Tackling essay-based exams

Picture of rows of exam desks

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.

We are here to support you!

Don’t forget that the Academic Skills Team will be in the Walton Library to answer questions about exams, revision, and any other questions you may have about academic skills on the following days and times:

11.05.2211:00-13:00
25.05.2211:00-13:00
08.06.2211:00-13:00

Spotlight on Knovel’s new interactive tools

Decorative image of a man working on a computer

What is Knovel?

Knovel is a technical reference database that provides access to core engineering handbooks and tools. It allows students, researchers and professionals to take material and property data, and to analyse it quickly and intuitively.

Our previous blog gives a general overview of Knovel’s main features and content, describing how it empowers engineers by offering a trustworthy source of information and data. But there is so much more you can do with Knovel using the interactive and visualization analysis tools. Alongside their data and technical information the tools let you manipulate and extrapolate data from within your browser and export it into your work in whatever format is most appropriate for your requirements. These tools allow you to interact more with the materials data within Knovel, so the data becomes much more discoverable and useful for your studies and research.

Creating a free, personal Knovel account allows you to save the work you do with these tools too. You can also save searches, graphs, tables and more, picking up right where you left off if you need to take a break.

What are the interactive tools?

There are several powerful tools that allow you to interact directly with the huge sets of data and properties in Knovel. Carrying out a simple search of material properties will give the option to select interactive tables or graphs. This video from Knovel gives an overview of the interactive tools available.

Hyperlinked image showing the Knovel 'interactive tools' video

Interactive Tables

The tables within Knovel can be overwhelmingly huge in scope, needing filtering to start to work the data into something useful. The interactive table tool allows you to filter and sort columns of large datasets, as you would a spreadsheet, but within your browser. You can hide, move, and lock columns, and quickly go from a broad search looking at the property of a material, for example steel, to a table you can adjust and save or export for inclusion in your work.

Screenshot of an example interactive table in Knovel
An example interactive table

Graph digitizer

Knovel includes a wealth of crucial engineering handbooks and has digitised the graphs in these titles. This allows you to extract and export data from digitized curves, enabling you to open any graphs in a separate view where you can extract data points, adjusting the parameters to get the information you are interested in. You can define points on the curve by clicking directly on the line, or by using the navigation panel to specify exact points, and you can define the axis with the other axis adjusting automatically. You can then add points, curves, or elongation data, and manipulate as needed before saving or exporting in a format suited to your output.

Screenshot of an example digitized graph in Knovel
An example digitized graph

Equation plotter

With so many example equations in Knovel the plotter function lets you visualise parametric equations and then manipulate them in several ways, such as plotting curves from the equation. When you run a search for material properties and choose a table, then selecting the equation icon will open the plotted equation for you to work with. You can then add points to particular values, change units, and work the data.

Screenshot of an example plotted equation in Knovel
Knovel equation plotter

Interactive equations

Knovel includes vast collections of example equations for application in engineering. You can navigate all disciplines by specialty, browse the full collection, or filter by equations in the general search.

The interactive equation tool is browser-based calculation software. It can help you get the solutions to problems faster, by letting you work with the online equation as you would in your own workbook. The equation worksheet functions as a space to explore and relate data back to your own work. You can also create worksheets for searches, combining text with images and plots. Watch the video from Knovel below for more information on interactive equations.

Hyperlinked image showing the Knovel 'interactive equations' video

Unit converter

This is a simple tool, but especially useful as it is integrated throughout Knovel to help you work with the data. It draws on a range of units, properties, and scientific notations systems. Easy to access and to use, it will help make sure you are working to the correct equivalents.

Screenshot of the unit converter tool within Knovel
Knovel unit converter

Steam calculators

Presented as a series of 8 calculators, this recent addition allows fine control of a full range of thermodynamic variables, under a variety of conditions, for results determining steam table data. With support for ranges of temperature, pressure, and quality, it lets you work out the required conditions for achieving the quality of steam needed. Watch this video from Knovel to learn more about Steam Calculators.

Hyperlinked image showing the Knovel 'steam calculators' video

More information

You can get further help with Knovel on the Knovel LibGuide. You’ll also find links to Knovel, and additional support within the Library’s Subject Guides for all Engineering, Science and Computing disciplines.

Contact your Liaison Librarian for any further questions around getting the most from Knovel, and for other ways we can help support you in your studies.

Passport Pro Database

The Passport Euromonitor database is a key resource for international market research data. We have just upgraded our subscription to Passport Pro which gives researchers to additional market surveys covering a wide range of topics:

  • Passport Cannabis
  • Passport Luxury Goods
  • Passport Mobility (formerly Automotive)
  • Passport Nutrition
  • Passport Product Claims & Positioning (formerly Ethical Labels)
  • Passport Sports
  • Passport Ingredients
  • Passport Industrial

The database gives researchers access to consumer lifestyle reports, future demographics, country profiles, updates on consumer and industry trends, company information, market sizes and economic indicators.
Passport covers more than 200 countries and regions, with a global outlook.

Access Passport via Library Search.

Passport Market Research Database