Test-Taking Strategies: Essay Tests
Preparing for essay
Taking essay tests
Before you write
- Begin your preparation by reading
your instructor's course description and syllabus and then writing down whatever
assumptions, biases, and teaching objectives are stated or implied in these materials.
Determine how the various course topics relate to one another and note any repeated
themes. Think about any potential essay questions you can generate from this information
and then write them down.
- Read assignments and listen to
lectures and discussions with the purpose of determining how the course content
supports the major themes and answers the major questions you have generated from
the course description and syllabus. Modify and refine these themes and questions
throughout the course as you gain additional information.
- At some point prior to the test
- preferably a week or two before - quickly look over your notes and the chapter
headings from your readings. From this overview, generate a list of major topics
for the course material covered. For each major topic, create a summary sheet of
all the relevant factual data that relate to that topic.
- In addition to learning the factual
material, determine any logical relationships among topics. These relationships
often predict essay test questions. For example, if in a history course, you find
that two politcal movements are noticeably similar, then your instructor may very
well ask you to compare and contrast the two movements. Generate a list of possible
essay questions and consider setting up and answering as many of these questions
as time permits.
While you write
- Read all essay questions before
you start to write. As ideas and examples come to you, jot them down on scratch
paper or on the back of the test so that you won't clutter your mind trying to remember
- Budget your time according to
the point value of each question, allowing time for proofreading and any unexpected
emergencies (such as taking longer than you expected on a question or going blank
for a while.)
- As you read the questions, underline
key words (eg., compare, explain, justify, define) and make sure you understand
what and how you are being asked to answer the question.
- Begin with the questions that
seem easiest to you. This procedure reduces anxiety and facilitates clear thinking.
- Before actually writing, determine
the relationship implied by the question, even if the key word or words do not express
a specific relationship. For example, if you were given the following question -
"The Progressive Movement was a direct response to the problems of industrialization.
Discuss." - you might narrow your response to a more specific cause/effect relationship
like the following:"What were the problems of industrialization that caused a response
that we label The Progressive Movement?"
- After determing the relationship
implied by the question, picture the relationship by creating a chart or matrix
of the related elements. Be sure to separate general issues you wish to bring up
from supporting details and examples. Once this framework for your ideas has been
created, generate as many ideas as you can within the allotted time to fill in the
categories you have established.
After you write
- Be sure your answer has a definite
thesis/theme that directly answers the question. State this thesis within the first
few sentences of your answer.
- Provide specific as well as general
information in your response by including examples, substantiating facts, and providing
relevant details from your pre-writing matrix.
- Use the technical vocabulary
of the course.
- Leave space for additions to
your answer by writing on every other line and on only one side of each page.
- Write legibly.
- If your mind goes blank or you
don't know much about a question, relax and brainstorm for a few moments about the
topic. Recall pages from your texts, particular lectures, class discussions to trigger
your memory about ideas relevant to the question. Write these ideas down as coherently
as you can.
- When you reach the end of your
alloted time period for a given question, move on to the next item: partially answering
all questions is better than fully anwering some but not others. The instructor
can't give you any credit for a question you haven't attempted.
- If you find yourself out of time
on a question but with more to say, quickly write down in outline form what you
would write if you had time.
- Re-read your answers and make
any additions that are necessary for clarity and completeness.
- Check your response for errors
in grammar, spelling and punctuation.
Analyzing the results
- Read all comments and suggestions.
- Look for the origins of the questions.
Did most of the information your instrcutor expected on your essay come from the
lectures? from the texts? from outside readings?
- Determine the source of your
errors. Was there any course content tested for which you failed to prepare or were
inadequately prepared? Did you misread or misunderstand any of the questions? Did
you do poorly because you ran out of time? Were you too anxious to focus on the
questions and your responses? Did the instructor criticize your writing skills -
grammar, spelling, punctuation, sentence structure, style, or organization - or
how you developed or argued your points?
- Check the level of difficulty
or the level of detail of the test questions. Were most of the questions asking
for precise details or main ideas and principles? Did most of the quesitons come
straight fromt the material covered, or did the instructor expect you to be able
to analyze and/or evaluate the information? Did you have any problems with anxiety
or blocking during the test?