Tools for TAs and Instructors
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Writing a good essay requires synthesis of material that cannot be done in the 20-30 minutes you have during the exam. In the days before the exam, you should:
- Anticipate test questions. Look at the question from the last exam. Did the question ask you to apply a theory to historical or contemporary events? Did you have to compare/contrast theories? Did you have to prove an argument? Imagine yourself in the role of the instructor--what did the instructor emphasize? What are the big ideas in the course?
- Practice writing. You may decide to write a summary of each theory you have been discussing, or a short description of the historical or contemporary events you've been studying. Focus on clarity, conciseness, and understanding the differences between the theories.
- Memorize key events, facts, and names. You will have to support your argument with evidence, and this may involve memorizing some key events, or the names of theorists, etc.
- Organize your ideas. Knowledge of the subject matter is only part of the preparation process. You need to spend some time thinking about how to organize your ideas. Let's say the question asks you to compare and contrast what regime theory and hegemonic stability theory would predict about post-cold war nuclear proliferation. The key components of an answer to this question must include:
- A definition of the theories
- A brief description of the issue
- A comparison of the two theories' predictions
- A clear and logical contrasting of the theories (noting how and why they are different)
Many students start writing furiously after scanning the essay question. Do not do this! Instead, try the following:
- Perform a "memory dump." Write down all the information you have had to memorize for the exam in note form.
- Read the questions and instructions carefully. Read over all the questions on the exam. If you simply answer each question as you encounter it, you may give certain information or evidence to one question that is more suitable for another. Be sure to identify all parts of the question.
- Formulate a thesis that answers the question. You can use the wording from the question. There is not time for an elaborate introduction, but be sure to introduce the topic, your argument, and how you will support your thesis (do this in your first paragraph).
- Organize your supporting points. Before you proceed with the body of the essay, write an outline that summarizes your main supporting points. Check to make sure you are answering all parts of the question. Coherent organization is one of the most important characteristics of a good essay.
- Make a persuasive argument. Most essays in political science ask you to make some kind of argument. While there are no right answers, there are more and less persuasive answers. What makes an argument persuasive?
- A clear point that is being argued (a thesis)
- Sufficient evidenct to support that thesis
- Logical progression of ideas throughout the essay
- Review your essay. Take a few minutes to re-read your essay. Correct grammatical mistakes, check to see that you have answered all parts of the question.
Essay exams can be stressful. You may draw a blank, run out of time, or find that you neglected an important part of the course in studying for the test. Of course, good preparation and time management can help you avoid these negative experiences. Some things to keep in mind as you write your essay include the following:
- Avoid excuses. Don't write at the end that you ran out of time, or did not have time to study because you were sick. Make an appointment with your TA to discuss these things after the exam.
- Don't "pad" your answer. Instructors are usually quite adept at detecting student bluffing. They give no credit for elaboration of the obvious. If you are stuck, you can elaborate on what you do know, as long as it relates to the question.
- Avoid the "kitchen sink" approach. Many students simply write down everything they know about a particular topic, without relating the information to the question. Everything you include in your answer should help to answer the question and support your thesis. You need to show how/why the information is relevant -- don't leave it up to your instructor to figure this out!
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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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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. Here is an example of a study sheet for a psychology class:
Predicted Essay Question "Describe the memory process."
- Encoding -- preparing information for storage, e.g., taking notes in class (encoding experiences; translate into words)
- Storage -- 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
- Retrieval -- getting back information from storage; 2 types:
- recognition - pick out right answer from among choices
- recall - remember without any clues (essay tests)
- 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.
- 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 test.
- 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:
Example: "Define the term xeriscape in relation to southwestern urban planning."
TOPIC: The subject area the question focuses on (xeriscape )
TASK: The specific job the essay response must perform, usually expressed in a key word (define)
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.
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.
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.
"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 harder.
Source: Center for Teaching Excellence