Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Preparing exam question answers

Are you preparing to write essay-style answers to your exam questions?  If so, here are a few things to keep in mind.

Essay questions do not just test how much data you know.  They allow you to show how the different topics that you have covered for that subject fit together, and how your own opinions and conclusions fit with the theories and concepts you have been studying.  Essay questions show that you can adapt your knowledge to the question on the exam paper, and that you can plan and organise that knowledge in order to answer the question that is being asked.

Begin by being clear about what is required of you:

  • how many questions do you need to answer
  • how many marks are available for each question
  • how much time do you have for each question

Jot down a brief schedule for yourself:
  • jot down the time you have for each questions, e.g. a question worth 40 marks should get about twice the time that a question worth 20 marks gets
  • leave at least 10 minutes at the end to re-read each question so that you can pick up any obvious spelling mistakes, unclear writing or other problems

Don't start to write until you know what is required:
  • read the question 2-3 times.  Be sure that you understand what is being asked of you, e.g. are you being asked to describe something in detail, to identify factors by listing them, to reflect on a statement by including your own opinions...
  • you must answer the question that was asked.  It is tempting to include unnecessary information (after going to the bother of learning it!)  You will only be marked on the question that was asked; don't expect the marker to seek out relevant information or to figure out what you mean to say 

Jot down a brief outline of the answer:
  • in exams, you have a limited amount of time and a limited ability to edit.  So, it's vital to plan your answer before you start to write.  Using bullet points or mind maps is a good way to decide how to structure your ideas
  • your opening paragraph should state the main premise of your argument and briefly describe what the essay will include.  The body of the essay consists of paragraphs; each paragraph should focus on one ideas or topic.  The paragraphs must flow together, so spare a little thought for how you will connect these ideas.  The concluding paragraph should recap your argument and may include your own concluding opinions
  • be sure to back your opinions up with evidence from the material that you have studied during the year

  • leave yourself at least 10 minutes, at the end, to re-read what you have written and to pick up on any mistakes that are easy to rectify


(Image: "Philosophy" by Michael Biech via Flickr)

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