Friday, July 9, 2010

Essay Exams. Another Academic Task that Requires Research

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach.

Apply everything I have written from May 16 through July 2, 2010 to be successful with essay exams. That says it all. Here, the lesson endeth. See you next week!

Okay, I’m being glib, and you expect me to explain so I will.

A professor or a boss asks you to write and expects you to
1. demonstrate your knowledge
2. demonstrate your reasoning skills
3. demonstrate writing proficiency

Do these purposes sound familiar? I hope so. If they do, you have been paying attention during the long eight-part series about research papers—a dry subject with many tedious details.

When that series began, on May 16, I declared that writing well requires knowledge. On May 23 and 30, I added information about reasoning, and on June 25 and July 2, the posts were about style and formatting; i.e., writing skills. These five posts match the three expectations listed above. They are your reader/evaluator’s expectations and the extent to which you meet them separates A-essays from C’s.

To use the current overused expression, with no apologies for doing so, the gorilla in the room is that an essay exam is writing on demand in a short period of time. Students protest that they do not have the luxury of time in which to gather information, take notes, examine the prompt, apply their knowledge, or prepare a draft for revision, but in fact, they do.

Gathering Information. In a classroom, that is your primary task: to gather information by reading assigned books and articles, attending class regularly, listening, and taking notes. Every class period is a period in which you gather information.

Your teacher or professor has earned a degree and (we sincerely hope) given considerable thought to tasks he or she puts before you. The instructor has created a road map leading from Point A—person without knowledge on the subject—to Point B—person with considerable knowledge on the subject. Your job is to travel the route mapped out. Thus, for an essay exam, you gather information during every class and homework hour whereas for a documented essay, you prepare on your own during every block of time you set aside for that purpose.

Taking Notes. For each task—the essay exam and the research paper—you must take notes. As you read homework and listen to lectures or discussions, you record what you read and hear for the same reasons that you take notes while conducting research: writing helps us discover and remember. (I recommend reviewing the blog post for June 6 for a more thorough discussion of note-taking.) Your homework and classroom notes will help you discover major motifs, designs, patterns, and themes in the subject; your notes will help you remember them and the details that prove them. Day by day, note by note, you are gathering information that becomes knowledge that will be demonstrated in an essay exam.

Examining the prompt. Annotate (mark up) the prompt unless you are given specific instructions not to do so. Search for the key verb. Have you been directed to explain, list and explain, defend, compare or contrast? Once you identify that word, circle or underline it, then jot down a tentative thesis: The purpose of this essay is to compare Hamlet and Macbeth, and the areas of consideration will be that each possesses heroic qualities, encounters the supernatural, leading each to question his purpose, and each dies as a result of treachery. (You may wish to refer back to the June 20 post for an organizational plan and thesis for a Hamlet-Macbeth comparison essay.) Re-read the tentative thesis. Ask yourself if it answers the demands of the prompt. If you are satisfied that you are on topic, then quickly list evidence to support each area of consideration. That evidence is you proving your knowledge. The pieces of evidence you select and the order is which you present them prove your reasoning skill.

Preparing a Draft. An essay exam is just that—a draft of an essay that could be longer, more polished, and perfected if given more time. Thus, do not paralyze yourself be thinking matters of style are crucial for success.

Style matters though. The more you practice, the more likely it is that anaphora will appear, even in drafts. The more you know, the more likely it is that you will be able to offer analogies and images. So write, write, write in order to produce first drafts under timed conditions that you can be proud to hand in for evaluation.

Still, you should try to eliminate as many errors as possible. Use your time wisely, leaving three to five minutes to proofread your essay answers. Mouth the words without making any sound (you mustn’t disturb other test-takers). Force your eye and hand to slow down by mouthing the words and thereby noticing when you have omitted a word that needs to be added or misspelled a word that needs to be scratched out and rewritten. Proofreading will reduce the evaluator’s impression that there are numerous distracting errors, allowing him or her to focus upon content, not writing skills.

Tell ‘Em What You’re Gonna Tell ‘Em, Tell ‘Em and Tell ‘Em Whatcha Told ‘Em. My speech teacher and soon-to-become debate coach as a freshman in college gave me the advice in bold font above. He was right, and his advice holds for essays, too, especially essay exams. Your essay exam reader has many to read. Do him or her a favor while protecting yourself: announce your thesis (tell ‘em what you’re gonna tell ‘em), prove your thesis (tell ‘em), and restate your thesis in your conclusion (tell ‘em whatcha told ‘em). Following this advice will insure that your own essay stays on topic. After all, if you write a different point in the conclusion, you know you have shifted course while developing the essay and need to apply patches and fixes during proofreading. Following my coach’s advices will also insure that your reader knows what your point is; he will not have to infer or draw conclusions.

Grammar, Usage, and Mechanics (GUM)

One of the mistakes that my students make when writing essay exam answers is writing one big lump without paragraphs. Do not make the same mistake. Paragraphing is a sign that you are organized, that you understand how one topic is a subset of a larger point. In other words, paragraphing is proof that you, the writer, possess reasoning skills. So even though your essay answer may be fewer than 1,000 words, do not present it as one large chunk. Indent to begin new paragraphs, and you should have at least three: 1) the introduction wherein the thesis will appear, 2) the proof of your knowledge in one or more body paragraphs that prove or disprove the thesis, and 3) the conclusion wherein your will restate your thesis.

Another mistake that my students make is opening their answers with a fragment. For example:

Essay Prompt: Explain why Michael Shaara developed General Longstreet as a sad, somewhat isolated figure during the final assault on Union forces dug in behind a rock wall at Gettysburg.

Poor Example: Because Longstreet cared more about the soldier than about winning that day at Gettysburg. Lee seemed to believe that manpower was an inexhaustible resource . . . .

The fragment or dependent clause that opens the “poor example” essay does not clearly declare the answer (thesis). Not only has the student made a serious usage error, he or she has not fully answered the demands of the prompt.

Better Example: To emphasize the difference between General Lee’s and General Longstreet’s approaches to battle strategy, Michael Shaara, author of The Killer Angels, portrays Longstreet as a man on the sidelines in Lee’s staff, one who is deeply saddened by the expected losses at Gettysburg. Lee seemed to believe that manpower was an inexhaustible resource and the cost of war whereas Longstreet believed that . . . .

The better example is a complete answer in one sentence, and the reader has no doubt that the answer clearly links to the prompt. That is the goal. All that remains is for the writer to prove detailed knowledge that will back up the first sentence.

Reading Challenge

If you have not already done so, read the three works used to illustrate thesis statements. These are Hamlet and Macbeth by William Shakespeare and The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara.

Writing Challenge:

If you have done what you should do as a student, you will have an extensive set of notes for the homework you have read and the lectures or discussions you have heard. Go through the notes, highlighting major themes, motifs, patterns, and concepts for the subject. Then, write your own essay exam prompts. By doing so, you are not only reviewing the course material, you are preparing for the next essay exam. Reward yourself with your favorite treat every time you anticipate the exam items correctly.