Exam essays, part I

Class, Essays

Essay exams are scary a wonderful chance for students to share their thinking on a topic. Studying harder isn’t what makes some students write essays that set them apart from the average. Studying with a plan is. Here’s how you can do it, too. [Note:  Please, please practice this advice at least once before trying it in an exam. You will want to learn to strike a balance between the steps in this exercise. No one component should get all your time or attention.]

Read and prepare before the test

Do the assigned reading in two stages. While it takes more time, it will help you distinguish the primary information from the supporting details. Start by doing a full reading of text chapters and lecture notes with the goal of determining the “big picture.” You’ve got the big picture if you can shut your book and recap the topic in a way that summarizes the basics and a few key facts.

Now, go back to the beginning and start again. This time you should stop at the end of each page or so of text to pencil notes in the text margins, mark up a printed copy, or make flashcards. If you have more than one source to study, merge the material from the lectures with that in your books. Don’t skip this step. Studies say that the act of making these visual cues reinforces your learning more than the last-minute review of them.

In section-level analysis, your focus is on entire blocks of paragraphs for the “big picture.”

When instructors asks for an essay about the broader themes, they want you to describe the lay of the land and the extent of the forest. You want to create a clear picture, so the essay will still need important details. To extend my metaphor, mention mountains, rivers, and tribal territories. Use enough details from your studies to show why they are important to your topic. Save the deepest analysis for the examples you choose to mention.

Reviewing topics is easier than deep reading, but too quick a review might mean overlooking specifics. For example, when reviewing the 1812 Campagne de Russie, it isn’t enough to know that the Russian winter defeated Napoleon’s army. Weather (and its complications) did play an important role, but only as a final blow. Casualties during the summer and autumn meant fewer and fewer French soldiers, so those deaths had an impact. As the French followed retreating Russians deeper into Russia, supplies of food and medicine ran out. The war Napoleon hoped would last from the end of June through August waged on until mid-December. That meant that what was planned for less than two months lasted six.

Can you see that each of these points now needs a supporting detail? Will you represent casualties in numbers or percentages? Where had Napoleon thought the war would end? How many miles further did the army push? Try writing summaries with pen and paper as a memory aid. Be sure to include the key supporting details into your summaries to reinforce your memory for them.

In paragraph-level analysis, your focus is on one paragraph at a time.

When you need to know all the material well, you need to study paragraph by paragraph. You still need to see the forest, but this level of analysis makes sure you understand the individual trees, too. When you study this way, you miss nothing (which is a plus), but you can get lost in the details (which is a definite negative). As you build your study notes, remember to connect deeper details to the bigger picture.

  • Underline (or highlight) the words and phrases you can identify as “key.” Later, when reviewing your learning, your eye can skip from one key word (or phrase) to the next.
  • Be careful not to mark everything. Having a solid block of highlighting forces you to read everything again. Better to test yourself based on the key words and re-read only if you need to.
  • Key words should prompt the descriptions / definitions / examples. If a key word does not bring the appropriate details to mind, you’ve bumped into a concept that will need some extra effort at learning.

Whether studying for broad themes or high levels of detail, pay special attention to the easily overlooked. Headers may contain key words. Figure captions often contain information that is not included in the paragraphs themselves.

Part II: test time and other nightmares