Saturday, December 4, 2010

Essay Exam Advice

We are rapidly approaching final exam time, so I'm going to lay off the grammar goodies for a while and focus instead on writing better in-class and take-home exams. So, here's tip #1. You've heard it a thousand times before, and this number 1001, but it's so important that I don't feel bad about haranguing with it one more time.

1. OUTLINE before you write. 

I can hear y'all groaning from here as you read this. But don't stop here. Read on, please! 

I think the best advice I can ever give on writing a good essay exam question answer is to
separate your time into thinking time and writing time. 

DO NOT start to write immediately upon reading the question. If you do that, your thoughts will be scattered, you won't think of other possibilities that should be included, and your answer will be disorganized. And believe me, as one who's graded lots of essay exams, you don't want your grader to have to sift through disorganization. Some of us are reading dozens or tens of dozens of exams, so you want to make your essay answer as clear and as well organized as possible. How to do that? Separate your time.

1.a. Thinking time
Most professors will ask a question that requires thinking rather than the regurgitation of what was on a Powerpoint slide. We don't want that. We know you can memorize. When we give an essay question, we want to know whether you can think about what you've learned and pull it together. If you take the time to think about the question and try to pull in as many ideas that relate to that question as possible, you'll have a much fuller and more comprehensive answer.

That word comprehensive is key! An adequate answer will not do if you want an A. You need a comprehensive answer: one that shows that you've thought about, analyzed, and compiled a complete list of reasons, causes--whatever the question is asking you for. As you think about the question and what might apply, jot it down. Then decide whether all the jottings actually do apply, cross out those that don't (they won't get you any points anyway) and then you can start your writing.

1. b. Writing time 
Here your goal is to take your list of jottings and put them into a coherent form. That means organizing. Now's the time you decide whether you're going to write from:
Most important to least important
Least important to the big bang--most important
Chronologically first proceeding to most recent
Or some other form that you think might work (although I strongly recommend one of these three).

So, there you have it. If you follow this suggestion, your essays will be better, your grades will probably be higher, and you will have a much easier time taking the exam.

Try this strategy--it takes some practice like any other skill--and then let me know what you think.

Good luck on all your exams!

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