Media Theory in essays & exams – how & why?

Time and time again I tell my classes “Use theories, examiners love that!”, and whilst this may be true (and probably quite obvious), it is no use just showing that you know media theories for the sake of it.

The whole point of inserting theories into essays & exams is to demonstrate understanding, but the common misconception here is that just by dropping in names of theories such as The Hypodermic Syringe, Hyperreality or Uses & Gratifications, you may think you are demonstrating understanding, but what you really are doing is demonstrating knowledge, which is something else entirely.

So, what’s the difference? 

Knowledge, as the name suggests, shows that you know a theory and what it means. You can state the name of the theory, whose it is and hopefully in the correct, relevant place in a response.

Understanding however, is all about using theories to illustrate/justify points that you have made, and that by using them, you have considered their relevance. This hopefully leads into something else that examiners love – critical autonomy. This is where you get to argue a point using evidence from both sides.  This can be hard to do and can lead to responses going off on a tangent, but is a very useful technique to have in your arsenal.

You are not expected to agree with every opinion you learn. Another common pitfall I’ve seen is that students feel compelled to only use theories to back up points that they agree with. Why does this happen? By doing this, you are only giving half a possible response. Critique, question and debate a theory, if you think that (for instance) the Male Gaze is an outdated, antiquated idea – say so! By doing this, you are demonstrating true understanding, as you have really thought about what the theory means in-depth and although you may not agree with it, is using it in this way show that you understand it any less?

As always, opinions and thoughts welcome in the comments – feel free to be critical…




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