Posts Tagged marks

Essays for generals (Part V) – divide and conquer

WWII Divide and Conquer 5

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Welcome back, generals.

Today’s briefing covers an important lesson: effectively deploying your regiments to get more marks. This clever trick not only helps you when you’re planning your paragraphs, but it also helps you adapt as you write (as long as you’re using a word processor).

Tip: combine similar and related ideas into single paragraphs; split paragraphs that are too large.

Too many students feel that they have to write paragraphs based around the way the concepts first came into their heads and then got scribbled in a margin to make a bullet-point plan. This is not the case. Don’t be restricted by your first thoughts. You have the freedom to experiment and change how they’re put together and expressed.

For example, say your essay is about marketing and you have a paragraph on one mini-argument. It’s about how using advertising is crucial in supporting a broader marketing strategy, say. If this has ended up as a huge paragraph, you have two options:

  1. Cut it back
  2. Split in two

You could consider splitting the advertising paragraph into one about advertising in traditional media and one about online advertising, perhaps. Splitting a humongous paragraph retains more information in your essay, but it also ensures that all of that information is easier to read. I suggest “cutting back” egregious paragraphs as much as possible first, though. Cull out the unnecessary words, thoughts, phrases – and even full sentences. Make your essay clearer by removing written clutter.  If you streamline your big paragraph first, you may find that you don’t need to split it after all. However, even if you still split the monster paragraph later, you have higher quality content to split.

Conversely, if you had two small paragraphs on these topics, they will probably make a stronger case together – you may have to adjust your topic sentences, but once that’s done, the new ‘super’ paragraph will be all the more persuasive with it’s ‘extra’ pieces of evidence. Here’s an example of a paragraph with opening and closing topic sentences.

Combining and splitting paragraphs gives you more flexibility when you’re planning – and writing – your essay. It’s a useful strategy to employ if you want to unlock all the potential of your writing by structuring it in paragraphs that persuade your marker.

Now, go forth and “divide and conquer”.

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Introducing Conclusions

Over the last few weeks we have talked a lot about introductions and body paragraphs which leads us nicely to the third and final part of an

Introducing Conclusions

essay: the conclusion.

Many people find writing conclusions difficult, but they do not need to be.

The purpose of your conclusion is to sum up your essay and nearly everything you need for your conclusion you have already written. You are taking all the arguments, information, and evidence you have presented throughout your essay and are tying it all together.

The introduction is there to hook, the body paragraphs to persuade, and the conclusion is there to convince.

The marker should, after reading your conclusion, see how all your points and mini-arguments work together to answer the essay question, convincingly.

So before you start your conclusion you need to refer back to your:

  • introduction – did you write about what you said you would?
  • body paragraphs – how does what you wrote answer the essay question convincingly?

If the answer to either of those questions is ‘No’ then you need to go back and fix them up. You cannot write an effective conclusion without being able to answer ‘Yes’ to both these questions because this is where you will draw your content from.

Just as a poor introduction will lose you lots of marks, so too will a poor conclusion. In fact, if written well, your conclusion can gain you a lot of marks by aiding the marker’s understanding of what you have written in your body paragraphs.

So just because you are sick of writing after 2500 words of introduction and body paragraphs or you are running out of time in your exams, doesn’t mean you can write a half-arsed conclusion and you’ll get away with it.

Over the next few weeks I will look at how you can write effective conclusions which will give the marker no choice but to award you a top mark.

Photo Credit m.gifford via Flickr

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Essays for generals (Part IV) – strategic paragraphs

Strategic paragraphs in action...

Okay, so we’ve covered one of the reasons why paragraphs make your essay suck less: they let the reader absorb information before moving on to the next segment. Paragraphing stops them from dreading the rest of the essay.

Q: How do you decide where to split your writing into paragraphs?

A: You’re asking the wrong question.

Mini-arguments

Since the point of paragraphs is to make your points clearer, the real question is how can you use paragraphs to make your essay easier to understand? That’s the point (no pun intended) of paragraphs. This approach subtly reshapes the way you assign thoughts to paragraphs. Instead of creating a long rambling stream of consciousness with a few arbitrary paragraph breaks, you start to think strategically.

And you should think about paragraphs strategically. In our army analogy, “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.” Body paragraphs should form a logical chain of reasoning throughout your essay. Plan the mini-arguments in note form to make sure they support the main argument that you make through the entire essay. Only then should you begin writing if you want to win the battle.

So good paragraphs make your reader hate you less. In addition, by giving your reader a break, they can also understand what you’re saying better. That’s got to be good for your marks.

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Essays for generals (Part III) – Reader's Digest

Break Down write

Breaking things down is important...

So now you understand the “macro-level strategy” to prepare an essay (analysing the question and planning your essay’s overall argument). It’s time to move on to the next layer of detail: organising your answer into paragraphs.

A good analysis of the question + solid knowledge of the topic = opportunity to write unique and persuasive arguments.

However, these elements only give you the opportunity to write a compelling essay; you must express your ideas well. The first step for doing this is to form your paragraphs.

Paragraphs are the largest building blocks of your essay, and they have two important functions:

  1. they separate your overall essay into digestible pieces
  2. they make your points clearer as you build your argument

Digestible pieces

Imagine reading screeds and screeds of text running continuously for almost a whole page with no break. Not fun. No marker (or other normal human being) wants to face that. I suggest you avoid arousing unnecessary resentment.

Since this post is about conveying important ideas succinctly and giving your reader a break, I’m going to stop this post here.

I know I’m not perfect; I often need to be reminded of this too, but “be concise!

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Essays for generals (Part I) – essays, arguments, and answering the question

Strategy_Map.jpg

Strategy guides many important endeavours

Following on from my previous post (Exam warfare (Part II): generals’ briefing), let’s begin looking at how to organise your ‘essay army’ in more detail. To start off with, let’s look at the big picture, the “macro level” of your whole essay.

There are two key things to remember when deploying your overall essay:

  1. Answer the question!
  2. Argue your case persuasively (but don’t sound like a used-car salesman; it’s an academic work).

Answer the question!

The most important thing is answering the essay question. If you don’t, you don’t get any marks! The question is powerful: this pivotal sentence (or two) directs the multitude of sentences in your essay. If you think of yourself as the general in charge of the army, the question is your directive from the sovereign. You must achieve that military objective. If you achieve this mission, you will be handsomely rewarded. If you fail, you die! So answer the question! NCEA is particularly strict on this point.

Argue your case persuasively

When you’ve written many essays, you eventually realise that essays are all about arguments – an essay defends one point of view and knocks down other points of view (but in a respectful way) – some students actually enjoy writing essays for this reason! So think about how persuasive your argument is overall.

Importantly, you should recognise opposing arguments in your essay, then show why you agree or disagree with them. This makes your essay more persuasive, because if you address opposing arguments (or ‘shoot them down’ as we like to say), then they’re no longer a threat to your own argument. But if they’re ignored, you imply that you’re either ignorant or unable to answer these challenges.

Plan the thrust of your argument before you begin writing. Launching straight into writing is like impulsively charging into a mêlée with no prior thought. Begin by analysing the question. Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Ask yourself “what are the extreme opposite of the key words in the question?” Expand on both extremes of each key word.
  • Consider synonyms of words, analogous concepts and other definitions/perspectives.
  • Consider words that are explicitly stated in the question, as well as words that are ‘missing’ which define sub-parts of the broader topic.

There are plenty of other ways to analyse essay questions and generate ‘mini-argument’ concepts. What do you like to do?

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Exam warfare (Part II): generals' briefing

15mm Greek Hoplites painted by jwrait a long time ago...

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):

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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!”

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When the sh*t hits the fan in an exam…

You’re sitting in exam, the time has started, you open the exam booklet, look at the question, then…

Nothing.

What do you do when can’t answer the question? When your mind seems as blank as the study notes you meant to write? What should you do the sh*t hits the fan?

The first part is easy – don’t panic. Yes maybe your hopes, dreams, and parents’ love rest on your result; but they don’t give marks for panic attacks. If you are going to salvage any part of this situation you need a clear head.

The second thing is not to stare at the question or the blank page in front of you and hope that your essay will write itself. It won’t. Many people have tried – learn from their mistake.

Thirdly, you need a change of perception. Instead of, “Oh sh*t! I’m so screwed!” You need to view it as a challenge and rise to it. The game’s the same but the rules have changed. You write nothing, you get zero. You write something, you might get more than zero.

So what do you do? You write.

You write down the essay question and list everything you know about it. Anything you can remember from class, from the study you did do, what you heard on TV, read on someone’s Facebook page etcetera. Anything you might be able to use to answer the question.

Then plan an essay around it. Choose an argument and fit in all the relevant bits and pieces you can remember in a clear, logical, structured, concise way.

What you don’t do, and I stress this, is try and look at the paper of the guy next to you. A zero is better than cheating.

Anyway, if it looks like you tried to write an essay, you may get some marks; if you made a few good points, you may get some marks; if you’re persuasive, you may get some marks. Any marks are better than no marks. Markers aren’t evil (usually) and they want to give you marks – especially at university where you are likely being marked by your lecturer – they don’t really want you to fail (usually).

In saying that, this is not a substitute for studying. To put it crudely, no matter what sort of essay you pull out of your arse on the day, it will still be sh*t compared to the rest of the class who studied. (Oh and don’t ever write like this in an essay – it’s a sure way to lose you marks!)

This is your Plan F and I hope you never have to use it!

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Exam warfare

 

P-00 (((Peonidas Preparing For War)))

Image by pikahsso via Flickr

 

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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”.

*see previous posts on becoming an essay ninja and writing under pressure if you’re not sure.

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Confidence – the secret ingredient

“Whatever you say, say it with conviction”

Act confident: US editorial cartoon from 1912 presidential election season. Shows candidates Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and William Howard Taft (left to right at top, and right to left at bottom). Signed Berryman.

Mark Twain

Talk to anyone at exam time and you’ll find they are not feeling very confident (or that is what they say…). They think they’ll fail; they didn’t study enough, their dog ate their study notes, they have a hangover etcetera etcetera.

What makes you confident about writing that killer essay in your exam? Plenty of study. Yet plenty of study never seems enough does it?

When you walk into an exam you have two options: believe you haven’t studied enough, or believe you have and walk in relaxed, calm, and confident. Irrespective of much or how little you have studied, you can choose to be confident – or walk in feeling like you are going to be sick all over your freshly printed exam paper.

It seems a pretty easy choice doesn’t it? Take two situations where you have studied an identical amount, and being confident is much better than not being confident. If you are confident you are more relaxed and therefore less likely to panic or blank out in the exam. Also, you will be surprised with what you do know and can remember.

On another note; your exam is an essay, an essay is an argument, and an argument must be persuasive. Are you more likely to be persuaded by some who is confident when they speak or someone who looks like they are going to dissolve in a pool of fear? Someone who is confident.

So whatever you are writing in your exam, correct or not – be confident!

The ‘con’  in con artist stands for confidence. They persuade you to place your confidence in them. How? By being confident. In an exam essay you need to to persuade the marker to put their confidence in your knowledge and ability in the subject. Even if you know everything there is to know about the subject, the marker won’t be persuaded if you don’t write confidently.

So confidence improves your performance and the essay you produce. Be confident this week and see what happens…

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The proof is in the pudding: preparing for exam essays

 

Christmas pudding decorated with skimmia rathe...

Image via Wikipedia

 

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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