In God’s economy, exams – and even college – are formative, not summative. He is busy forming you his servant, in knowledge, character, joy, and love for him and his people.
So exam season looms, again wagging its impending deadlines at us. And how do you respond – with a ho-hum, or with closed eyes or with calm? With steady revision or with steady resignation? With panic or with studious avoidance, hoping all will be all right? However you regard your exams, nearly all of us could improve our exam essays.
This post has two sections. First, is my summary of Michael Jensen’s advice. That’s the meat of this post. Then a few comments of my own follow.
Writing theology exam essays:
Michael Jensen’s tips
This is my outline of the final chapter of Michael Jensen’s How To Write A Theology Essay (Latimer Briefings Book 11) (pp. 82-87). The Latimer Trust. Kindle Edition. This is an excellent and readable little book Michael wrote while a doctrine lecturer here at College. I imagine he grew tired of reading too many major essays that could have been so much better. And for probably the same reason, he gives this bonus chapter on exam essays.
- Exams are no place for perfectionists
- Their purpose is to test the breadth of your knowledge and your ability to develop an answer
- It’s about what you do know, not what you don’t know.
- Prepare long-term
- Consolidate all notes into a single A4 page per topic area, as we covered in The Little Three and study notes last week. This takes time and effort.
- This is where you reduce all your knowledge to a few key points – ‘memory hooks’. As in my post on the Big Three and spaced revision, use these outlines for active study – retrieve the learning behind them.
- Create your own summaries, and you will fix content into your long-term memory and understand it more deeply. This beats the pants off of simply reading someone else’s study paper.
- Two days out
- Do some [gentle?] cramming – just extra bits and points of relevant reading to ‘spice up your’ essays
- By this time, you should have the bulk of your revision complete. This is a poor time to start your revising
- The night before and the day of
- Revise your handful of A4 sheets
- No all-nighters! Get a good sleep.
- MPJ says: Don’t talk to anyone else on exam day – It will stress you out
- It’s about what you do know, not what you don’t know
- In the exam room
- OUTLINE every answer! (I always wrote all of these first, but some students write them as they go)
- I recall John Woodhouse telling us to answer the easiest questions first:
- You build your confidence
- You may end up with extra time for the harder questions
- You may recall more info while doing those easier questions.)
- Never write without an outline!
- MPJ says: Put everything relevant on the outline. Five minutes per essay.
- In the old days of five essays in three hours, I’d spend the first 30 minutes outlining all five answers, a whole page each. Then I’d write furiously for 2:30 hours, with 30 mins per essay.
- Write your answer to the question in a single sentence thesis statement.
- Allocate time strictly according to the point value of each answer. And stick religiously to your time limits. So a 30-point question merits three times as much time as a ten-minute question.
- ANSWER THE QUESTION ASKED! Don’t do a brain dump of a lot of general stuff on the general topic. (Next week’s post will cover how to read and answer exam essay questions.)
- NB: Faculty members all agree that their greatest frustration is students not answering the question posed. They grade far too many generic ‘brain dumps’ on the topic, not on the question.
- For instance, Paedobaptism is a Reformed doctrine. Discuss.
- Poor answers commonly are brain dumps of everything a student can recall on baptism in general, and perhaps pedobaptism.
- But to argue that it is or is not a Reformed doctrine is commonly overlooked.
- Get writing
- Write clearly and legibly, but that’s all
- Write a great intro
- Your first sentence answers the Q clearly.
- Then give a quick ‘potted summary’ of your answer (ie, a simple preview)
- Use numbers to help frame your essay
- Use Scripture – This is for exams the subject of theology proper, but would also apply to philosophy and ethics)
- Quotes or chapter-and-verse references OK, as well as verse fragments or paraphrases.
- Generic themes from all of Scripture or from key Biblical books are also great
- Christ should be integral to the answer (gwc: Unless you want to change religions. . .)
- Refer to theologians (or commentators or ethicists or philosophers or historians or primary documents. . .)
- Forget quoting; just give the gist, but be sure it is accurate
- Write a simple one-sentence conclusion
- If you run out of time, ‘make a quick list of the extra points you were intending to cover and move on.’ Seriously.
- NEVER LEAVE AN ESSAY UNFINISHED. (It is sad to grade an unfinished essay.)
- Have a quick re-read
- Make quick corrections and additions
- Stay within your time limit. It is a false economy to give extra time to one essay and short yourself on time for the remaining essays.
- Emergency measures
- A question you are unprepared for
- Jot down in your outline all you can think of. You almost certainly know something
- Quickly organise that
- NEVER EVER LEAVE A QUESTION UNANSWERED
- A question you are unprepared for
Gordon Cain’s tips
You’re going to have to earn your grade. Here is a rough guide:
- Pass – Repeat what you were taught in class.
- Credit – State clearly what you were taught and explain why.
- D/HD – Argue a position and interact with other positions (extended exam essays)
- D/HD – Thoughtfully incorporate extra readings (short answers – eg, Philosophy 2)
But all this comes with a few caveats:
- You must answer the question (we’ll cover this in my next post, and in a seminar next week). I know this sounds obvious, but it is students’ biggest issue.
- Write a clear structure. A clear structure will help you think clearly, and will show what you know. Poorly structured essays are painful to read.
- Argue a position or answer. Try to go beyond merely re-stating the information taught. Give reasons why your answer is correct.
- Knowledge shows, and so does waffle. Expand on what you know. Don’t aim to sound impressive over what you don’t know. Don’t use technical jargon you are unsure of. Your markers are no fools.
Study papers and study groups are OK for a start. But you must extend this, and you must understand and ‘own’ what you write in the exam. What you understand is obvious to your markers.
Three types of written answers at Moore:
Extended essay answers:
The traditional 3-point essay is safe – because it is clear and forces a clear structure and a focus on key points.
- Intro – state and explain your thesis (answer) in a sentence.
- Answer the question, don’t discuss the topic. Outline your answer.
- Three body paragraphs (Usually) – Three key points with clear topic sentences
- Conclusion – Nothing new.
- Answer in the first sentence – The answer in a clear sentence.
- Then expand that answer in a paragraph, or a couple quick paragraphs: Get in, state it, get out.
- Skip the conclusion.
Follow the set structure:
- Structure of the book as relates to the passage
- Flow of the passage – How it hangs together
- Themes in the passage (and extend to the immediate context and to the book)
- Conclusion – Contribution of the passage to the book
- What is the question asking? – Answer that (more on this next week)
- Proportional time for the value of each question
- A thesis sentence and a clear structure that answer the question
- Finish everything
- Relax: You are as ready as you are going to be; you’re probably going to pass. Confidence results in better exams, and negative self-talk can sink you.