Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning
The following article, from the Iowa State University Center for
Teaching Excellence http://www.cte.iastate.edu/tips/essay.html, has
some great advice for students on how to prepare and take essay exams.
UP NEXT: The Ph.D. Factory
Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning
-------------------- 1,410 words ---------------------
TEACHING TIPS: A STUDENT GUIDE TO ESSAY EXAMS
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
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."
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."
The subject area on which the question focuses (xeriscape)
The specific job that the essay response must perform, usually
expressed in a key word (define)
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. 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.
Teaching Tips Menu Send us
email Iowa State University
Center for Teaching Excellence