Writing Good Exam Responses

It’s nearly midterm season at my university. My students have all gotten their study guides and are busy preparing to sit for exams before they can flee the classroom for a well deserved fall break.

The perennial question that arises this time of year is what is a “good” exam response? What every student really wants to know is how to get that elusive and mysterious A on their test. Here are some basic tips and tricks for how to make sure that your exam answers are A+ material.

  1. Identify what the question is asking you.
  2. Answer the Question–no really!
  3. Prepare well, Write well and Use your time well

Recall Questions

Some questions will ask you to recall information. These types of questions usually start with the words who, what, where, or when. Recall questions are designed to test how well you comprehended the material you’ve been working on all semester. The professor wants to know how well you paid attention during lecture, whether or not you did the readings, and how well you understood what you heard/read.

Answering a recall question is relatively straight forward. Make sure that you provide a full accounting of the information that you are being asked. For example, if you are being asked about the three characteristics of a particular concept, like Democracy, make sure that you cover all three characteristics in your answer. It is also important to define the class vocabulary that you use. If you just use a buzzword from class, you aren’t letting the professor know that you know what it means.

Argument Questions

Another common type of question will ask you to make an argument. These types of questions will typically start with the words why, how, or the phrase under what conditions. Argument questions want you to take a side in a particular debate, and they test to see how well you can defend a particular position within this debate. For these types of questions, the professor wants to know two things. First, they want to know if you understood the two sides of the debate. Second, they want to see how well you can think through the arguments and counterarguments for each side of the debate.

Answering an argument question is pretty easy, once you know the formula to apply, so here it is. (1) Take a side. You MUST pick a side in the debate. If you don’t pick a side, you cannot make an argument. (2) Support your side using evidence. Why is the side you picked a good or reasonable answer to the question? You need to be able to answer this question in order to write a good exam answer for this type of question. (3) Acknowledge the other side of the debate. Here, you want to tell the reader what the other side thinks, and why they think that’s a good answer to the question. (4) Explain why your side is the better answer. In this section, you want to provide a counterargument for the other side, and reaffirm the side of the debate you picked. This really brings your argument home. And there it is: follow these steps and you’ve got yourself a strong “argument” question.

Application Questions

A final common type of question will ask you to apply the information you learned in class to a particular case or scenario. These types of questions will be about a particular event or refer to a specific case. Application questions often seem to be the most “out of left field” questions on tests, usually because students assume that these questions are asking them about an event/case that they didn’t study, so mid-exam panic ensues. The key to answering an application question is to figure out what information you are being asked to apply, and then to analyze the event using that information. For these questions, the professor is looking to see how well you can take the information you learned in class and use it to analyze and interpret it.

Like the recall question, to write a good response for an application question, you need to fully outline the information you are being asked to apply. Make sure you define any key terms that you use, fully outline the concepts, characteristics, steps, etc. of the information you are being asked to apply. Second, make sure that how you are applying the question is clear. Don’t make the mistake of trailing off on unimportant details about the case you are applying it to–use those details only as they are pertinent to how you are applying the information.

Prepare Well, Write Well, and Use your Time Well

Like any exam, midterms–especially essay exams, require good preparation. If you were given a study guide, put it to use. Make sure you understand how the test will be structured and graded ahead of time. And, organize your notes and readings so that you have all the information you need to study.

On the exam itself, make sure that you write well. Follow the basics: write in full sentences. Unless your professor explicitly says it’s all right, don’t use bullet points, abbreviations, or other writing short cuts (no “b/c” or “w/r/t”). Make sure that your ideas flow, and if it’s long enough, that you structure your answer into recognizable paragraphs.

Finally, make sure that you use your time well. Figure out how much time you can spend on each question of the exam ahead of time. Don’t waste time dithering about what questions to answer, and if you get stuck, come back to it. Importantly, leave yourself time to come back at the end and reread your answers all the way through. This will help you catch any errors, sentences that weren’t clear, or other mistakes or problems.

Study hard and good luck!


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