Invention: How to Prepare for an Essay Examination

     As a college student, you will often be faced with a variety
of essay exams, from the short-answer essays of a few sentences
to take-home exams which may require hours of planning and
writing.  Remember that essay exams require a comprehensive
understanding of large amounts of information.  Since exam
questions can reach so far and wide into the course materials--
and in such  unpredictable ways--you cannot hope to do well on
them if you are not keeping up with readings and assignments from
the beginning of the course.

     Below are some tips to help prepare for an essay

1.   First of all, do the reading, go to the lectures, take
careful notes, participate in discussion sections and organize
small study groups with classmates to explore and review course
materials throughout the semester.

2.   As the exam approaches, find out what you can about the form
it will take.  Ask your instructor whether the questions will
require short or long answers, how many questions there will be,
whether you may choose which questions to answer, and what kinds
of thinking and writing will be required of you.

3.   Try to avoid simply memorizing information aimlessly.  As
you study, you should be clarifying the important issues of the
course and using these issues to focus your understanding of the
specific facts and particular readings.

4.   Try to place all that you have learned into perspective,
into a meaningful context.  How do the pieces fit together: What
fundamental ideas have the readings, the lectures, and the
discussions seemed to emphasize?  How can those ideas help you to
digest the information the course has covered?

5.   One good way to prepare yourself for an exam is by making up
questions you think the instructor might give and then planning
answers with classmates.

6.   Returning to our notes and to the assigned readings with
specific questions in mind can help enormously in your process of

7.   The important thing to remember is that an essay exam tests
more than your memory of specific information to demonstrate a
comprehensive grasp of the topics covered in the course.

Reading the Exam Carefully:  Before you answer a single question,
read the entire exam and apportion your time realistically. 
Careful time management is crucial to your success on essay
exams; giving some time to each question is always better than
using up your time on only a few and never getting to the others.

     Following are nine categories of exam questions, divided
according to the sort of writing task involved.

Define or identify
     Some questions require you to write a few sentences defining
or identifying material from readings or lectures.  Almost always
such  questions allow you only a few minutes to complete your

Recall details of a specific source
     Sometimes instructors will ask for straightforward summary
or paraphrase of a specific source--a report, for example, or a
book or film.  Such questions hold the students to recounting
details directly from the source and do not encourage
interpretation or evaluation.

Explain the importance or significance
     Another kind of essay exam question asks students to explain
the importance or significance of something covered in the
course.  Such questions require you to use specific examples as
the basis for a more general discussion of what has been studied. 
This will often involve interpreting a literary work by
concentrating on a particular aspect of it.

Comment on a quotation
     On essay exams, instructors will often ask students to
comment on quotations they are seeing for the first time. 
Usually such quotations will express some surprising or
controversial opinion that complements or challenges basic
principles or ideas in the course.  Sometimes the writer being
quoted is identified, sometimes not.  In fact, it is not unusual
for instructors to write the quotation themselves.

Compare and contrast
     One of the most favored essay exam questions is one which
requires a comparison or contrast of the two or three principles,
ideas, works, activities, or phenomena.  This kind of question
requires you to explore fully the relations between things of
importance in the course, to analyze each thing separately, and
then search out specific points of likeness or difference.

Synthesize information from various sources
     In a course with several assigned readings, an instructor
may give students an essay exam question which requires them to
pull together (to synthesize) information from all the readings.

Summarize and explain causes and results
     In humanities and social science courses much of what
students study concerns the causes or results of trends, actions,
and events.  Therefore, it is not too surprising to find
questions about causes and results on your exam.  Sometimes the
instructor expects students to recall causes or results from
readings and lectures.  At other times, the instructor may not
have in mind any particular causes or results and wants to find
out what students are able to propose.

Criticize or evaluate
     Occasionally instructors will invite students to evaluate a
concept or work.  Nearly always they want more than opinion: they
expect a reasoned, documented judgement based on appropriate
criteria.  Such  questions not only test students' ability to
recall and synthesize pertinent information; they also allow
instructors to find out whether students can apply criteria
taught in the course: whether they understand the standards of
judgment that are basic to the subject matter.
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Last updated Monday, 22-February-99 02:22:00 EDT.
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