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Teaching Tips: A Student Guide to Essay Exams

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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The following article, from the Iowa State University Center for

Teaching Excellence, has

some great advice for students on how to prepare and take essay exams.


Rick Reis

UP NEXT: The Ph.D. Factory

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning


-------------------- 1,410 words ---------------------


How to Prepare for an Essay Exam


Studying for an essay test requires a special method of preparation

distinctly different from a multiple choice test. Whether

"open-book," "open-note," or without any aids at all, most students

find essay exams among the hardest they face. Here are some specific

recommendations for preparing effectively for essay exams.

1. Make sure you identify and understand thoroughly everything that

your professor particularly emphasized in class; learn the remainder

as well as you can. Your professor will develop essay questions on

the important topics stressed throughout the course lectures and

discussions. These topics are more than likely also discussed in the

assigned readings.

2. Begin your exam review (about two weeks before the test) by

predicting what essay questions will be included on the exam. There

are several sources for these possible essay questions:

Use the major boldface headings in your textbooks and turn them into

questions by using typical key words such as describe, explain,

define. Check the course outline and study guides distributed by your

professor. Frequently, the course outline and chapter study guides

focus on the major topics of the course. Read over the end-of-chapter

discussion questions for possible essay questions.

Brainstorm possible essay questions with several other students who

are also taking the course.

3. Once you have formulated a list of potential essay questions,

prepare a "study sheet" for each of the questions. Review your

lecture notes, study guides, and textbook notes. Then record on each

of the study sheets the relevant and important material from these

sources that you would want to use when writing an essay responding

to each question.

4. After you have written all the important and relevant material,

organize it. Decide on the best way to present this material in

written form. This not only helps you plan an effective essay, it

also helps you remember everything more effectively. Below is an

example of a study sheet for a psychology class:

Example Study Sheet

Predicted Essay Question: "Describe the memory process."

Your notes:


preparing information for storage, e.g., taking notes in class

(encoding experiences; translate into words)


filing, keeping information in memory -- may involve several

interrelated systems information in storage; is influenced by:

* other information already in storage

* new information that is stored -- may result in forgetting


getting back information from storage; 2 types:

1. recognition - pick out right answer from among choices

2. recall - remember without any clues (essay tests)


1. Link the material in each of your study sheets to key words or

phrases that you find easy to recall. These key words will form a

mini-outline for the ideas you will want to include in your essay. As

you are actually taking the exam, write these key words in the margin

or on the back of the exam paper before you begin to write your

answer. If you can only remember two or three at first, writing those

down will help you remember the rest. The finished list will guide

you in your writing.

2. Practice and rehearse writing several (if not all) answers to your

predicted essay questions. If you will not be allowed to use them

during the exam, do not use your study sheets in this rehearsal. Time

yourself so you will be under the same time constraints as for the


3. Finally, either check your responses against your study sheets or

exchange them with another student and check them for accuracy,

completeness, and organization.


Answering an Essay Question in Class

Read and analyze the question

Essay questions are carefully and precisely worded. You won't receive

credit for answering a question you haven't been asked; you also

don't want to waste time writing something you don't need. Most essay

questions -- like the one below -- can be analyzed according to the

following three main components:


"Define the term xeriscape in relation to southwestern urban planning."

1. Topic:

The subject area on which the question focuses (xeriscape)

2. Task:

The specific job that the essay response must perform, usually

expressed in a key word (define)

3. Hints:

Suggestions or stipulations about what information the essay should

contain or how it should be organized and developed (relate to

southwestern urban planning)

Develop a Time Budget

Break your writing task down into manageable pieces and establish how

long you want to spend on each of them. Doing so not only helps you

manage your time better and makes it more likely that you will finish

your essay, it also allows you to concentrate on one activity at a

time rather than trying to do everything all at once. Consider this

typical time budget for responding to one question in 50 minutes:

* Planning and gathering ideas: 10 min.

* Organizing and developing a focus: 5 min.

* Writing: 25 min.

* Revising and polishing: 10 min.

Think, make notes, and prepare the material you want to use before

you begin to write

Spend a few minutes gathering up ideas and thoughts you will need to

include in your essay. Then consider the most effective way to

present that material to your reader. Remember that essay exam

responses are usually read very quickly: the more quickly the reader

can move through your writing, the less time he or she will have to

consider its deficiencies. Many students find it useful to create a

short topic outline or to draw a key diagram at this point, as a way

to organize their thoughts.

The focus of your writing depends on the task stated in the question.

In a question that asks you to explain, for example, your focus

should be on presenting information as clearly as possible so that

the reader understands the topic. At other times you may be asked to

take a position on a topic; in these cases, you need to state that

position clearly and then prove to your reader, through the careful

use of illustration and examples, the validity of the statement with

which you started. But in either case, the reader needs a clear

statement of your purpose at the beginning of your essay.

Sometimes it's difficult to know, at first, exactly what the focus of

the piece of writing should be. That's why it's especially important

to pay attention to any hints in the exam question. These tell you

the particular perspective that your instructor considers important

--- the one from which your response will be graded.

Writer's block?

Sometimes, even when you have followed these steps, the words just

don't seem to flow onto your page. Many writers, faced with this

problem, begin in the middle of an essay, leaving the first page

blank or using a "dummy" introduction, and add the introduction last,

after they have figured out what -- exactly -- their writing is

about. The important thing is to start writing, so that you don't run

out of time before getting something onto the page.

Write strategically

Writing that merely responds to the question (no matter how

accurately) may garner only an average grade unless it is also

successfully presented in other ways. Here are some areas that often

make a difference:

* Unless you have been told for some reason to restate the question

in your own words, do not waste valuable time repeating information

that your instructor has already written down. Move immediately to

answering the question.

* Order the points of your discussion. Follow some sort of sequence

-- logical, chronological, procedural, etc.

* Add support to assertions. Incorporate examples or facts that

support these main statements.

* Tie your discussion to your focus. Explain, both along the way and

in your conclusion, how everything fits together.

* Be direct when you write. In the interest of making maximum use of

your time, keep your sentences short, use adjectives and adverbs

sparingly, and avoid parenthetical remarks.

* Use signals to direct the reader through your points. For example:

"There are three reasons why..."


"In early Greece....But in Rome..."

* Be legible. You will probably not be graded on neatness, but you

could easily lose credit if your instructor has a hard time reading

what you have written. Sloppy handwriting, non-standard

abbreviations, multiple cross-outs, and confusing circles and arrows

will all make grading difficult. Remember that your instructor has

many other papers to read and may easily become impatient with

anything that makes grading more difficult.


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