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Writing Guide: Exams and Essay Questions

This guide covers: understanding the essay question; searching databases and organising research; the writing process: critical thinking and note-taking; referencing and citing in text, and using academic language.

Exam Study Tips

"I like work: I think it's fascinating.  I can sit and stare at it for hours." Jerome K. Jerome

  • Organise your time.  This means setting time limits.  For instance, set a finish time rather than a whole evening with no start or finish time.
  • Time-tabling is essential.  Work out a comprehensive list of what you have to do and what time you have to do it.
  • Organise your work.  You can save a lot of time by being systematic about where you keep your papers. Pick a drawer or a tray, don't spread them around so that you waste time having to look for them.
  • Keep TO DO lists, keep them in the same place and add items as soon as you think of them. Make sure you prioritise.

Aim to work well, NOT hard

  • I will work well, rather than work hard
  • I will learn what's worth learning, rather than learn every detail
  • I will set myself deadlines, rather than sit at my desk until the work's all done
  • I will take regular breaks, rather than not have free time unless I've earned it.

Revision

Five minute revision guide

  1. Revise the day after learning something
  2. Revise it again a week later
  3. One month after that second revision, revise it for a third time
  4. Do a forth and final revision at the end of the term to ensure the knowledge is permanently embedded in your mind.

Each revision takes about 5 minutes.

Active methods of Revision

  1. Summarising material on index cards means saying it all over again with less words.
  2. Annotating your texts with notes and summaries helps you digest their meaning
  3. Mind Mapping: a visual and creative way of remembering
  4. Repeating out aloud, simply explaining it to others (family members, study groups) it will help you gain a better understanding of the material
  5. Working through past exam papers.  See if yours are available on our Past Exams page (please note, exams will only be available if the lecturer for the subject has released them to the library).

Exam Preparation Books

Essay Questions Under Exam Conditions

An essay question in an exam isn't looking at your research - it's looking at your ability to form an argument and structure a well reasoned answer.

It's all about thinking on your feet, and this is where a solid understanding of the essay structure can really help.

Start with:

  • A plan.  Show them what your essay will look like, and you may still get marks for it even if you don't finish.
  • In your answer booklet, jot down
    • your thesis (your answer to the question in one sentence)
    • The three points you will argue to prove your theses (these will be your paragraphs)
    • The break down of your three paragraphs - what three things will you say about each point?
    • What will you "conclude" in your conclusion? ("Thus it can be seen that A and B are directly responsible for the demise of C...")

First priority:

  • A good introduction.
    • After you've written your plan, you should be able to write a paragraph that can adequately summarise your whole argument.  A good introduction will be your essay in miniature, and can be the most important part of an exam essay.
    • Make sure you follow the proper structure:
      • An introductory sentence to set the context for the essay
      • A summary of the points you will discuss in the body
      • A thesis statement (your answer to the question in one sentence).

Then:

  • Take each major point from your introduction and flesh it out in a paragraph, using your notes from your plan
    • You should have three things to say about each major point, which will form the sentences in your paragraphs.
  • Try to aim for one paragraph per major point, but also remember that a paragraph should deal with a single concept.  If your major point logically leads to more than one concept, write more than one paragraph.
  • Make sure you follow the proper paragraph structer of Topic Sentence (introduce the idea) -- Body (consisting of your argument) -- Clincher Sentence (why is this information relevant to your answer?).
  • Paragraphs should follow on from each other in a logical order.
  • If you start running out of time, fill in the rest of your paragraphs with dot-points of what you would have said.
    • Your plan, introduction and first few paragraphs will show that you can right in the essay style
    • It is more important to show what you know and how you can think of coherent, logical arguments than to write perfect paragraphs and conclusions.
  • BUT - don't forget the conclusion. Plan for it, and make sure you have at least one final sentence that shows how your argument proves your thesis.  Make sure you only summarise arguments you've already made - don't add new information in a conclusion

To prepare:

  • You don't necessarily need to use references - but it can make a huge difference.
    • If you can mention actual theories and the names attached to them, it can help you.
    • In your exam prep, make sure you remember three major ideas and the people who thought of them.  You will probably be able to use at lease one in your essay.
    • Practise saying things like:  "According to Smith and Wesson the meaning of life is..."
  • Have a look at Past Exam papers and practise answering the essay questions. 
  • If there aren't any Past Exam papers for your subject, look at some of the study questions raised in the lectures or readings and use them instead.

Resources

Exam Points

Before the exam:

  • Write a "cheat sheet" - if you were going to cheat on this exam and "sneak in" a single page of notes, what would be on that page?
    • You'll want to fit as much information as you can on the smallest sheet of paper possible, so try to reduce your notes to memory joggers.
    • Then burn that sheet of paper, and write another one.
    • Then burn that one, too, and write one more.
    • By the time you've prepared to cheat on your exam three times, you probably won't need to.
  • Talk about your notes and the major topics from over the course of the semester. 
    • Talk about them to your classmates, but also talk to people who don't know anything about the subject - introduce them to the concepts and ideas.
    • Write a reflective piece complaining about the ideas you struggle with - a blog post or a diary entry, or a letter to a friend.
  • Find resources that talk about different types of exam questions and what strategies can be used for each.
  • Look at Past Exams and make sure you can find something in your notes to help you answer every question.  If there's a question you can't answer, you'll know where to focus your revision/study/research.

During the exam:

  • Breathe.  It's not life or death, and the worst thing that can happen is you'll get it wrong.  If you start catastrophising the exam questions just ask yourself: "If I can't answer this question correctly, will someone blow up a bus full of nuns and puppies in a prep-school playground?"  If the answer is "No", then just answer the question to the best of your ability and hope for the best.
  • An exam exists to see how well you can pull on what you have learnt to work without notes. 
    • Use the questions as an excuse to show off your knowledge and your ability to make connections between ideas.
  • Use the strategies you've read about - answer the exam questions on purpose.

After the exam:

  • Celebrate.  Even if you have another exam to sit that day, take a moment to mark the passing of a milestone.
  • File your notes - don't destroy them or throw them away.  You may want to use them in the next subject.  (If you haven't used them after a few years, feel free to burn them).
  • Write one last reflective piece touching on three points:
    • What did you hope to learn in that subject (and did you learn it?)
    • What new and exciting things did you discover as a result of doing the course?
    • What connects with things you've learnt in other subjects?

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