Writing Essay Examinations
Material on which you might be examined should be studied as you get it, and you should take notes. Also consult other people's notes (since learning should be a collaborative enterprise). Then, a few days before the test review all the material. As you do so, ask yourself, "If I were the instructor, what sort of essay questions might I ask?" Compile a list and study with these questions in mind. This approach tends to work well in a study group; everyone can make up an essay question.
Once you have the list of likely questions, begin planning each essay as though you had a week to write it. Make an outline, even if you usually do not bother. Outline how you would set down that information in the best possible order. Do this for all the questions you have made up. If you are unable to generate an essay for each question, you need to get information from someone else's notes. Find a friend - quickly!
Some tests, like history essay exams, require that you write a coherent argument and that you include evidence - facts like dates and places. Practice writing sentences that work this vital information into your planned paragraphs so that when the time comes you will be ready to do this. Think of yourself as a Crown Prosecutor, making your argument before a judge. You can say that the defendant is guilty, but the judge will expect you to back up your claim with some evidence.
The day before the test, get all your material together and review again. This reinforces everything you have done so far. Look over those outlines you made. Try to compare notes with someone. Do not rely upon an all-night cram session the night before the test. There can be a delicate balance between the last work that you think is necessary and a loss of sleep that will make you function at less than your capacity during the exam.
The day of the test, do not study, especially if you usually become nervous and have "test anxiety". Do something else; watch television or take a walk to get your mind off it. This keeps you from thinking too much and misting the information around, making yourself scared in the process. If you must study, just look over your outlines and review any hard facts, but do not put yourself through another review again.
A cool head and straightforward powers of organisation are two of the most desirable attributes of a successful writer of exams. Do not panic and rush when you read the questions. Be sure that you grasp what they mean and choose the ones (if you are given a choice) for which you are best prepared.
A very short outline may be useful so that you will not forget the main points in your intended answer. But beware of writing more than half a dozen points, and you usually should not even sketch the sub-points in this outline. Some students write so long an outline that they then have little time for their essay.
Above all be certain that you are really answering the question that is asked rather than a question you would prefer to answer. Students frequently see a key word or phrase and do not think further about the context in which it appears. They may wind up writing a very good essay that has nothing to do with the question.
Remember the amount of time that you have. This will govern how much you can write.
Each student should know his/her own capacity in this regard. Those who write quickly do not always know what they are talking about and conversely, slow writers may very well write excellent essays. But whether you write very much or very little you must finish your essay in the time allowed. It is not uncommon for students to do poorly because they miscalculate the time.
If you have fifty minutes for two essays, for example, you probably will not be able to write much more than a beginning, three or four paragraphs of argument relevant to that beginning (and relevant to the question or statement), then a conclusion for each essay. All parts of the answer should be relevant. Avoid pouring in irrelevant material simply because you remember it.
Answers to historical questions and statements must contain historical material, references to persons, events, developments and a framework of time. Such examples and references do not always require a full sentence; you can mention them in parentheses, perhaps accompanied by a date. The reader will assume that you could write more about them if you were asked to do so. But be careful. These parenthetical references should support your argument: they should not contain important parts of the argument itself.
While it is often true that writing style is not as crucial for in-class exams as it is for take-home essay assignments, there is usually a direct correlation of quality of thought with the quality of writing. So much is this so that your History instructors might appear to be grading your work as though they were English instructors. There are no grounds for objecting to this. You should be able to comprehend the questions and answer them clearly in fluid prose without spelling and punctuation errors, within the time allowed.
So, after you have written your essay, go back and proof-read, checking your punctuation, grammar, and spelling. Your answer must be coherent and fulfil your instructor's expectations of style.
When you are finished your essay, it is probably not a good idea to change facts (dates or places) unless you know that you wrote the wrong thing down. If you are not sure, leave your first answer.
The History Faculty wishes all the readers of this Handbook success if, their studies at Thompson Rivers University. We hope that the study of the past is both stimulating and rewarding for you, and we will endeavour to make it so. Suggestions or additions and corrections for next year's edition of the Handbook are welcome.