Tackling essay-based exams

Exam season is almost upon us and one challenge you may find yourself facing is revising for essay-based exams. These can cause a lot of anxiety, not least because essay-based assessments are often something we are used to doing over the course of several weeks. How do you plan, structure and write an essay in the space of a couple of hours? And how on earth do you revise when you don’t know what you’ll be asked? 

Read on for our guide to effective revision and exam technique for essay-based exam questions:

What are essay exams testing?

Before you jump into your revision, it can be helpful to remember that essay exams are not just testing your memory. Instead, your lecturers are looking for evidence of how well you can apply the knowledge you have gained throughout the course to solve a problem or answer a question under timed conditions. Therefore, whilst memory is still important – you’ll need to be able to recall that knowledge in the exam – it’s only part of the story. You’ll also need to make sure you have an in-depth understanding of that knowledge and have practiced applying it to different questions, problems, and contexts.

How do I revise for essay exams?

You may be tempted to write a ‘generic’ essay on each of the topics you’re revising and memorise them so you can repeat them in the exam room. However, keep in mind that your lecturers are asking you to solve the specific problem they’ve set for you and simply ‘dumping’ everything that’s relevant won’t address the question and is unlikely to earn you good marks.

A more effective approach to revising for essay exams is incorporating strategies that develop your understanding of the topic so you can apply your knowledge to different problems effectively. Some revision strategies you might want to try for this are:

  • Questioning and interrogating the knowledge: why does this happen? How does it happen? Does it always happen this way? Is this always true? What about if we apply it to a different context? What are the implications of this?
  • Try applying the knowledge to case studies or different scenarios to get a better understanding of how theory works in practice.
  • Look at past papers or devise your own questions and either answer them in full or sketch out an essay plan under timed conditions. This will help you to test your recall and practice skills you’ll be using in the exam.
  • Compare and weigh up different approaches to the topic. Does everyone agree on this? Why? Why not? Which perspective is stronger?
  • Identify gaps in your knowledge and do some additional reading to fill them.

What about strategies for the exam itself? 

You might be used to spending hours or even days planning, writing, and editing a coursework essay and be wondering how on earth you do all of this under timed conditions. Keep in mind that your lecturers know that this is a big ask and they are not expecting the same level of sophistication in the way you construct your arguments that they would be looking for in a coursework essay. However, it’s still necessary that your lecturers can follow your answer and see clearly how it addresses the question so:

  • Spend some time at the beginning paying attention to what the question is asking you. Our video on question analysis offers some strategies for understanding essay questions: 
  • Sketch out a basic structure to follow. This needn’t be more than the main points you want to argue and the order you want to argue them in.
  • Clearly state your point or communicate your main focus at the beginning of each paragraph to help your reader get their bearings and follow your argument.
  • If you find yourself running out of time, write down a few bullet points around your remaining points – you may still pick up a few extra marks for this! 

Do I need to reference sources in an essay exam?  

While you won’t be expected to reference others to the extent you do in a coursework essay, it’s worth incorporating a few references to back up your points and show how you worked out your answer.

Try to memorise a couple of key arguments and/or debates made by others for each topic as well as the authors’ surname(s) and the year of the article so that you can cite it in the exam. Don’t worry about the details – just one or two lines summarising their main argument is enough.

What about other types of exams?

Exams exist in various formats in addition to the traditional essay-based exam type. For example, your course may also have multiple choice papers, vivas/oral presentations or exams relating to specific processes, techniques and interactions. All types of exams test your ability to recall and apply your subject knowledge, so most advice on revision and exam technique is applicable to different exam types. Effective revision trains your brain both to retain and to retrieve information; a process that’s equally useful for all exam formats. However, different types of exams can also present different challenges, and transitioning from online to in-person exams is a key change for this year. For more details on this and other exam-related issues, see our ASK Exams Collection and our calendar for upcoming workshops on revision and exam preparation.

Time Management Tips for Troubled Times: Dealing with Overwhelm

Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

Term might have got underway, but if you’re feeling behind and overwhelmed with your studies, losing motivation and generally not keeping up, that’s quite understandable. We’re all navigating a completely new way of studying, with new teaching formats to get used to, new learning strategies to adapt and all in the middle of a pandemic crisis. It’s no wonder if you’re feeling a bit overwhelmed, lacking in motivation or suffering from procrastination and uncertainty. This is the latest in our series of Time Management Tips for Troubled Times, in which we try to help you get your mojo back and find your way forward.

  • If you don’t feel ready to start a task (not done enough reading, thinking, etc) or don’t know where you are with it, jump in and start anyway – use this as a way to experiment and find out exactly what else you need to do, rather than a vague sense you’ve not done enough or aren’t sure what you’re doing. 
  • Use freewriting as a way to find a bit of focus. Set a timer for 10 mins, and write a stream-of-consciousness exploring the task you will be working on, what the sticking points are, anything you’re worried about, things that are distracting you and how you feel about it. Don’t stop, don’t edit, don’t judge – this is just you warming up and thinking aloud on paper. 
  • Break tasks down. This allows you to see exactly what needs to be done, and how long it might all take. It also makes big, vague goals into manageable, concrete tasks, where you can see progress. 
  • Build in points where you can reflect, take stock of where you need to be, and check your direction. Try and commit to a goal, even if it’s for a day, rather than switching between them in case you’re worried you’re not doing the right thing.
  • Alternatively, try interleaving – every hour, two hours or mornings and afternoons, switch task. This might help you feel that you’re keeping all the plates spinning, and actually helps you refresh your concentration. It’s also true that if you leave a problem you’re stuck with, your brain is likely to have made progress on it when you were thinking about something else. 
  • Think How, not just What. Focus on the actions you need to take, not the things you need to achieve, and make your intention to implement the goal explicit. ‘IF I am going to achieve ……., THEN I will do …..
  • Make each task as concrete as possible, to make it doable and give yourself a sense of achievement. You could frame it in SMART terms:
    • Specific: What exactly will the output be? Which section or paragraph?
    • Measurable: How many words will you write, approx?
    • Achievable: How realistic is this? How ‘finished’ does it have to be?
    • Relevant: how does this contribute to the rest of your work? How important is it?
    • Timebound: how long will you work on it?
  • Build in small, immediate, short term rewards for things where the real outcome is a longer way off. 
  • Reward yourself for a job done, or for progress made, whether you feel it is well done or not.
  • Intrinsic rewards: A sense of achievement or pride is a kind of reward, so frame your work in a way that allows you to tick things off or check how well you’re doing. 
  • Extrinsic rewards: You could also use rewards that have nothing to do with work. Rewards should be small and also framed in SMART terms so you don’t get distracted from returning to work.
  • You’re likely to put something off if you don’t think you can do it. If you aren’t sure what it is you’re supposed to achieve or how to go about it, list up the questions you have, so you can find answers – friends on the course, a peer mentor, your lecturer, a Writing Development Centre tutor. Identifying what you don’t know is the beginning of finding out.
  • If your planned time didn’t quite go to plan, write a list of ‘things achieved’ anyway – this will help you see where you’re still being productive or where you need to get back on track, without making you feel you’ve achieved nothing.
  • There is often no single right answer, or no single right way to do something at university. If  an approach isn’t working for you, try a different way rather than avoiding a task due to fear of failure or not being good enough. Find your own best way to study.

Prefer to hear it than read? Listen to Helen, one of our WDC tutors, talk you through some tips.

Dr Helen Webster, WDC
Dr Helen Webster, WDC

Best wishes from the WDC

It’s the last day of term, and what a strange term it’s been. The Easter vacation will give us all a bit of breathing space to figure out how learning and teaching is going to work for the near future. Many students have gone home to family, some are staying here in Newcastle, but few of us have the ideal conditions to work and study productively in. We don’t yet have a clear idea of how teaching and assessment is going to adapt to the new situation, so it’s hard at the moment to work constructively towards that anyway. And all of us have more urgent things than study to worry about right now too. The Writing Development Centre will be here alongside you, supporting you as ever to become confident, successful learners, but for now, we want to encourage you to take a bit of a break, look after yourselves and your loved ones, sort out more urgent priorities and let go of worrying about your studies for a little while. Even we think there are more important things in life than writing!

Some of us find work is a good way to structure our time and keep going, others of us will find it hard to engage with learning when our minds are elsewhere. We’ll be here for all of you, as you need us, with tips to make sure you get what you need out of your studies and a listening ear to help you find a balance and look after yourself too. Whether you need a bit of traditional essay writing advice, some direction on how to approach a new type of assignment or teaching format, or some guidance on how to pick up the pieces of your work and muddle along in difficult circumstances, we’ll be there for you! Take care, and take a break.

WDC Zoom Bingo!

It’s been quite a week for all of us, but the WDC tutors have been offering their usual 1-2-1 tutorial provision online for over a week now. We’re using Zoom, a really simple online meeting platform – all you need to do is book your appointment as usual, and then at the time of your appointment, click on the link sent by your tutor. No need to set up an account, just a small amount of setup needed.

We’re loving Zoom as it allows us to work with you in dialogue about your learning as we discuss your work together – we don’t tell you what to write, but help you improve your academic skills and study strategies so you can improve your own work. We do understand that some students won’t have access to a computer or the internet bandwith to work in this way – if that’s you, do get in touch and we can discuss alternatives. We’ll be here throughout the Easter vacation and the rest of the academic year to support you, wherever you’re studying.

We reckon we’ve got pretty good at online tutorials over the last week and it’s all going pretty smoothly, but judge for yourself with our WDC Zoom Tutorial Bingo Card!

WDC provision – we’re still there for you!

The University has made the decision to suspend face to face contact in the light of the COVID-19 (Coronavirus) outbreak, and that of course impacts on many of the things that the WDC normally do to support your learning! We’ve suspended our face to face tutorials, workshops, writers’ groups and drop-ins, but we’re busily exploring other ways in which we can continue to offer advice and guidance as you study in these unusual times.

Firstly, we’re prioritising moving our one to one provision online. If you already have a tutorial booked with us, we’ll be contacting you soon to let you know how it’s going to work. If you’d like to book a one to one with us over the coming weeks, then we will be amending the booking process and information ASAP this week so you can get yourself an online appointment. As far as our tutorials go, we’ll try and keep it business as usual as much as possible! We’ve offered distance tutorials in the past for students who are off campus, so we have arrangements in place that can be scaled up.

We will be using Zoom for our tutorials, which we think is intuitive and user friendly, and will give you an experience which is as close as we can get to one of our friendly, interactive face-to-face tutorials. Zoom allows us to discuss your learning with audio and video, and share screens so you can show us any written work to look at together (for this reason, it will work best on a desktop or laptop with a bigger screen rather than a tablet or phone). Your tutor will send you a link before your appointment which you simply need to click on and join the meeting at the start of your appointment time.

We’re also thinking as creatively as we can about how else we can support you in the coming weeks. Moving all teaching and assessment online is going to be a bit different for all of us, and we’ll be there with lots of ideas to help you navigate it all and stay motivated. Stay posted here on our blog and our website for more updates!