Advice for Writing Essay Exams

Jacques Barzun once wrote that exams “are not things that happen in school. They are a recurring feature of life, whether in the form of decisive interviews to pass, of important letters to write, or life-and-death diagnoses to make, or meetings to address, or girls to propose to. In most of these crises you cannot bring your notes with you and must not leave your wits behind.”

For many of you this is your first encounter with writing essay exams. So, here’s some helpful advice about preparing for them. First, and foremost, you must read the assigned readings in your courses. If you find the texts difficult to read, you may have to re-read and consult a dictionary from time to time to look up new and unfamiliar words. Please note that textbook authors do not use such words to confuse you. Rather, they use a particular word because that is the best word to describe to concept they are explaining. Also, college textbook writers assume their readers have a college level vocabulary. So, look upon the reading as a chance to improve your reading skills and build up your vocabulary!

Secondly, you should attend class and take notes on what occurs as the class meetings are designed to supplement and explain the important points in the reading. This means you need to read the assigned material prior to the class meeting.  You should not attend lectures instead of the text, but in addition to the text. As you read the text and my attend class, be sure to take note of the points you find confusing. If you do this as you read the text, pay attention to whether the class lecture notes help clarify these points. If they do not, then you MUST ask questions! It is important that you do this as soon as you are confused. Do not wait until a lot of material has gone by. Also, the point of underlining things you find confusing is that you will know what to ask about. Many students say they do not ask questions because they do not know what questions to ask. You have to identify what specific things you find confusing and underlining as you read is a good way to do this.

The most important thing to do in studying for exams is to learn things as you go. While it is tempting to put things off until just before the exam, especially in online classes, this is not the best way to prepare and learn the material. Since one concept builds on the previous one, you should be familiar with each theory before moving on to the next one. One of the things that occurs in many courses you will take is a consideration of one theory and then a consideration of the objections to it. Needless to say, the objections won’t make much sense unless you first understand the theory.

Another temptation when studying for exams is to focus on memorizing things instead of understanding them. This is a huge mistake in general and will lead to problems in studying for essay exams in particular. You must make an effort to understand the concepts and not simply memorize jargon and catch phrases. There are several reasons for this. First, the point of taking a class is to learn something not simply to memorize bullet point facts. Memorizing lists of facts is not learning. You paid for an education and you should work to achieve this by gaining something from the class besides a letter grade. You need to think in terms of gaining useful knowledge. A second problem with memorizing is simply this: What if you forget a word or two in your script? Then you will find it very difficult to recover when you are under the pressure of completing the exam.

So, what constitutes a good answer to a question on an essay exam? First and foremost you need to write a coherent essay. Lists and bullet points do not constitute an essay, much less a coherent one. You need to provide detail. You need to answer every part of the question. You need to demonstrate that you understand the points in question. Do not assume that your reader (that would be the professor) already knows the material. The exam is designed to assess whether you know the material so you need to be able to explain it in a way that illustrates your understanding of the concepts. This means it is not enough for you to merely mention a technical term you have to explain it.

Now, having established that it is important to understand as opposed to memorize how can you insure that you really do understand the course concepts? Here’s an easy test. Try explaining them to someone else. Pick a friend or family member who doesn’t know about the course you’re taking and tell them that you are going to try to explain a concept or theory from the course to them. Be sure to ask them to be honest about whether they understand it or not. They shouldn’t just tell you they do to be nice. You want to be able to explain it in a way that they can understand it. If you can do this, you understand it yourself. If they ask you questions, you should be able to answer them. If you cannot, then you do not understand the concept you’re trying to explain. So, you need to ask your professor some questions!

OK, so what happens if you don’t understand a concept or theory discussed in your course? How can you improve your ability to understand the material in general? The first step is to allow yourself time to think about these concepts. This is one of the major reasons I suggest that you learn these concepts as we go through them in class and not put things off until just before the exam. For many courses you take the  concepts and ideas discussed are things you have to think about and give yourself time to let them sink in. The next step is to engage in active learning. This means asking questions, explaining concepts to others, applying them to your everyday life, seeking connections between different courses you are taking.  Doing each of these will improve your learning and increase your confidence and these two factors will ultimately help the most when you are preparing to write exams in your courses.