3.9 Thinking about the exam
It is worth noting the difference between exam answers and assignments. Inevitably, a much lengthier and more polished answer can be produced in an untimed assignment. In the short time available in the exam, you need to move quickly through your main points, without paying too much attention to your style. Examiners are fully aware of the constraints exams place on the writer. Focus on the question you have chosen, and underline or highlight the process words or instructions in the question. Some questions do not have obvious process words, but you can usually ‘read between the lines’ to find the instruction (an implicit process is involved).
Refer to the list of process words provided in Table 1 and Table 2. Look at the questions on your specimen exam paper, or past papers, and see if you can identify the ‘process word (s)’.
Now you need to think about the scope of your answer, and the parts of the particular topic you will use in answering the question. The three-part essay structure - introduction, main body and conclusion - is a useful one to adopt when tackling an essay-based exam answer.
At the beginning of your answer, you should:
- summarise what you are about to argue and briefly describe why
- explain how you interpret / understand the actual question
- define terms or explain the key words to demonstrate you have understood the question.
The main body
You should then go on to:
- include the key information and arguments, and their relevance to the question
- give examples to illustrate why you see these as important.
Finally, you should:
- briefly sum up and evaluate your argument, for example, indicating whether the evidence is convincing or insufficient
- wherever possible, refer back to the question.
Most students find the introduction and the conclusion the hardest parts to write. Don’t spend too long on getting the words perfect. Keep sentences simple. The bulk of the marks fall in the middle section, according to the quantity of information and argument presented there. As you write, space your words or sentences so that you can go back and insert a word or phrase without making it illegible. You may even like to leave a gap of several lines where you sense you would like to reword a paragraph later, if you have time.
Now move on to Activity 11.
- Write down one of the questions from a past or specimen exam paper. Underline the key words - the words that indicate the kind of content expected - and the process words. This will help you to identify the topic and the instruction in the question.
- Make some notes on what you would include in the introduction, main body and conclusion of an answer to this question. Try writing an introduction quickly, as you would need to do under exam conditions. If you haven’t revised the topic yet, try to remember as much as you can from when you were studying the material.