Friday, October 19, 2012

Annotate your text!

There is a new thread on the website of the Chronicle of Higher Education today about whether we professors should teach annotation of your reading material.

I agree wholeheartedly that we should!

But, you say, how? It's really quite simple.

Step 1: In each paragraph, look for the main idea--the "big picture," (sorry, I know I overuse that cliche, but I can't come up with anything more appropriate) and then highlight that.Your goal is to be able to go back through the chapter and be able to read the highlights and get a full picture of what that chapter is about. Sure beats re-reading the whole thing.

Step 2: Put a symbol of some sort in the margin for particularly important, surprising, or opinion-based ideas. For example, if something is clearly very important--like the first time that something ever happened or something that changed everything that came afterward, put a star in the margin. If it's something that really surprises you, put an exclamation mark in the margin. For statements that are the author's opinion (something that someone else might be able to argue), put a check mark in the margin.

Step 3: when it's time to review for a quiz or an exam, go back and read those underlinings and note the margin symbols.

Step 4: to figure out the main point of an article--what the author is arguing and what you should remember about that argument--go back and re-read just those underlinings that have a check mark next to them. Go through all of them, write the most important ones down in your notebook or computer file, and then you've got a good idea of that author's thesis.

Try this system or any variation you think will work for you. Trust me: it will make a difference. I have an awful memory and yet I managed to get through my doctoral comprehensive exams (written and oral testing of 160 books!) using this system. Without it, I never would have made it.

If you have another system, let's hear about it. Not every system will work for everyone. The point is to start talking about this and to start doing it. The bookstore is not going to give you any more money for your book if you sell it back to them in pristine condition. So, mark away!

Friday, October 5, 2012


What has happened to the word often? This useful, simple, common word has apparently gone through a metamorphosis, but I can't figure out why.

First, people started to pronounce the t. "Off-ten," they would say. Why? Where did the long-silent t go? Did people think this sounded more erudite or more sophisticated?

Now, people are saying and writing oftentimes instead of the much simpler, much preferable often. Again, why?

And now I've noticed that people are saying the totally unnecessary oftentimes with that t pronounced.

So, my question for today is this: why? Do people think that saying oftentimes (with the t) sounds better or smarter?

Here's what I maintain: if a simple word is working, don't mess with it. All those oftentimes-types out there, please put that word away: often will work just fine.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Exam Writing Advice Redux

I am cutting and pasting here a blog post from March 2011. As we approach exam time, I think it's a good idea to revisit advice on how to write a good essay exam answer. Here is the text of the original March 31, 2011 post:

This post is for all my students, present, past, and future. I am writing to offer advice today on how to write essay or short-answer or identification exams.

First, read the question carefully. Then read it again--carefully. Then read it a third time, underlining any important words such as "most" or "major." Then don't start writing.

But, I'm pressed for time, I hear you say. And, yes, of course, there are time constraints on exams. Some of us can work quickly, and some of us need more time to compose our thoughts. Knowing the clock is ticking can make many quite nervous. But, still I say don't start writing--unless it is to make a list. 

If you take the time to think about exactly what the question is asking and then start to formulate an answer by pulling an idea from here and a component from there, you will wind up with a much better answer. So, don't start writing right away.

Essay and short answer questions are designed to make you think. They are not intended to be the kind of answer that you can memorize and then just write down. So, taking time to think about the answer--wracking your brain, if you will, is crucial.

There are two most important components to an essay or short answer. The first is that your answer pertains to what the question is asking and ONLY what the question is asking. The second is that your answer is complete. If you leave something critical out, you will not get full credit.

Once you've determined that your list is complete and pertains to only that subject the question is asking about, then you can start writing. And then the writing should go pretty smoothly and quickly.

This method sounds as if it will take too much time, but for most people it will probably take less time or the same amount of time. And it will result in a significantly better score.

So, be sure to take the time to think about all the possible components that would need to go into a complete answer, make lists of those things, then look at the list and cross out any that don't specifically pertain to that individual question.

Then you can start writing. If there is interest, I will write more about answering essay-type answers for history exams in the future. If you want more tips, just let me know by leaving a comment or mentioning this blogpost to me after class.