Essay Writing and Answering Exam Questions

Explanatory Notes for Isaac Field (by C. Field 19/4/2013)

While writing essays and answering exam questions appears to a student to be merely a process of evaluation imposed by the school system it is much more than that. Essay writing and written answers to questions rely upon skills that are highly valuable in life and career.

These explanatory notes will explain some of the key issues related to essay writing and written answers to questions, hopefully prompting intelligent development and application of the appropriate skills, not just in the school context but into adult life and career.

1.         Core Skills.

The core skills relied upon in writing essays and exam answers, and throughout the rest of your life, are:
a) Observation, comprehension, understanding and memory of the source content under investigation (book, movie, article) and the exam question or essay topic, including ability to make relevant quotations.
b) Analysis, reflection, interpretation, evaluation and re-expression of the ideas conveyed or prompted by the source content under investigation and also in the exam question or essay topic.
c) Comparison of ideas or expressions, which shows that you have observed and comprehended and also interpreted and analysed what you have observed, seeing the distinctions between the elements being compared.
d) Communication, organisation of thought, clear expression and convincing argument.
e) Extent of ideas, including originality and insight, arguments for and against a point, ability to accommodate various and divergent perceptions and keep them in balance and how widely read and rich the student’s information is.
f) Underlying language tools, such as spelling, grammar, vocabulary, technical terminology, clarity (without ambiguity or vagueness) and presentation skills.

2.         Presentation.

While this may seem a lesser consideration it is true that clarity of presentation requires clarity of thought and so it is always a good starting point.

Note that this article starts with a Heading, followed by a sub-heading, and includes identification of the author and date. The opening sentences explain the subject matter of the article and its purpose. A reader will quickly know whether they wish to read this article or if it is the one they were seeking.

Poorly identified documents can be overlooked or lost or fail to get the attention they deserve.

This is not an exam skill, but a requisite life skill, to clearly and accurately identify documents and the content therein. Get into the habit of doing this automatically whether required or not. If it is inappropriate make the exception for that answer.

At the top of your essay or assignment put the relevant information of Subject, Class, Topic, your name, date and so on.

Eg: SOCIAL SCIENCE, Yr 10, Mid Term Exam, Cultural Diversity, May 5, 2014, Billy Smith Class 10J.
Question 1: Primary Culture in Australia.
While cultural diversity exists within communities and even within each cultural group there is usually a primary culture overriding all other cultural elements. In Australia that primary culture can be seen …….

3.         Clarity.

The first sentence or two in an essay or exam answer should (unless a very short answer is required) restate the topic or question in some way, so the reader or examiner can be confident you are answering the right question.

This is also a checkpoint for yourself, to ensure you are doing the right thing. There is no prize for writing an exam question where you wrongly understood the question.

4.         Interpret the Question or Topic.

If you get the question wrong or do not fully answer it you are throwing points away and wasting your time.

Observe what the question or topic asks, interpret it, keep all the parts in mind and in their place, organise your thoughts and then express them effectively.

Eg: Assignment Question – Using Examples from the Source Material (Text / Article / Chapter) Describe two different processes that produce the result.
Note that this question asks for EXAMPLES and DESCRIPTION of TWO things that are DIFFERENT. You must provide all those elements or you cannot expect your optimum score.

If you are struggling to answer a question, at least show the examiner that you UNDERSTAND the question. Refer to the elements mentioned in the question (examples, description, 2, different).

5.         Do what is Required. Follow Instructions.

Most essay and exam questions will ask for a specific performance from the student.

One level of question simply asks you to Describe or Give Examples. This checks that you know the material. Quotations, summary statements and listing the core elements of the material will be helpful here, to show that you do know the material.

Another level of question asks you to Discuss, Address, Analyse, Compare or Explain something. This type of question checks your ability to analyse, comprehend, see the implications, make assessments, filter the material through some kind of lens or otherwise interpret the material.
In most classes teachers tend to feed students sufficient examples of what is required such that an astute student can usually pass an exam by re-presenting those thoughts already presented in class.

Higher level students will have taken the teacher’s observations and promptings as a springboard for their own insights and analysis, and their essay or answer to a question will include original thought, and/or more widely read understanding, likely gaining them higher marks.

Be sure you keep an eye on the question and do what it asks. If you must give 2 examples, then do so. If you must present your own thoughts or impressions then do so.

Eg: Exam Question: 10 Second Dash.
“You have 10 seconds only to answer this question.
Read the whole question before answering.
State Your First Name: ________________.
Year you started at this school: __________________.
Current Class: ______________________.
Favourite Sport: _________________.
Mother’s maiden name: ________________.
Father’s Occupation: _______________________.
Names of Siblings: ________________________________________________.
Hair Colour: _______________________.
Do not write anything on this page.”

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