Archive for October, 2010

The proof is in the pudding: preparing for exam essays

 

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We all know they’re important. If you don’t have quotations, facts, or other types of evidence in your essay, your body paragraphs won’t prove your points (unless you make up quotations, which we don’t recommend). A Literature essay without quotations is like plum pudding without any plums (and everything around it has turned to custard too). So for exam essays, if you can’t take the text(s) into the exam with you, and you’re not going to get a text in the exam itself, you’ll have to memorise quotations.

Here’s what I did to memorise quotations – I’d create a “Quote Sheet’:

  1. Collect all the potentially useful quotations that you might use in the exam (go through essays you’ve already written on the topic, notes you’ve made in class, and find new ones from the text itself if necessary).
  2. Cull this list down to the bare essential quotations, without losing so much information that you won’t be able to write about key parts of the text. Keep quotations which are important and versatile. Quotations that demonstrate techniques and are launch-pads for thematic discussions are excellent quotations.
  3. Condense the quotations on your short list to acronyms based on key words, or perhaps draw symbols and pictograms to represent them. Yes, you can actually use txt language techniques in this academic setting, because you’re not writing these for the markers.
  4. MEMORISE these acronyms and symbols. Write them out a couple of times. Then test yourself: once you can write the list of memory aids very quickly, with no errors, and can then write out the full “translation” of the memory aid (without cheating), your quotation learning mission is complete.

Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to take a list of quotations into the exam with you? Well this excellent study tactic gives you the next best thing: you can write a memory-jogging list of acronyms and symbols in less than 2 minutes at the start of the exam. Then you can focus on writing your essays with confidence. Better yet, the process of creating this “Quote Sheet” will help you evaluate the key quotations in the text, process them deeply, and understand them better.

Sh – hm! (Study hard – happy memorising!)

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How to study without writing too many essays

You’re a student – you have a life (sort of!). Writing practice essays is the best form of study but you don’t have a lot of time.

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.

Study hard!

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Deadly deadlines: studying for exam essays

Studying for Exams

Studying for Exams

“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!

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SEX and Essays (Part II)

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?

 

 

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SEX and Essays

SEX spices up your essays. Once you’ve stated what an essay paragraph is about in an attractive way (using an opening topic sentence as mentioned in a previous post), you have to do something with the rest of the paragraph! Your mission is to expand on the topic sentence and develop the point of the paragraph. This point should answer the essay question and convince your marker to give you marks. To craft a convincing essay, you will need strong evidence. Evidence is made up of two components: Examples and Explanations of those examples. How can you remember to include all the elements that make up an effective paragraph? Think of SEX:

Just Joking R18 Statement
Example
eXplanation
(Many students find this acronym memorable for some unknown reason – it even seems to be more memorable than the logical acronym “SEE”!).

SEX gives you the framework to begin piecing together the evidence you need to develop your points. Examples show your content knowledge; they prove that you’ve done the research or read the text. They also show that you’re answering the question in some cases. For example, an essay question may ask you to specifically discuss imagery or sound devices. Each example is linked to an explanatory phrase which guides the reader to the essayist’s interpretation. This is where you show that you’re smart and that your analysis deserves marks. If you skip this important step, the marker is more likely to reach a different interpretation than yours and you will not score as highly.

So there’s an introduction to the art of developing your point. More on SEX is something to save for another time…

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Essays of the worst kind – know your enemy

You have a question, pen, paper, and a set amount of time to turn in an A+ essay. Then multiply that by 2, 3, or even 4 depending on how nice your teacher/examiner/lecturer is.

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?

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Essay vs Facebook – The never ending war


I just received an email from friend, who at this moment, is struggling to tear himself away from the amazing (and time consuming) hobby of Facebooking – if that is not a word yet, then I am sure it soon will be!

So how does one beat Facebook?

Here are three suggestions:
1. Go back to the Stone Age: take a pen and a piece of refill. Sit down with all your research and write the way your parents had to.

2. Kill your internet: without internet, Facebook (and any other online distractions…) will have no power over you. Print off all of your research, sit at your laptop, and type. No Facebook until you’re done!

3. Use positive reinforcement (good ol’ PSYCH 203): write one paragraph, then reward yourself with 5 minutes of Facebook. Then write another followed by the Facebook reward, and so on, until you’re done. Any other suitable reward works just as well. Personally I choose this option, and eat lots of chocolate!

So what do you do to prevent essay procrastination?

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Cooking up the perfect essay

Now that's a paragraph!

Mmm, hamburger...

Want higher marks for your essays, but don’t know where to start? Here’s a trick that I learned that makes your essays clear, coherent, and compelling: use “Topic Sentences”.

Topic sentences are one of the most important and powerful components of a functional essay. They are the first and last sentence of each body paragraph. Simply put, their role is to introduce the main argument of the paragraph, then, at its end, summarise the point of the paragraph and show how the point relates to your essay’s overall answer. Which would you prefer to read: a well-planned paragraph that is structured with the main idea stated in the first sentence, further developed, then re-iterated at the end of the paragraph; or a random assemblage of thoughts that were just dumped on a page in clusters? The planned one of course – because the topic sentences make it easier to read.

Topic sentences are like the buns of a burger – they hold the rest of the paragraph’s information together and make it easier to ‘pick up’ for the reader. Topic sentences make your essay’s points clear. If markers can understand your argument, they’ll give you more marks. Unfortunately, some students write ‘paragraphs’ which suggest they erratically threw some ingredients around, rather than methodically making a burger (which isn’t that hard – just ask any McDonald’s worker). Messy paragraphs earn fewer marks. So don’t make a literary dog’s breakfast that looks like it was kicked around the floor then put on a plate. Give your paragraphs some structure! Use topic sentences. Make your essay clear and easier to follow – make it easier for the marker to give you marks.

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Starting is the hardest part

This is our first blog. We have been meaning to write one for ages, but like that essay you aren’t really sure how to start, we haven’t got around to it… until now.

How do you start writing an essay when you can list 101 things you would rather do (like staring out the window to check the tree that has been there for the last 50 years is in fact still there)?

  1. Take the essay question you have been thoughtfully given and write it in the middle of your page
  2. Around it in a nice pretty mind map write out the 101 (give or take 80 or so) things you do know about the topic

Congratulations, you’ve now started your essay and we have started this blog…

We look forward to your thoughts and comments on this necessary evil and feel free to send us topics you would like to see us discuss.

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