This is really relevant to exam essays as there is no value in simply writing down all you know to prove you’ve learnt it. In essay exams you have limited time and you’re not necessarily going to get marks for listing a lot of information. As this workshop will emphasise marks are given for showing you can make sense of the question and relate it to course issues and readings.
Writing exam essays follows a similar procedure to that used when writing any other essay. You need to use structure, organisation, evidence and a clear line of reasoning. Without these you will get very few marks for content. Given that many students have to write essays throughout semester time you may question the point of essays in exams. However, exam essays test your ability to analyse a topic and answer a question. This includes how well you articulate your ideas and argument. They also test your ability to support an argument using evidence and think critically about the concepts, theories and issues covered in your course. Like any other essay, exam essays require you to write clearly and expressively, synthesise information and organise your thoughts on paper. So here are STUDYSmarter’s three top tips for writing better exam essays. Firstly, before you get to your exam know your stuff. Secondly, practise practise, practise and thirdly, during the exam read, plan, write and check.
Exam questions can delve pretty far into the course materials so it is important that you keep up with the readings, lectures and assignments from the beginning of the course.
Successful exam takers should be prepared for anything reasonable and will generally know their stuff. Knowing your stuff involves following unit outlines, clarifying important issues of the course and using these to focus your understanding of specific facts and particular readings. Understanding content requires you to do the reading as indicated in the unit outline. Keeping up with the reading while related content is being discussed in lectures and tutorials saves you double the effort later. Address your weaknesses by recognising what you don’t know and work hard to improve your understanding. And revise actively. Engage in a variety of learning strategies and try to do something with the information such as discussing it with others, summarising it and brainstorming potential essay questions. Past exam papers can be used to get an idea of the depth and breadth of study required. Analyse past exam papers by paying attention to instructions, topics and form of the questions. You can access past exam papers from course materials online. In addition to analysing past exam essay questions, use them to practise writing answers. It is important to keep in mind that exam formats and course content may change over time, so don’t assume past papers will be identical to the exam you sit. However, practising writing exam essays can assist your preparation by increasing your knowledge and understanding of certain topics and by getting you familiar with the format of the exam itself. You can also prepare by considering nightmare questions, that is, questions you would not like to see in the exam, and practicing answering them.
While practising under exam conditions may seem pointless to some of you, this activity is beneficial in that it highlights what you can accomplish in a specific time frame, allows you to
test yourself and monitor progress, and boost your confidence that you can write what you need to in a given time frame. Developing a time plan ahead of time is also very useful. Consider the number of sections and mark allocation and distribute your time accordingly. Don’t forget, that in addition to writing you also need to allow time to read, plan and check your work, This will be discussed in more detail shortly. When practising under exam conditions, and on the exam day itself, there is a planning process you can use to gather your ideas and thoughts about what you need to include in your essay.
Planning an exam essay involves four key tasks: analysing the question, brainstorming key ideas, developing an outline and writing a thesis statement. Say you had to write four essays in three hours. You may spend up to 10 minutes on this planning process for each of your essays. You may feel this is too long, however, lecturers often comment that when students don’t do well in essay exams it’s because they didn’t answer the question and/or their answers weren’t well-structured. Therefore, a quick plan of up to 10 minutes can be of great benefit. Let’s examine these benefits by considering each of the four key tasks. Analyzing the question involves spending up to three minutes getting clear about what is being asked, identifying what you need to do and what the question means. Examine the tasks words or active verbs that tell you what you should be doing with the topic. The topic word should stand out straight away as it will relate to key concepts or content covered in the unit. The scope words indicate how to restrict the content of your essay and narrow the scope of your discussion. Take a look at this example essay question and see if you can identify the task, topic and scope words.
Critically and evaluate are the task words
These words indicate that you are being asked to examine the case for and against the topic and state your position. The topic words and focus of this essay will be an examination of whether the message that drinking alcohol and driving do not mix is being heeded. There are two distinct limits around the scope of this essay. The essay will be limited to a discussion of
young people living within the state of Western Australia. The second key task in the planning process involves spending a few minutes brainstorming ideas and asking questions about the topic This involves noting relevant points and key ideas in light of lectures, readings and tutorial discussions, and asking questions about the topic and its various parts. Asking who, what, where, when, why and how questions will help you to think about your answer. Consider some questions that might need answering in relation to our practice example. Questions might relate to how the message is being delivered, what is meant by the term ‘young people’, what evidence suggests that the message is or isn’t being received and how does Western Australia’s situation compare to other states, is this significant and why? The third task in the planning process involves developing an outline of your essay by considering how all the key ideas from your brainstorm will best fit together. Spend around two minutes organising your thoughts so that your essay flows and its key ideas are logical. Many students find it useful to create a short topic outline or draw a mind map to organise their thoughts.
Categorise your main points and group related ideas together. Prioritise your main points, keeping in mind that marks are often allocated for covering a number of essential items so avoid becoming sidetracked by less important points. Number the main points in the order you will discuss them these will then become the focus of your paragraphs.
The final task in the planning process is to write a thesis statement
A good thesis statement is a one-sentence answer to the question posed. Thus, it is concise and provides a clear statement of the direction your essay will take, the position it will argue or the focus it will have. Not only should it address the topic of the essay, but it should also limit its scope and a good thesis statement should also be supported with appropriate evidence and examples. Look at our practice essay question again. Below is an example of what you might write as a thesis statement. This essay will examine anti-drink driving campaigns in Western Australia and will present recent evidence that indicates adolescents in this state are not heeding the message that alcohol consumption and driving should be avoided. The 10 minutes you may have taken to plan your essay are certainly well spent because not only will they contribute to an organised and coherent essay, but they also provide you with a draft introduction A re-written question from your analysis will provide an orientation to the topic and show your understanding of the question. An outline of key points from your from your brainstorm will provide the reader with some background information. Your thesis statement will provide your general answer and position on the topic. You can also include your main points to outline the essay structure. Most of you will be familiar with the elements of an essay. You begin with the introduction that explicitly states your answer and familiarises the reader with the topic. You then move on to the body parts that will discuss each of your main points within separate paragraphs. And you finish with a conclusion that restates your central idea and indicates why it’s important. One of the most important factors when writing essays under exam conditions is the use of time. For each essay it is vital that you allow enough time to read, plan, write and review your work. For example, say you had to write four essays in a three hour exam. For each essay you might allocate up to 10minutes for planning (as we’ve seen in the previous section), 30 minutes for writing and five minutes for checking your work. But what about the reading time? Written exams at UWA have a recommended reading time of 10 minutes. You may commence writing whenever you want, however, you could use this time to carefully read the instructions, familiarise yourself with the questions and determine which ones you want to answer. You might also think about the best order to tackle them. You could also use reading time to jot down ideas that immediately come to mind. As previously outlined it is also very beneficial to spend some time planning each of your essays. The planning process that was discussed at length in the previous section highlighted the importance of analysing and brainstorming the question, developing an outline of how you can structure your essay and writing a thesis statement. Obviously the majority of your time will be spent writing your essays. When writing your essays ensure that you stay on topic, compare your plan to the question and ensure that you have not strayed off course in your planning. Follow your outline and don’t abandon structure and the usual essay writing techniques. Because of the speed at which markers work they appreciate answers with clear, well organised structures. Write legibly. While you probably won’t be graded on neatness, you could easily lose marks if your marker has a hard time reading your essays. Stick to your time plan and if you run out of the time you have allocated for one essay answer leave some space as there may be time to come back to it at the end. It is important that you leave time to check and review what you’ve written. Re-read and check your essays at the end. Don’t leave early. Use all the time you’ve been allocated. If you finish a 30 minute essay in 10 minutes you may need to develop some of your ideas more fully. When reviewing your answers, check that your writing is clear, complete and correct. When checking for clarity ask yourself if your argument it clear and are your main points easy to find and will your reader be able to follow your logic? When checking for completeness, check that you have answered the entire question and ask yourself is extra information needed to support your argument? Finally, ensure that your written work is correct. Are there grammatical errors, misspellings, incomplete words or sentences? Also, ensure that all dates and numbers are correct. If you can’t remember an exact date, for example, 1894, it is better to say toward the end of the 19th century. So remember to consider each of these four factors when preparing and sitting your essay exams. Essay exams are like any other testing situation in life, you’ll do it best if you know your stuff and are prepared for what is expected of you, you have practised doing it before and if you arrive in the best shape to do it ensuring you allocate time for reading, planning, writing and checking your work.