Essay Exams

I’m wishing I was at Computers & Writing right now, but yesterday was final exams for the junior-year writing courses I teach. Three and a half hours to answer a broad writing question that offered the opportunity to cover very nearly all of the readings in the course, with essays written and submitted on laptops. Big chunk of the final grade, which I don’t like, but the ideology of the need for a final exam in all subjects is something that will not go away easily here.

I coached the process as much as I could beforehand:

limit your sources and know your sources. Take interpretive reading notes. Anticipate the scant types of essay prompt that might embrace all course readings. Write out potential possible theses. Lock in a significant portion of initial wide-open generative writing — like, twenty to thirty minutes if you struggle with it — as soon as you read the prompt, and give yourself time to seek possible structuring strategies after that, before you start architecting the essay. Save yourself time to proofread, and use the read-aloud exam rooms if you like. Proofread backwards if you know you need it. Read your final paragraph carefully: people figure things out as they write. If find you figured things out as you wrote, do some revision by cutting and pasting between your first and final paragraphs.

I didn’t teach course material the last class, but instead made them rehearse it. I made them summarize and paraphrase it and anticipate, in writing, the possible questions the exam prompt might ask about the arc of the course. I modeled the most calculatedly complex two- and three-part questions I could and demanded to know what sources they would cite to support their arguments in response to such questions. I made them talk on their feet.

I hope it helps. It’s a tough thing, to compress a semester into four pages or so. How many sources do I use? How many is too few, or too many? How obvious should my structure and thesis be if my portfolio is going to be group-graded?

Yesterday was three and a half hours, writing, for the students. Fourteen hours for me, and back again today for calibration, group-grading of threshold portfolio exams, and adjudication of possible course failures. Not a happy Friday, and it’s as high-stakes as it gets: Cadets incur a five-year service obligation on the first day of junior year. If they flunk out during junior or senior year, they’re often either recycled or else cycled into a non-promotable position in the enlisted corps for a five-year haul.

So I’ll ask you, readers: what are the best strategies you offer to students for coping with timed high- stakes writing situations? What do you tell your discipuli when they have to prep for written exams?

Essay Exams

5 thoughts on “Essay Exams

  • May 18, 2007 at 3:09 pm

    i’m not sure if this is exactly comparable, but:

    this seems a good question to pose to recently ABDed folks. comprehensive exam writing seems about as high stakes as it gets – to me anyway. at Temple there is a policy in our English grad program that says, roughly, if you fail either portion of your exam a second time you are dismissed from the program.

    on my first attempt i didn’t compose a passing response. needless to say, i was on edge the entire rest of the time i was studying (roughly 8 months).

    to the point: what advice?
    1st, practice writing responses. if you have the luxury of having sample questions practice answering them.

    2nd, k.i.s.s – keep it simple, stupid. one of the problems i ran into in my first (failed) exam was trying to do too much with my responses. instead of focusing on one argument, one thesis, i tried to touch on everything under the sun so as to demonstrate my “comprehensive” knowledge of the material. don’t do that. instead, try to show a nuanced understanding of the point you’re arguing…

    one way of is just the thing you advise about the intro and conclusion. state your argument clearly in the intro with the 2 or 3 main points you intenend to make throughout. when you get to the end…well, what you said.

    i’ll post something over at Dissertation Boot Camp; i’m sure the folks over there might have a few dimes to add to my $ .02.

  • May 21, 2007 at 12:20 pm

    I agree with Chris that practicing writing exams is super important.

    I spend a fair bit of time towards the end of the semester asking students to write possible essay exam topics, and then share them around and do some informal practice writing (brainstorm, thesis statement, a quick outline of what examples they’d use). I often hand out an old exam, and we discuss what sort of response the exam asks for, what kind of thinking, and how to do well. Using well developed examples isn’t a secret strategy, but it’s something my first year students sometimes don’t think about during exam situations, so making sure they know to think about such things is important.

    (I don’t recycle exams, so handing out an old exam seems fair and reasonable, and reassures students about format stuff. It also means that frats or other organizations with exam files don’t have an unfair advantage.)

  • May 22, 2007 at 7:08 am

    Any ideas about how to help students who don’t take the hints? Our graduate comprehensive exam for an applied MS program is 4 hours – all essay. We give them a scenario and 5 questions, which basically remain the same from test to test. We let them see old tests.

    But they are not preparing for it. Maybe the weekend before the comp I will get one student who writes the first answer and asks what I think.

    I teach 1-2 of the classes in the program and they have to each week write mini-comp essays in class (I give them a scenario, they have to apply content to it, arrive at solutions, etc.).

    Two have not passed twice — third time and they are out of the program. I want to help them — have offered weekly review sessions, etc., but they won’t take me up on it. What else can I do? I want them to pass.

  • May 25, 2007 at 6:21 pm

    Kate, I think a teacher can only teach so much. For students who can’t or won’t take the hints, it’s ultimately on them.

    Thanks for opening up the question, Chris, and I think the KISS strategy is really, really important, especially for high-performing students — on earlier essay assignments, I’ve seen super-smart students try and shoot the moon, and fail.

    And like Bardiac says, practice, structure, and examples are key.

  • May 28, 2007 at 12:41 am

    Ahh, the eternal struggle of teaching students to follow directions. In reading Kate’s dilemma, it’s interesting how some things are comparable to my students at a community college. I don’t just give hints. I tell them flat out that they should come and have a chat if they have any questions. Few of them come in for a chat, as if I’m some scary monster.

    Looking back at comps, I prepared for several months by writing short essays every morning on topics that I made up based on my readings. I think my answers stunk, but I passed. Students think I’m some sort of super student for having done that, but I just wanted to pass my tests, that’s it. And I could follow advice. I’m sure someone told me to do what I did because I’m smart enough to follow directions, not to come up with that sort of an idea.

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