I will not rote-learn my exam essays!

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I know that many of you memorise essays to use in your exams. This is not a good idea as excessive reliance on memorisation, or perhaps memorising the wrong things, can lead you astray in NCEA English where flexibility, unpredictability, and critical thinking are highly rewarded. The English Examiners try very hard to set essay questions that will stop students from ‘dumping’ pre-prepared essays into their exam answers. If the marker of your paper believes that you have done this you will be graded down.

So what is the answer?

1. Develop efficient question analysis.

You need to know exactly what the question is asking you to do. There is some great advice on how to do that on the University of Worchester site. It is really important to understand the requirements of the question so that you can write an essay with relevance to the question. If you memorise answers beforehand this tends to cut you out of this vital first step.

2. Work on writing relevant answers.

Use lots of questions for practice. You may get them from past papers, your teachers, or even make up your own. When you are sure exactly what a particular question requires, go through your notes, your texts, any material that you may have memorised and decide what main points will be needed to answer this question and no others. Note down those points. Think about any quotes, examples, and elaborations that you might use in developing each point. The next step is to write an introduction in the register and style appropriate to the task.  Look back at my previous posts on essay writing if you are not sure of what to do. Then skip the body of the essay and write a conclusion. This exercise can be done in five or ten minutes, and when frequently done with many different questions it makes your work very adaptable. Make sure that you do lots of these. Another technique is to write the full essay, not worrying about time, but just trying to get the ideas sequenced correctly. Then put it away, and take it out again a few days later. Now look at your answer again and decide what needs to be changed. You could also write the full essay in 40 or 50 minutes (For Levels Two and Three) to simulate exam conditions. You will need to be able to write a Level One essay in around 25 minutes. This is important as poor timing is often part of the problem, and the more automatic it becomes the better.

3. So what about memorisation?

Of course it is a very useful skill to possess. Just be careful what you choose to memorise. Useful things might include:

  • Quotations from the text you are studying, related texts, or critics. Always acknowledge them when you use them, and never use them just because you know them. There has to be a reason to use them.
  •  Basic facts that could prove useful. Again, never use them unless they really are relevant to the question.
  • Some carefully crafted passages of your own, argument or exposition for example, may be useful but there is a big danger. Anything you use has to fit neatly into the style and content of the answer you are writing.

Remember, you learn to write by writing, you improve by doing; you gain confidence by writing revision essays. Your teachers will be pleased to give feedback when you do this. If your teacher gives you the opportunity to revise, grab it! Don’t say: Is this assessed? Does it count? The answer to that is actually “Yes”. It will be assessed when you do the “real” task much more effectively as a result of this practice!

Thanks to Neil Whitford for lots of the material used in this post.

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