Friday, October 14, 2011

Short answer exam writing advice

In my classes these days, instead of essay answers, I ask students to write several short answers instead. The questions I ask are designed to be answered in two to five well planned sentences. I insist that before writing anything, students sit and think a while, making a brief list. Only after that list is completed should they think about composing the answer.

Why? Because we live in the age of Twitter, in the age of four-second sound bites. Have you ever seen a long blogpost and groaned? Few people have the time or the inclination to read long essays anymore.

So, am I doing my students a favor by insisting that they think carefully and then write concisely? I think so.

Here is a sample question (taken from my Roosevelt to Reagan course material) with a sample of how I expect students to tackle such a question.

Question: Assume that you are on a debate team. The topic is “Resolved: that the Cold War was not inevitable. You are to argue the positive, that it was not inevitable. What factors would you include in your argument? [no need for lengthy explanations: just list the factors you would use to argue that the Cold War was not necessarily inevitable.]

There’s the question. Now here’s an example of how you might want to do a quick list during your thinking time. [this is by no means a complete list, but shows how you would start doing your thinking and planning before writing your two to five sentence answer.]

A. Had been allies
B. Americans should have understood Soviet need for security
          25 mil dead
          Russia invaded
C. Overwrought intelligence
          Doolittle Report
D. Leaders exaggerated dangers
                Truman, Ike, Kennedy

Hint: While making this list, I thought of item C last. So, it was on my list last. Then, looking over the list, I realized that it would be better to bring this up sooner in my answer, so I moved it up. This is what I mean by thinking and planning out the answer before you start writing.

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