Posts Tagged university
So we know that preparation is important if you want your essays to win. We discussed how sitting an exam is a battle to win marks by persuading your marker. You’re the General – that’s your job.
So if you’re the General, what’s the essay? Your essay is your army. The war metaphor is one that I find useful because it provides an analogy for different levels of functionality within your essay. Here’s the extended metaphor (great for those of you studying English Literature):
- The whole essay is your army. If the essay is pointed in the right direction, answers the question, and the sub-parts work together well, then that is what will win the war for the marks.
- Paragraphs are regiments of troops. Each deployed regiment has a specific aim – they provide developed ‘mini-arguments’ and evidence to back up the overall thrust of the essay.
- Each word is a warrior and sentences are ranks of “word-troops”. There are different types of warriors, with different advantages and disadvantages. You want to use them in a combination that allows each to them to combine their strengths and minimise any weaknesses. We’ll go into diction, syntax, and other aspects of expression in future posts.
How do you organise your ideas to get the most marks out of them? We’ll go into more specific strategies at various levels in the army in future posts, but here’s one broad one to get you started:
Set your troops in formations based on concepts that you are discussing. Know what piece of “intellectual ground” the words and sentences have to hold – enable them to capture the key ideas and express them compellingly on paper. This clever manoeuvring and structuring will surpass the effectiveness of the individual words themselves.
There are different types of ideas/concepts/components that you should structure your essay around to get maximum marks, but for that you have to understand SEX (the sequel is here). To discover another simple trick that can dramatically improve your essays, go to “Cooking up the perfect essay”.
Now you’re thinking more like a General, you’ll be able to make the strategic decisions that earn more marks.
“Onwards and upwards!”
When you sit an exam, you’re going to war: it’s a war to win marks and glory – well, you want the marks anyway. So get a determined attitude, then become a canny general and marshal your resources to win the war. Here’s a piece of advice from Sun Tzu, the famous ancient military strategist and author of “The Art of War”:
“The general who wins the battle makes many calculations in his temple before the battle is fought. The general who loses makes but few calculations beforehand.”
What does it mean? If you want to win – prepare! You’ve probably been told this before (many times). “Use your time before the exam well; because you won’t get it back again”. “Time will be one thing you’ll wish you have more of in the exam” etc. It’s all true, but what can you do to prepare effectively – and how can you maximise the return on your time?
Preparing for war
Build up an inventory of resources in your mind so that you have a range of content to draw upon during the exam. Importantly, this will also decrease your nerves on the day and increase your confidence.
There are two categories of resources that you can store up in your mind:
- Firstly, know what literary techniques you can write about; be able to discuss key sections of the text, know some good examples of important devices that develop the text. For essays in subjects other than English Literature, know some good examples of studies, facts etc. that prove important points.
- Secondly, understand the themes of set texts – have a firm grasp of these themes; you need to be able to write fluently about them. Know multiple themes, or interpretations, if possible. Be well-equipped to respond to a range of essay questions. For other subjects, this translates to understanding theories, models, philosophies and schools of thought.
Note: you don’t need to memorise these inputs for your essay word-for-word, you just need to be able to call them to memory on the day. If you can remember the gist of them and then string them into an eloquent essay body paragraph under pressure, then that is enough. These are the bulk of the essay that you wrap around the quotations – you memorised these, remember).
- If you have to memorise key words, try adapting the Quote Sheet technique to learn these.
- Also try mind mapping to quickly get an overview of how the concepts link together – you can also depict models and theories in diagrams. Discover what works for you.
Train yourself too, General. (Guess what that means…*)
Preparation of resources and your knowledge, plus preparation of yourself will make you a formidable force in the essay war.
“Go get ‘em”.
Here’s another way to make you a black belt in writing essays in exams: hone your technical analysis skills.
Why is this important?
Technical analysis ability is obviously important for Literature essays where you are given an unfamiliar text in the exam. However, it’s a valuable skill for all essay-writers, including those who write on other subjects besides English Literature.
As every essay ninja knows, if you “give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; if you teach a man to fish…”. Similarly, if you “give a student a pre-prepared essay, you help them scrounge a mark; but give a student technical analysis skills and they can adapt, write on anything, and thrive.” Using memorised and regurgitated essays in exams results in insubstantial pieces of writing that don’t fit well with what the question asks. It’s a risky one-hit-wonder approach – you’ve got to pray that you’ll get the right question on the right text (or theory or topic in other subjects). It also takes ages to memorise the content. Using technical analysis skills saves time – which can then be used for other things!
Please note: knowing which questions are likely for the given texts is a very good thing, but it’s only the beginning. It’s an aide to focus your study on the most critical material. However, your study should aim to develop the skills to write well, not recall second-hand ideas well. Examiners what to know whether you can think, not just what you think.
How do you develop this valuable skill?
- Have a list of techniques that you have memorised and understand comfortably. Can you explain each technique and think of an example for each one?
- Give yourself a quick injection of Analysis practice using short texts: tear poems apart (not literally – although it’s tempting at times).
- Master the art of scribbling bullet-point essay plans in the margins around a poem:
- these should be quick to do, so that you have plenty of time to write the actual essay
- they should be detailed enough to guide your whole essay
- use short hand and key words
- You also need to be able to read them!
- Check your progress by asking yourself “Am I able to write a compelling essay based on the notes I’ve made?”
As always, do use this study method under pressure. Is there enough pressure on you to do that yet?
Keep studying hard – it’ll all be over soon. 🙂
How do you learn the content, understand the concepts, and be able to prove it to the marker; while studying for three other exams and spending long periods staring out the window?
Just write the plan.
Take one of the topics that you have worked out could come up, and write an essay question for it. Look at previous exam papers for the general format of the questions that may come up. Then plan how you would answer it. You can use a pretty mind map if you like.
Introduction: The most important part of the essay, it is a good idea to write this out in full (or close to it).
Body paragraphs: Write the topics sentences for the first and last lines of your paragraphs. Fill up the middle with bullet points of what you are going to cover, and refer to the evidence that you will reference to back up your points.
Conclusion: You can either write this in full or follow the same format as for the body paragraphs. Practice writing clear concise sentences that sum up your arguments.
Next week I’ll post an example essay plan.
This method allows you to formulate arguments quickly for possible essay questions; but make sure you write a few timed essays too. It is always good to have a dress rehearsal before the big performance.
“You can’t study for English exams”. I’ve heard this supposed axiom uttered many times. Well, actually, yes you can study for English, although I agree that the strategies are quite different to those for other subjects. Here’s a quick overview of some that I’ve used, they can be adapted to suit other essay-based subjects too. We’ll go into more detail on these in future, but here are some pointers to start off with.
1) Know the themes of the set texts
2) Know the important techniques used in the texts
3) Memorise some quotations
4) Hone your technical analysis skills
5) Practice writing under pressure!
On that last point: there is absolutely no substitute for this! You will be examined by having to write an essay under time pressure; so practice writing an essay under time pressure. Exams come with deadly deadlines, so your study strategies should address the critical issue of TIME PRESSURE. For all other study tasks, spend only the smallest amount of time necessary to get to this all-important practice stage. You will not be asked to carefully craft beautiful study notes in the exam! To ease the burden slightly, I suggest you start this phase of your study by writing practice paragraphs and then doing a few full essays closer to the exam.
Yes, I know writing academic essays under pressure can be painful initially, but once you get into it, it really isn’t that bad. All you think about is what you’re writing and the time that’s left; you don’t have room in your mind to mull over how repulsive the exercise first seemed. Besides, this is one of the most effective ways to study, so you don’t need to spend so much time studying overall to get the same result. Thus, it will actually free up your time to do other things. That’s what I like – “work hard, play hard”.
All the best for you studies!
In the last post, we looked at how to improve an essay’s body paragraphs by using the SEX acronym. The best way to explain SEX though, is to give a demonstration. Here’s an example body paragraph from an essay on the poem “Rising Five” by Norman Nicholson. I wrote this in Year 12 (for Cambridge AS English). It’s not perfect, but it’s a verbatim example which will be relevant to many of our followers. I’m open to your comments and suggestions. Take a look and see what you think…
Although the form of the poem is comparatively erratic in the previous stanza, the next is more traditional in layout – it is here that a subtle shift in the mood of the piece can first be detected. The opening line is a startling image of how, over time, changes occur and perfectly suitable opportunities are lost as we grow up; we push them into the past just as “new buds push the old leaves from the bough”. The simile in the next line coincides with this image: “we drop our youth behind us like a boy throwing away his toffee-wrappers.” Verbs like “push” and “drop” have negative connotations, while even the nouns “youth” and “boy” may show the naivety of ignoring the present. After “toffee-wrappers”, caesura is used to show that the past and all its choices are cut off from and inaccessible to us humans who inhabit the present. It is ironic that people often desire to be younger again when they are adults – this backs up the poet’s argument that we need to make prudent decisions about what we do with each day; once we have decided, we can never get that day back again.
SEX in practice:
See how the evidence to support the statement comes in “couples”? Examples are paired with supporting explanations. These pairs of Evidence back up the Statement made in the first sentence (red text). Broadly categorising the parts of the paragraph, there are three Examples (orange text) and three eXplanations (green text). The more SEX in a paragraph, the better! However, don’t overwhelm the reader with a mammoth paragraph – break it up into digestible chunks. Be nice to your reader!
So there’s an overview of how to use the SEX acronym in essays. Can you see how this will enable you to write more compelling paragraphs, and therefore stronger essays?
How do you do it?
Well it starts right now. For the Southern Hemisphere, Term 4 has started and exams are just around the corner for both high school and university. Kill Facebook, tear yourself away from House, Glee, the view out the window, and whatever else you have found that is so much better than study, and let’s hit the books.
Unlike other examination methods, it can be hard to know where to start when it comes to studying for an exam essay. One of the reasons essays are set in exams is because it is one of the best ways for a marker to assess whether you understand what you have been learning the over the year or semester. The reason they don’t just give you another assignment essay is because, as my Management lecture says, it is harder to cheat in an exam. Don’t take that as an invitation to try and prove him wrong!
Anyway we now have a purpose, demonstrate our understanding of the subject. In order to do this, you must first know what you need to know. Sounds simple but you hear it every year, “I didn’t know that was going to be in exam…” So find out. Most lecturers give away hints, tips, and the rough topics that their essays questions will cover. After all, they would rather read hundreds of beautifully structured persuasive essays at 4am in the morning, than sorry attempts that try and bluff their way through a question (and subject) the writer didn’t understand.
Sometimes however, you don’t have a nice Management lecturer who pretty much tells the class what the essay questions will be. Most courses have learning outcomes, so find them, read them, know them, understand them. Use these learning outcomes to break the subject into topics that you could be asked to write an essay on. If it is an English essay, then you will be looking at the themes and characters of the work you are studying.
One other thing that can aid you in focusing your study is looking at past paper questions, but be very careful about making too many assumptions based on what topics were used in previous exams. Christabel was an unfortunate surprise for many of us in the IGSCE English exam!
What you have done is taken the large overall topic and broken it down into areas of focus. This may remove topics that you don’t need to know for the exam, which is great – you don’t want to do any more work than is necessary! Use these topics to plan your study. Instead of saying, tomorrow I will spend 45 minutes studying English, plan that you will spend 45 minutes on the character Bosola from The Duchess of Malfi (only ever read this play if you have to!). This leads us nicely onto next week’s post – now we know what we need to know, how do we study it?
How do you find and work out what you should study for your exams?