How to Avoid the Most Common DipABRSM Written Submission Mistakes

If you’re just starting to think about working towards the DipABRSM in Teaching, one of the first things you’re likely to consider is the written submission.

The written submission comprises a 1,800 essay chosen from a list given in the syllabus. There are a range of topics to choose from, from purely theoretical, to practical planning tasks.

For many teachers, writing an essay can feel like a scary prospect. Even if you’ve been writing essays fairly recently, simply reading the list of topics alone demonstrates the huge range of possibilities. I remember how hard I found it both to choose a topic and actually put pen to paper. If you’re feeling overwhelmed right now, I understand.

However scary it may seem, I believe that working towards a diploma can not only enhance your teaching, but can be pivotal to your development and growth as an individual. Although the written submission may, at first, seem scary, by avoiding some common mistakes, it can have a hugely positive effect on your teaching.

In this blog post, I want to consider some of these common mistakes and how teachers can avoid them when writing their DipABRSM essays.

1. Answer the question

You might read that statement and think to yourself, what an incredibly obvious thing to state, yet, it’s a surprisingly common mistake. I read some really fabulous essays, but have to break the news to candidates that as good as the essay is, it hasn’t answered the question.

I say question, but of course, some titles are more topic- or title-based. In that sense, not sticking to the topic in hand is a similar problem. As a reader, I want your the theme of your essay to be consistent. Whichever title or question you’ve chosen, that is a thread that should run through the very heart of your essay. It’s the thread which links the introduction to the conclusion, and everything in between.

When I read DipABRSM written submissions, and I’m sure examiners find the same, one of the most frustrating things is having to look back to remind myself what the topic is I’m reading about.

As you write, always have your essay title visible. Print it out and stick it up, or write it on a piece of paper. Keep it on your desk. For everything you write in your essay, glance at your title. How is it relevant? As your essay comes together, keep reading through from the start. Is the topic still in focus?

2. Structure your essay

One of the things which nearly always shines through in candidate’s DipABRSM essays is their enthusiasm and passion for teaching. It’s always clear that they have their students’ interests at heart, and they want to do their best for them. Essays which demonstrate this, are nearly always the most inspiring to read. Even the most theoretical of topics can be covered with passion for your subject.

But for all the enthusiasm in the world, sometimes an essay can fall down simply because it lacks structure. When I talk about structure, I’m thinking about the way you guide your reader through the essay. If you like, your structure is a map which gets your reader from point A to point B.

Most essays will have an introduction and a conclusion, but the largest section is likely to be the content itself which answers your chosen topic or question.

One thing which I always encourage my candidates to do is to use subheadings. Think of them as signposts on the journey, the directions which help your reader get from A to B. Think about the subheadings in this blog post and how they divide up the text.

Don’t underestimate the value in planning your essay first. In the early stages, that planning might take the form of a mind map as you generate ideas in relation to your topic. You might then take those initial ideas and see how they will fit together, perhaps bullet-pointing your plan. Subheadings will often emerge during this process.

A good plan will always make the essay itself easier to write.

3. Argue

OK, I’m not suggesting we get into an argument here, but one of the most common problems with DipABRSM written submissions is that nice as the content is, there’s no argument.

I find the easiest way to think about this is that it’s not enough to describe what you do: you need to describe why you do it. That why is your argument. Why do you do what you do?

This means that what you write needs to be underpinned by evidence. You need to demonstrate that you have researched your topic, and that you are familiar with a range of different viewpoints.

Let’s be realistic here. This is an 1,800 word essay at a level akin to the first year of an undergraduate degree. It is not a PhD. Nevertheless, referring to a range of sources which may include books, articles, blogs and websites, is crucial. Take a look at the mark scheme, and you will see that for even the lowest pass level, your essay needs to be ‘adequately argued’.

The planning stage can help enormously with this. Once you’ve brainstormed your topic, you can then identify relevant resources. With the candidates I mentor, we often spend some time between the initial planning phase and beginning writing, by reading around the topic. This wider reading will provide your evidence base.

This sounds far scarier than it actually is, but as you write, just as you want to keep to the topic in hand, ask yourself why you’ve written what you’ve written.

4. Refer to music

Again, this sounds really obvious, but so many candidates write excellent and informative essays, but fail to make any reference to the teaching of actual music. At the end of the day, whilst there’s a theoretical element to all the potential DipABRSM written submission titles, this needs to be balanced with a practical one too.

The teaching diplomas offer you a chance to reflect on and develop your teaching skills in relation to the instrument you teach. Ultimately, we’re teaching our instrument, and we’re teaching music.

As well as thinking about how you teach actual pieces of music, you should also consider how you teach particular musical concepts. Whichever topic you choose, music should be at the heart of what you write.

5. Include examples

Virtually all the DipABRSM written submission titles lend themselves to the inclusion of examples. The examples you include will be dependent on the topic, but may include musical extracts, information from tutor books, games, photographs and exercises: in fact, the list is almost endless. Again, even the most basic pass level at DipABRSM requires the essays are ‘sufficiently interspersed with examples’.

Visual examples can also be a useful way to break up the text. Music is an inherently practical subject, and essays should reflect that. Remember the old saying that ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’? Well, maybe not 1,000, but it’s true. Sometimes, it’s much easier to show what you’re talking about visually, than attempt to explain it in words. This, of course, can also save you some precious words which is always useful in such a short essay.

Make sure that your examples are relevant to your topic, and make sure that you give some explanation about why you’ve included them. If you are including visual examples of music or books, do try and scan these if at all possible. Generally, photographs don’t transfer well and can make your essay seem sloppy. If you are including notated musical examples, try and create these using a software package (there are numerous free ones).

Closing thoughts

Remember, above all, your DipABRSM written submission is a chance to develop your skills as a teacher, but also demonstrate your knowledge and skill to your examiners. The quality of the essay is important and when approached logically, offers a rewarding opportunity for development and reflection.

Working on your own towards a teaching diploma can be a lonely, and often, overwhelming experience. If you’re not sure where to start or how to approach your teaching diploma preparations, then one-to-one online mentoring could be for you. I can also offer one-to-one advice and guidance for the quick study itself.

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