How to Ace a Theatre History Exam

by Jodi Schneck and Kathryn Ferguson

Dr. James Hoffman's Theatre History course here at the University College of the Cariboo is both demanding and interesting. Students taking this course examine theatre genres, plays and critical theories, and then apply what they have learned through oral presentations, class discussions, essays and exams. If you are thinking about taking Dr. Hoffman's Theatre History course as an easy way to bring up your marks, you should understand that this theatre course is not as easy as you may believe it to be. While many find this course to be engaging as well as entertaining, students are expected to grapple difficult concepts that are both complex and thought provoking.

The essay exam is an opportunity to show that you have both understood the concepts discussed in class and can creatively apply those concepts in new ways. Throughout the course, students are required to write roughly four of these exams, totaling approximately forty percent of their final grade. As these exams account for so much of one's grade, students should make preparing for them a central concern. As students who have taken this course ourselves, we would like to offer some suggestions to potential Theatre History students. By focusing on the essay exams given in Theatre History, we hope to give you an idea of what is expected of you for these exams, how to prepare for them, and therefore increase your ability to master this exam format. Our ultimate desire is teaching you how to ace Dr. Hoffman's exams.

Exam preparation does not start the night before your exam date, but rather on the very first day of class. In order to get a decent grade on a Theatre History exam, you have to start taking good notes from day one, as once the class is over, the opportunity to document the lecture and discussion has passed. In a recent interview regarding his exams, Dr. Hoffman stressed the importance of taking good notes. When asked how students should prepare for exams, re-reading their notes came before all other methods of preparation, including reading the assigned texts.

Your notes are essential to you in preparing for exams, as class lectures often "fill in the blanks" left by textbooks (Jewler & Gardner, 81). In Theatre History, a student could easily get lost in those blanks if it were not for Dr. Hoffman's lecture. It is one thing to simply read a play, it is another to understand that same play in the context of various critical theories. There is no one textbook that Dr. Hoffman could assign to illustrate these links, and so it is through his lectures that he teaches these connections. If a student misses the lecture, or attends but does not write complete notes, that student will be disadvantaged at exam time. As well, issues may be raised in class discussions that do not appear in any journal or book that could be examined at a later date. Again, you have only one opportunity to get these points down, so that you can use them while preparing for your exam.

There are many guides on how to write good lecture notes, and some of these guides are even helpful. It has been our experience, however, that note taking is an individual process, and every student eventually develops his or her own style. On the other hand, there are a few elements of note-taking that are essential to building a reliable study guide. Perhaps topping this list are legibility and organization. If you are unable to read your notes at the end of the semester, you can hardly expect to be able to use them for review. Some people find it useful to recopy their notes as soon as they get home that day, as any missed words or garbled phrases are easier to correct while the material is still fresh in one’s mind.

There are many different ways to organize your notes. One way which we wish to share with you is the webbing method of note taking. We feel that this method of organizing your notes is particularly helpful in Theatre History, as it allows you to connect ideas and theories in a visual way that may increase your ability to memorize those connections. The following is an example of this type of diagramming:

Taking thorough notes is also important in that it involves you in the lecture. If you are trying to take good notes, then you are more likely to pay close attention to the lecture. This pays off in more than one way. These notes don't just give you a valuable study guide, writing them forces you to listen closely to your instructor, who may give away information on your upcoming exam. The largest clue would be the amount of time spent covering a specific topic. "The more time your instructor spends on a topic - the more likely it is to be on the exam" (Leggett, 494). If you weren’t taking proper notes, or worse, not in class at all, you may miss the importance of specific topics. As well, teachers are very likely to drop hints about what is going to be on the exam. This may be as subtle as "you might want to pay close attention to this", or as obvious as "this is going to be on the exam". If you weren’t paying enough attention, some of these hints may be lost on you. When asked directly, Dr. Hoffman admitted that he also gives hints about what is on the exams. He has even been known to say what the exact exam question will be.

Now, even if you are a wonderful note taker, you still have only conquered half the battle. The other important aspect of preparing for exams is reviewing the notes you have made. Many students do not begin the review process until just days before the exam. Although this is better than not reviewing at all, it is in your best interest to review your notes consistently throughout the semester. This way you are not simply memorizing ideas for regurgitation on the exam, you are giving yourself the opportunity to fully understand the material. As well, by reviewing your notes throughout the semester, you give yourself the time to consult with your professor if any of your notes are incomplete, illegible, or confusing.

Consulting is an excellent way to clarify concepts discussed in class and to learn new information. Dr. Hoffman "advises students to consult with him about exams" (Hoffman, interview). Too often, he feels that "students don’t take exams seriously enough and he feels that students could be doing better." By voicing your concerns and solving problems with Dr. Hoffman, you will be more prepared for his exam. In Becoming a Master Student, they suggest that you "ask your instructor to describe the test, citing how long it will be and what kinds of questions to expect. Do this early in the term as you will be more alert for possible test questions"(Ellis, 64). Further, consulting is an effective way to test your knowledge and deal with difficult concepts you may have been struggling with. In discussing your ideas with Dr. Hoffman, you may learn just how well you have understood the concepts covered in class. This will let you know if you are on the right track or still need to do some more work.

Consulting will also give you the opportunity to gather new information as you may be directed to look at new sources. As Theatre History students ourselves, we did not realize until interviewing Dr. Hoffman that he encourages students to read beyond the mandatory texts in order to prepare for his exam. These extra readings give you more leverage in answering exam questions, as Dr. Hoffman has stated that he appreciates a few outside sources quoted on exams. These quotations show him that the student has been working diligently to grasp the material covered in class. Dr. Hoffman also knows the difficulty in walking blindly through the library, searching for sources. There is no need to do this for Theatre History however, as consulting with Dr. Hoffman is a prime opportunity to get better acquainted with theatre journals and books. As an expert in his field, Dr. Hoffman can suggest specific articles that directly relate to course material. In fact, Dr. Hoffman has a vast array of journals and books in his office that he is usually more than happy to lend to his students. You should come out of a consultation with new information, a better understanding of course material, and an idea of where you need more focus.

After you have gone through your notes, consulted with Dr. Hoffman, and checked outside sources, you are ready to begin memorizing key concepts discussed in class. In other words - it is time to start studying. There are two basic ways to go about studying: on your own or, with a bunch of friends in a study group. Both ways seem to be beneficial, but in our experience, the best way to study is to incorporate both these methods.

In a recent survey completed in Dr. Hoffman’s Theatre 325 (Canadian Theatre History) class, we were surprised to see that the average scores for both individual and group study were remarkably close. Separated (on average) by only 0.10 marks, there seemed to be no difference between studying alone or in a group. The following graph illustrates these trends:

In our experience, the best way to study for Dr. Hoffman’s exam is to employ both these methods, and Dr. Hoffman tends to agree. Dr. Hoffman suggests that students read over their notes, and the texts, but he also feels that one should "take friends out for coffee and talk." In other words, start individually and then move to a study group.

There are many things you can do on your own to start the study process. In his book Becoming a Master Student, David B. Ellis suggests that students get used to using study checklists and flashcards" (85). Another suggestion is to make up mock exams to practice your exam writing ability. Fully preparing this way can help build your confidence prior to stepping into the exam room. Once you feel confident in your knowledge and understanding of the course material, the next step should be to study with a group. It is important that you arrive at a group study session well prepared, as you are going to be questioned and be expected to question others. If you have not yet studied on your own, you will not be beneficial to the group you are studying with. Always keep in mind that an information leach in the group is never welcome to join the next study session. Becoming A Master Student suggests bringing four or five potential questions to ask others in your group. These questions should be thought provoking and should hopefully raise new issues and insights to discuss.

Dr. Hoffman stressed the importance of trying to "pre-guess" what the exam questions will be. He feels that every student should be able to accurately predict at least one of the questions on the exam. You should put yourself into the professor’s head, and try to determine what he is going to cover on the exam. Group study is particularly helpful in this task, as others in the group may think of new ways to combine theories and ideas that never occurred to you.

When forming a study group, it may be tempting to get together with your friends and discuss the important issues of the course. Although entertaining, this may prove disastrous as you are more likely to get off topic with a group of your close friends. A better choice may be to seek out the most dedicated people in the class (who may also be your friends) and work with them in preparing for the exam. The group should try to set a reasonable study goal for themselves, try to stay on topic, and make sure that everyone is fully prepared before coming to the study session. You may find it necessary to avoid studying with certain people a second time, if they were unproductive or worse, disruptive during the initial study meeting.

Now that you have studied with a group, it is important to study individually once again. Terri Runnalls, a student who has been attending Dr. Hoffman’s class this year, states that she "needs to go home and review after working with a group. There are too many issues raised to not go home and think them over". By going home and reviewing what was said in the group study, Terri has a fuller understanding of the class material than someone who only studied alone, or only studied in a group. It is interesting to note as well that Terri receives some of the top grades on Dr. Hoffman’s exams.

In addition to studying, there are other things you should do to prepare yourself for any exam. Most guidebooks will tell you that the most important thing you can do before an exam is to get a good night sleep. Your mind needs to be well rested in order to function properly during the exam. This is why last minute cramming can actually be detrimental to your overall performance, as you are not giving your mind time to digest the material and relax before the exam. Further, you may want to mentally picture yourself writing the exam and doing well. The basic idea is to boost your confidence before setting the pen to the page. In her book Keys for Writers, Ann Raimes suggests that "students think positively about what they know" (155). The goal is to be relaxed, poised and confident.

There are other elements important to your success in writing the exam. You want to be physically comfortable, as well as mentally prepared. Layering your clothing will allow you to adjust to the overall temperature of the room. Also, you should have working pens and pencils that you like to write with, as well as extra stationary supplies such as liquid paper, erasers and/or coloured pens for underlining. The last thing you need to be worrying about while writing the exam is whether or not your ink is going to run out. It is also a good idea to wear a watch, as not all classrooms have clocks. This can be important while writing an exam, as it allows you to budget your time, giving the questions that are worth more marks more of your time.

Although unnecessary, many students rely on a good luck charm to get them through exams. These charms range from lucky pens, to pieces of jewelry and small stuffed animals. There is not proof that such a charm is beneficial, and it can in fact be detrimental to your overall performance if you become dependant on that charm. One Theatre History student (who wishes to remain anonymous) claims that she has only failed one exam in her university career, and it was due to the fact that she did not have her lucky "hedgehog" with her. One could argue that she should not have grown so attached to the charm in the first place, and that it was actually poor study habits that caused her downfall. This same student does admit to not studying for that exam. She also claims, however, that she "never studies for exams", and honestly believes that if her lucky charm had been there, she never would have failed the exam. The point is you have to do what is necessary for you to get through the exam with confidence. If this includes wearing a certain pair of socks, or rubbing a lucky rock, then by all means go right ahead. Just be careful that you don't become dependant on your charm to pass an exam, or else not having it could cause you to fail even if you are fully prepared.

Dr. Hoffman has stated that one of the biggest mistakes students make when writing one of his exams is "not answering the question properly." He feels that many students "don’t read the question thoroughly and only end up answering half of the question" (Hoffman, interview). It becomes extremely important when first faced with the exam to read the question thoroughly in order to fully understand the question. Failing to do this could impair your answer as you may leave out crucial points. Also, by not reading the question, you run the risk of straying off topic. Dr. Hoffman pointed this out as being a common mistake. Writing on a tangent subject indicates two things to Dr. Hoffman: either you did not read the question thoroughly enough, or you do not know what you are talking about. Having Dr. Hoffman think either of these things of you will not help you get a good grade on your exam.

In his book Handbook For Writers, by Glen Leggett, he suggests "that you identify the task you are being asked to perform and that you underline key words in the exam question to help you focus" (Leggett, 494). Often students are not sure of what is being asked of them. The following list of key words taken from The Process of Writing may help you decipher what is expected of you on your exam:

ANALYSE: "to take apart"

COMPARE: Look for qualities and characteristics that resemble each other.

CONTRAST: Present differences.

CRITICIZE: Don’t just find fault - add your opinions and discuss.

DISCUSS: Analyze, examine, present pros and cons. You will get good marks if you are complete and thorough.

EXPLAIN: Be concise and clear.

ILLUSTRATE: Give examples, use quotes or paraphrase.

JUSTIFY: Give evidence.

LIST: Present a list within the essay.

RELATE: Emphasize the relationships, connections, or associations between two things.

REVIEW: Critical examination.

SUMMARIZE: Condense.

TRACE: Description given from beginning to end, chronologically.

Once you have read the question, and underlined the key words, you should review the question one last time. After completing this step, it is a good idea to decide which question you wish to do first. On Dr. Hoffman’s exams, you are always given a choice between three or four questions, of which you usually have to write two. Most books say that you should do the easiest questions first, and build your confidence for the other questions. In Dr. Hoffman’s exam, it is not a question of choosing the "easiest" question, but rather, choosing the question that you know the most about. Dr. Hoffman feels that the questions you choose illustrate your "areas of strength" (Hoffman, interview). You should write on the subjects that you know the most about first. In addition to being a great confidence booster, writing about your strongest point guarantees that you will get a decent grade on at least one of your answers.

Dr. Hoffman stated that he gets "somewhat nervous about students who immediately start writing their essay without outlining first" (Hoffman, interview). Outlining can be crucially important in fully answering the exam question. In an exam you do not have time to write a complete rough draft, and so your outline takes its place. As well, outlining gives you the room you need to maneuver information and ideas before committing them to paper. It is best if you "do not start writing out sentences immediately as this may confine you to the first thing that comes to your mind" (Messenger and Taylor, 63). Instead, try jotting your ideas on a scratch page, and begin in the middle, so that you can write related ideas above and around as well as below. This type of web diagramming (as illustrated previously) can help you form your ideas and develop your thesis. In their book Essentials of Writing, William Messenger and Peter Taylor suggest setting up a table of six columns with the headings Who, What, When, Where, How and Why (256), as answering these questions can direct your thoughts and focus your thesis. They also suggest that you come up with a title for your essay. This can help you stay on track and give you a firm starting point.

Developing your thesis becomes a central element in writing your essay. Dr. Hoffman likes "clear, logical, thesis statements." While the essay exam differs from the standard exam in that your time is short, your thesis statement should remain strong. A coherent and strong thesis will give you a firm ground to stand on when writing your essay. Messenger and Taylor suggest that you write your introduction at the end of your essay but to always start with a thesis statement (63). The reason for this is that many students have difficulty forming the introduction around their thesis statement. At the end of the essay, you will have a better idea of what to cover in your introduction.

As time will be tight, it is a good idea to have possible thesis statements mentally prepared before stepping into the exam room. This will give you more time during the exam to develop the points you wish to make. By removing this first step, you "pare down the processes to a minimum" (Raimes, 155), giving yourself time to develop that thesis into a clear and complete essay.

As well as a strong introductory paragraph with a clear thesis, it is important that you develop your ideas fully within the body of your essay. You will want to avoid "padding" and transgression from the subject, as Dr. Hoffman is aware that only unprepared students have to rely on these methods to bulk up their exam essays. It is also important, as it is on any essay, to end with a strong conclusion. A weak conclusion may hinder your final grade, as it is the last thing that is going to be read. It is a good idea to keep basic essay writing strategies in mind while writing an essay exam.

Finally, it is important to try and avoid technical errors while writing an essay exam. In his interview, Dr. Hoffman told us that he is put off by technical errors, and if they are abundant enough, he will dock marks for them. Dr. Hoffman puts a lot of emphasis on writing style, and even states how important writing style is right on the exam. As well, you should try for good penmanship, as you do not want to frustrate the person you are writing for.

Now that you are done your exam, and there is still half an hour left - what should you do? Most students, ecstatic that they are finally finish the exam, race out of the room, delirious with relief. They should have taken the time, however, to read over their exam. Many small errors can be caught and corrected in the last few minutes of exam, errors that could mean the difference between a "B" and a "B+". If you have time at the end of your exam, you should use it to quickly do any revisions that may be necessary.

After the exam is over and handed in, there is only one thing you can do to help improve your grade for your next exam. Wait until you get your exam back, and then examine it to determine where your strengths and weakness were. By eliminating your weak points, you will do that much better on the next exam.

At the end of our interview with Dr. Hoffman, we asked if there were any books or style guides he would suggest to students for his exams. There was nothing he could suggest to us specifically. Instead, Dr. Hoffman suggested that students just read a lot of good writing, and attempt to assimilate good writing styles into their work.

Perhaps we should have mentioned earlier that getting an "A" on Dr. Hoffman’s Theatre History exams is not an easy task. Few students manage to achieve it. We also believe, however, that with fervent discipline, patience, and perhaps a few extra cups of java, that "A" is not as unobtainable as it may appear. You just have to be willing to work for it. Too often students forget that they are their own biggest asset in the quest for a great grade. Attend class. Take good notes. Review for understanding those notes. Study hard. Write a great essay on your exam. These are the steps necessary to ace a Theatre History essay exam.

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