Should not because: Prison abuses (Guantanamo Bay) might only get worse; detention without trail might become more common, raising concerns of human rights abuses; police brutality might become common; torture might become an accepted practice rather than being used as a last resort (or banned completely); unnecessary invasion of privacy in the name of crime fighting, as police no longer need warrants to search houses, etc. / Should because: Unlimited power = unlimited potential of crime fighting; current context of transnational crime, police need more power (ideal: unlimited) to keep up with criminals, etc.




Is it, or should it? (Key terms / Command terms: Is and should)

11 08 2011

Most essay questions either want you to (1) assess the current situation or (2) provide a value judgement. Those that fall into neither of these categories might want you to consider the past, or predict a future state.

(1) Assess the current situation

These questions ask: Is it or isn’t it? Does it or doesn’t it? If I look around today’s society, what does the evidence show? Although there is no right or wrong answer, somewhat ironically, evidence form the world today will serve as the answer to the question (this becomes clear when you actually write the essay).

Sample essay questions (2010):

  • ‘The book has no place in modern society’. Discuss.
  • How effective are international efforts to ease the problem of global hunger?
  • To what extent has technology has a negative impact on the skills level of people?

(2) Make a value judgement

These questions ask: Should it be this way, or should it not? Can it, or can’t it? What is your opinion? Based on your knowledge of the world, what is your answer to the question? Unlike a question that requires you to assess the current situation, value judgement isn’t concerned with what is the state of affairs. It doesn’t care whether or not, say, Singapore has or hasn’t outlawed the death penalty, or whether it has or hasn’t decriminalised homosexual behaviour – it cares about whether it should.

For the above questions to require a value judgement, they would be worded something like this:

  • ‘The book deserves a place in modern society’. Discuss.
  • Should international efforts in easing the problem of global hunger be questioned?
Some examples of questions that require a value judgement (2010):
  • Does sport merit the vast sums of money that are spent on it?
  • How important is it for people in your society to retain a sense of tradition?







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