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Transkills: supporting transition to University


You might find it helpful to know more about the kind of response that is expected when you are set an essay title at university. This may be different from the kind of response that was expected at school, or it may be that this issue was not explicitly discussed. Essays and similar assignments are set in order to prompt, structure and assess your learning, but it is important to clarify your assumptions about what 'learning' is, to ensure that the expectations of students and staff are shared.

There are several models which attempt to explain what 'learning' is. One of these models which you may find helpful in this context is Bloom's Taxonomy of Learning Objectives (Bloom et al, 1958). This model breaks down the concept of learning into six levels of learning or thinking skill, which are arranged in a hierarchy of difficulty.


Knowledge is the lowest of of the levels of learning. At this level, learning entails the memorization and recall of facts and information. In English, this could be historical or biographical data, quotations or critical terminology.


Understanding or comprehension entails a deeper grasp of the knowledge or information, manifested in the ability to explain it in your own words, rather than simply 'regurgitate' it. In English, this might be the ability to paraphrase or summarise your reading.


Application is the ability to use knowledge and understanding in a new context or in a different way, to solve a new problem or achieve a goal. In English, this might be application of critical theory or practical criticism methods to particular examples of text.


Analysis is the ability to break down knowledge into its component parts and examine the relationships between these parts. Bloom's taxonomy is itself an analysis of the concept of 'learning'. In English, 'analysis' might refer to the deconstruction of a theoretical or thematic concept, in the various contexts or ways in which it is used. It could also be the close examination of a piece of text, broken down into its various linguistic or literary features, to see how it creates a particular effect.


Synthesis is in many ways the opposite to analysis. It is the ability to combine knowledge together to create new knowledge. This is particularly relevant in the period papers of the English course, which ask you to synthesise your learning about individual texts or authors in order to make an argument about a wider period of literature. You are also synthesizing when you bring together information from many sources in your reading to create your own argument.


Evaluation is the ability to make a value judgement about information and its use - whether it is valid, important, relevant or useful. In English, you frequently make value judgements about what you are reading, but evaluation in this sense is built on your synthesis and analysis of knowledge and understanding gained from your sources, and your application of them to make an argument - in other words, an informed and reasoned judgement. The view that one author is better or more enjoyable than another is not an academic response, but an evaluation of an author's technique or a critic's viewpoint is.


All learning entails all of these levels to some degree, but at university, we are particularly interested in the higher four levels: not the knowledge and understanding that you have (it is largely taken for granted that you will acquire it), but what you can do with it. Knowledge and understanding will naturally be present if you are able to demonstrate the higher levels, so it is rare that the lower levels are explicitly assessed. Any assignment will test all of the levels implicitly, for example, your ability to analyse the terms of the essay title, or evaluate the reading list to select the most relevant items. However, any essay title will also explicitly ask you to focus on one of the levels of learning more than the others in your answer. The following pages will help you to apply this model to essay title analysis so that you are more aware of the sort of learning you are asked to engage with. 

Whichever type of title you are working with, bear in mind that it is not a request for everything you know or can find out about a topic; your supervisor does not want you to find an answer to the title in your reading, but to make an answer using what you have found. The essay title is a means of prompting your engagement with and response to the text.