Teaching and Learning Forum 98 [ Contents ]

Using descriptive headings to improve first year student writing

Eamon Murphy
School of Social Sciences and Asian Languages
Curtin University of Technology
The action research project was designed to improve the quality of first year student writing by using descriptive headings as an integral part of essay planning. A group of first year history students were shown how to develop descriptive headings and to use them in writing three class essays during the semester. Both formative and summative evaluations of the students' writing progress were made during the semester. The results were highly successful. In particular, there was a very marked improvement in the quality of essay organisation, essay structure, relevance of material used and in the quality of argument. Most of the students felt that their ability to organise and write essays had improved. Using descriptive headings could easily be incorporated into other discipline writing and into other forms of academic writing.

The background to the research

Since about 1980 I have been attempting to improve the writing standards of first year students. In particular, I have attempted to get students to write history essays that are well structured, have a clear argument, use relevant examples and contain effective paragraphs. My efforts led to the publication of a writing manual. (See Murphy 1985.) Like many other teachers of first year students, I have, however, felt frustrated in trying to help them develop effective organisation and writing skills. In first semester this year, I felt that I had made a significant breakthrough by getting the students to use descriptive headings in the planning of their essays.

The idea for using descriptive headings came from a seminar that I attended two years ago run by writing consultant Robert Brown. The content of the seminar is contained in his manual Key Skills for Writing and Publishing Research (Brown 1995). Although the manual has been written primarily to help academics write better, most of what Brown recommends can just as easily be used by first year students.

Brown argues that descriptive headings are particularly important because they "offer a way of force-feeding" (Brown 1995: 31) the reader: a good set of headings provides an immediate overview and summary of the paper or essay. They quickly let the reader know the major theme of each section of the piece of writing. The other advantage of getting students and others to use descriptive headings is that it forces them to confront the issue of whether what they are writing about is relevant to the topic.

Brown offers the following suggestions on how to maximise the appeal and the effectiveness of headings.

Use them frequently.
Brown states that the least appealing papers have headings only for the main sections. He suggests that writers break the main sections into separate parts and supply a heading for each (Brown 1995). I did not insist that my students use headings in short essays (1500 words), but I am encouraging my honours students and others who write longer pieces to use headings more frequently. I did, insist, however that the students provided descriptive headings as part of their essay plans.

Use headings that describe (inform) rather than simply label.
Brown gives as an example a label heading 'Introduced Plants' (Brown 1995: 31). The descriptive (informative) heading that he cites as a much better example is 'New plants grew well in dry regions' (Brown 1995: 31).

Use verbs in headings whenever you can.
I attempted to take Brown's advice when I devised the title of this paper. My original working title was "Descriptive headings in first year student writing". My more informative title "Using descriptive headings to improve first year student writing" contains two verbs: using and improve.

Other examples of descriptive headings that I took from Brown's manual:
Headings Force-Feed Readers
Signalling the Thread of the Argument
What is Readability?

Using descriptive headings with the students

During first semester this year about 150 students were enrolled in History 111. These students came from a wide variety of backgrounds. Some were students straight from school. Others were mature aged students. A small proportion were overseas students. As part of their assessment the students were asked to write three short essays. Each essay came at the conclusion of the three main unit modules. The students were given the essay question a week in advance and were told that they could bring in one page of notes containing an essay plan with descriptive headings. They wrote the essays during the 50 minute lecture period using their essay plans.

During a lecture period I explained the purpose of the essay, gave them writing tips and explained the importance of having good descriptive headings in their plans. They were also told that a proportion of the marks for the essay would be awarded for the plan, particularly their use of descriptive headings. Building in the assessment of both the plan and the content of the essay was integral to the success. Extensive feedback was also provided for each essay. This feedback was provided in a lecture period, through individual feedback sheets and through brief comments on the essay content, organisation and style.

Examples of essay plans

The following is an example of part of a good essay plan that led to the writing of a very good essay. While this example is of a high standard, many others were of equal or even better quality. The title of the essay was "Assess the achievement of the Emperor Akbar". The descriptive headings above forced the student to address the central issue of the essay: the achievements of Akbar. Note that the word "achievement" is found in each of the two major headings listed above and indeed is also found in the other headings that the student used. The descriptive headings meant that the essay was focused and the discussion was directly relevant to the essay.

Another advantage of the headings was that they provided clear topic sentences for the paragraphs. For example:

In contrast, an essay on Indian nationalism had very brief label headings: This essay was poorly structured. Much of the discussion was not shown to be relevant. Paragraphs were short, disjointed with no clear central theme.

Evaluation of the project

The essays were marked by myself and by a freelance education writer. I marked for content and analysis. The education writer focused on organisation, clarity of writing and correct usage. We both found a very marked improvement in essay writing by the end of the semester.. Students who used descriptive headings in almost every case wrote essays that were well organised, well structured and easy to read. Their discussion was relevant to the topic. Paragraphs were well structured with clear topic sentences. In contrast, the students who wrote very poor essays also provided inadequate essay plans. By the end of the semester most students were getting better marks.

What the students felt about having to use essay plans and descriptive headings

Most the students were very positive about having to provide an essay plan with descriptive headings. At the end of the semester the students were asked to comment on the value of essay planning using descriptive headings. Of the 94 students surveyed 78 (83%) thought the essay plans were a good idea, 6 students (6%) were negative and 10 students (11%) did not respond. It was interesting to note that the more positive comments came from students who were in fact the better writers. Indeed, the most positive comments of all came from students who were in their second or third year of study.

Some student comments

The following is a sample of the positive comments. Negative comments:


Getting students to use descriptive headings when planning their essays has two advantages. It forces them to organise their thoughts in a logical and sequential fashion. In addition, by using descriptive headings within their writing, especially longer pieces of writing, they make their writing much easier to understand. The technique is just as applicable to other disciplines and to other forms of writing such as reports. Indeed, Brown (1995) uses the technique as an integral part of his seminar on improving academic writing. Writing is an important learning tool in other disciplines such as physics (Kirkpatrick, L. and Pittendrigh, A. 1984) and biology (Moore, R. 1994), and descriptive headings could just as easily be used in these and other disciplines. Using descriptive headings, however, is no "magic bullet" for all solving student writing problems. My use of descriptive headings was only one part of an integrated strategy to improve student writing which also involved setting clear topic sentences, providing extensive feedback and giving the students practice. Assessment also played a key role in promoting good writing. Many of the good results may well evaporate unless good writing is taught and assessed in the other units that the students take.

Not all students find the use of headings helpful. Writers plan and draft in many different ways. Ironically, I use mindmaps rather than descriptive headings when planning my own writing. However even those students and academics who do not find descriptive headings useful in planning would benefit from using them to improve the clarity of their writing and their ability to communicate.


Brown, R. (1995). Key Skills for Writing and Publishing Research. Sunnybank, Brisbane: WriteWay Consulting.

Kirkpatrick, L. and Pittendrigh, A. (1984). A writing teacher in the physics classroom. The Physics Teacher, 22: 159-164.

Moore, R. (1994). Writing To Learn Biology Let's Stop Neglecting the Tool that Works Best. Journal of College Science Teaching, (March/April): 289-295.

Murphy, E. (1985). You Can Write: A Do-It-Yourself Manual. Melbourne: Longman Cheshire.

Please cite as: Murphy, E. (1998). Using descriptive headings to improve first year student writing. In Black, B. and Stanley, N. (Eds), Teaching and Learning in Changing Times, 233-236. Proceedings of the 7th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, The University of Western Australia, February 1998. Perth: UWA. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1998/murphy-b.html

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