Essay Exams

1. Think differently about the material. Students are conditioned from an early age to think in terms of discrete facts and ‘correct’ answers rather than looking for the relationships which are characteristic of essay answers. One of the first steps toward improved essay answers is to adopt a different perspective on the nature of what is to be learned from the material presented and read.

  • a. Integrate material from class to class and unit to unit. Each time you begin a new topic, ask yourself questions like:
    • How does this topic compare with/relate to what has gone before?
    • How is it different? How is it similar?
    • Why is it included in the course? Why at this point?
    • What are its main points, its strengths, its weaknesses?
    • How does it apply to the overall goal of the course?
  • b. Write your own sample essay questions for each lecture or reading assignment.
  • c. Rather than focusing on the conclusions alone, focus on the process so that you begin to understand how conclusions are reached.

2. Study the material differently. Studying for essay exams is much different from studying for objectively scorable exams.

  • a. Create outlines of readings and lecture notes which emphasize the relationships among the ideas.
  • b. Draw concept maps – visual diargams of how terms, principles, and ideas interconnect.
  • c. Paraphrase or create an executive summary for each reading or lecture.

3. Write structurally sound answers.

  • a. Preview a list of key words used in essay questions and what they imply in terms of answer content and structure.
  • b. Give yourself opportunities to practice writing essay answers. Examine the structure of the answers.
  • c. Learn how to use algorithms for answering typical question types. For example, a prototype answer for a “compare and contrast” item might always include two points of similarity between the two concepts and two points of difference. Develop generic outlines or concept maps for common types of questions into which you can plug the specifics of the topic.
  • d. Learn time-management techniques for essay writing, for example, scanning all the items and parceling out an appropriate amount of time to spend on each according to weight or importance; spending a few minutes outlining an answer before writing, or having a checklist for quickly evaluating answers before completing the exam (such as “did you answer the question?” “are the transitions clear?” “is evidence provided for each assertion?” and so on).