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.

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

Accessing resources beyond the Library

Photograph by Erik Odiin of somebody in a train station
Photo by Erik Odiin on Unsplash

If you’re working on a dissertation, thesis or project right now, or will be doing so next academic year, what can you do if the Library doesn’t have access to all the specialist books and other information resources you need? How can you find out about resources relating to your research topic which are held elsewhere? Can you visit other libraries and archives if you’re away from Newcastle over the vacation?

Read on to find out how you can expand your search beyond our library….

1. Search

You can search across the catalogues of over 170 UK and Irish academic and national libraries, together with other specialist and research libraries, via Library Hub Discover (formerly COPAC). The range of libraries included in Library Hub Discover is expanding all the time, and includes all UK universities, as well as the libraries of such diverse organisations as Durham Cathedral, the Institution of Civil Engineers, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the Royal Horticultural Society.

Library Hub Discover logo

In response to Covid restrictions, Library Hub Discover has also made it easier for you to find Open Access resources via its catalogue: it has recently incorporated the HathiTrust Digital Library, as well as the Directories of Open Access Books and Journals to its searchable database.

For a more in-depth and up-to-date search, you can also search individual academic library catalogues online. Need to look further afield? Search library catalogues internationally via WorldCat.

If you are looking for archives elsewhere, whether in the North East or beyond, our colleagues in the Special Collections and Archives team have compiled a list of useful directories and search tools.

2. Obtain

If we haven’t got the book you want, you can ask us to consider buying or borrowing it via our Recommend a book service.

If you need a copy of a journal article to which we don’t have access, you can apply for it via our inter library loan service, which is currently free.

You can search UK doctoral theses via the national EThOS service. This has records for over 500,000 theses, dating back to the year 1800, of which over half are freely available online (do note you have to register with EThOS before being able to download: it’s a separate login process to your usual University login).

3. Visit

Photo of Special Collections Virtual Reading Room
Special Collections Virtual Reading Room

The SCONUL Access Scheme enables students to visit most other academic libraries around the country, and in some cases, borrow from them. This service has recently resumed since its suspension during the Covid pandemic, but please note that not all academic libraries are currently participating in the scheme, so do check carefully before you visit, and read the latest information on the SCONUL Access site.

You will need to register with SCONUL Access before you can visit another Library, so do allow time for your registration to be processed.

If you want to consult archives or special collections elsewhere, you’ll need to check with the organisation in question beforehand (you’ll usually need to request to consult items in advance of your visit). If you can’t visit in person, archives services may still be able to answer queries, provide access to selected digitised items, or even operate a Virtual Reading Room, so it may well be worth enquiring.

Sound and vision: introducing our new audiovisual resources guide


Where can I find pictures relating to transport which I can use in my project? How do I find out what was broadcast on British television and radio on a particular day in the 1970s? Where are the best places to find examples of digital art? I need audio clips of scary sounds for my presentation – where to start? Are there any interesting oral histories in my subject area? How do I reference a podcast? I’ve found an ideal picture online, but I don’t know where it’s from – what can I do? Is there an authoritative list of famous music plagiarism cases anywhere, including audio clips?

Screenshot of oral histories from the British Library
British Library oral histories selection

You can find the answers to these, and many more intriguing questions, on our brand new guide to finding and using audiovisual resources.

We’ve updated and expanded our old images guide, and included new databases and resources for finding films and television programmes, plus audio content such as radio programmes, sound clips, podcasts and oral histories.

We’ve also updated the original still images section, which helps you find images of all genres and subjects, such as anatomy, archaeology, architecture…. and all other letters of the alphabet!

Need more help?

Keyword searching isn’t always the best way to search for audiovisual content, so if you want to find an image which looks like another one, search by colour, or find exactly what you want on Box of Broadcasts, visit our guide.

Finally, if you’re unsure whether you’re permitted to use an audiovisual resource in your assignment, and/or how to cite it, we can help with that too. Our guide contains plenty of helpful advice on using and citing audiovisual materials, and we’ve tried to include links to collections and databases which are licensed for educational use where possible (but please do check the terms and conditions in each case).

3 places to look for research articles for Architecture, Planning and Landscape

You might have been given an academic article to read by a module leader or found one on a reading list but what happens if you need to locate some for yourself.

On our subject guide we have a whole list of core journal platforms and databases but which ones are best if you’ve got a topic and you’re just looking for academic articles related to it.

Don’t panic, we’ve created this short video to highlight which resources to use (Avery and Art and Architecture Archive in case you’re wondering). If you want to search more widely within Social Sciences journals then you might want to consider a more generic database like Proquest.

https://web.microsoftstream.com/video/6d22deee-8d99-4514-81e8-1ebe3268ebc6

Been told to read trade publications for Architecture but not sure where to start?

For certain projects or assessments you might be told to locate a specific type of information or ensure you include both trade and academic articles.

So what does this mean?

We get asked this quite a lot in the library so watch this short video to find out which library resources to use and how to search for them.

https://web.microsoftstream.com/video/e7fca4ed-1904-4fcd-a8f9-0fd73fa5ac34

3 places to look for images for Architecture, Planning & Landscape

We know students and researchers in SAPL use images for all sorts of reasons. You might know some websites which provide some good pictures or maybe you just Google to find some. But for academic work you’ll want to ensure they are good quality, you can reference them correctly and they adhere to any Copyright terms and conditions.

You can use some of the resources from the Library to look for pictures of buildings, plans, projects and architectural photographs.

This help video covers the 3 main places we’d advise you look.

https://web.microsoftstream.com/video/2713acc4-e8ec-4f3c-8052-15602a5bbed

Detail Inspiration and it’s 3000 projects spanning over 30 years.

Architects Journal Buildings Library and its 1900 projects spanning the last 20 years.

Art and Architecture Archive; a full text archive of magazines including Architects Journal and Architectural Review.

These articles have been indexed so that you can specifically search for images and photographs.

Resources for English Literature

Philip Robinson Library

We’ve got a wide range of specialist information resources for English literature students. We know it can be rather overwhelming knowing where to start, so this blog post gives you a whistle stop tour of what you can find.

Library Search and your reading lists are great starting points for finding books, journals and other resources for your modules, but we’ve highlighted below some more specialised resources which you’ll want to explore.

Interdisciplinary academic research databases

Interdisciplinary bibliographic databases, such as Scopus or JSTOR are a great starting point after Library Search, as they enable you to discover secondary literature, irrespective of the subject area, and have really helpful features to help you focus your search. This can be useful if your topic covers more than one subject area, or if you’re trying to scope your topic broadly. Content includes journal articles, conference papers, book chapters and reviews.

Specialist English literature research databases

Literature Online (LION) is an indispensable database for researching English literature. It comprises three main sections:

  • literary criticism: search articles from over 400 journals, together with the Annual Bibliography of English Language and Literature
  • primary texts:  350,000 works of poetry, prose and drama from the 8th century to the present
  • reference: encylopedias, topic overviews and author biographies
Screenshot of the Literature Online homepage, showing the basic search options.
LION search screen

You can search all of these information types at once with the All button selected, or focus on a particular section by choosing the appropriate button. 

If you haven’t used LION before, or would like a refresher, a good way to get an insight into the content, and different ways to search, is to try out the sample searches in this LION guide (Links to an external site.).

Film and Television Literature Index

If you’re researching a film or television studies topic, including literary adapations, then you may find Film and Television Literature Index to be useful. It includes articles from academic journals and film magazines, and coverage is focused on film and television theory, writing, production  and reviews.  

Digitised archives

Screen shot of a verse manuscript from Romanticism: Life, Literature and Landscape.
Romanticism: Life, Literature, Landscape

There is a vast range of digitised literary archives available, and it would be impossible to list every one, but we have picked out some major resources on the English Literature subject guide, in the General literary resources > archives section. These include:

Literary Print Culture

Perdita Manuscripts

Romanticism: Life, Literature and Landscape

Click on the links above for blog posts giving more information about these fascinating archives.

We also have a fascinating range of historic and contemporary literary archives in our own Special Collections section: please browse the web site by subject to find out more and read here for how to consult items and get further advice.

Literary texts: historic book collections online

Oxford World’s Classics

As well as the many individual literary print and e-books in our collections, we also have access to several major online collections of literary texts from different historical periods, which feature in-depth contextual information, facsimile images of the original texts, and sophisticated search and analytical features.

From Early English Books Online (EEBO) and Eighteenth Century Collections Online (ECCO), we have access to almost every book published in English from the fifteenth to nineteenth century, complemented by other specialist collections, such as Oxford Scholarly Editions Online.

ECCO screenshot

Our blog post gives an overview of five of the major collections. You can find all the individual books from these collections on Library Search, but we recommend searching and browsing the databases themselves (for example, EEBO) to get the best searching and viewing experience.

Audiovisual resources: Box of Broadcasts and Drama Online

Box of Broadcasts (BoB) contains over two million programmes from over 75 television and radio channels. Coverage mostly dates from 2007 to the present day.  It’s a great resource for finding literary adaptations on television, film and radio, together with documentaries about writers, and arts review broadcasts. Find out how to get the best out of BoB via our BoB blog post.

Drama Online screenshot

The Library has purchased various collections from the Drama Online database, which comprises the text of over 3,000 plays, from ancient Greek drama to contemporary works, together with contextual works relating to drama theory and practice. We have also recently bought several video collections, featuring films of major theatrical productions from the National Theatre, Globe and Royal Shakespeare Company.

Read more about this exciting platform and the very latest content on our blog post.

English Literature Subject Guide

This posting is just a taster of all the great resources available for your subject area. To access them and find out more, visit your Subject Guide and explore the databases and other subject specific resources which we’ve curated for English literature.

There are also subject guides for related subject areas which you may find useful, including English language and linguistics, and Film Studies.

Our Resource Guides point to different types of information, such as newspapers, images and statistics.

Resources for Translating and Interpreting Studies

The Library has lots of great collections and resources, so when it comes to finding wider reading for your topic or beginning research for your assignment or dissertation it might all seem a bit overwhelming.  Library Search can be a great place to start looking for information but there are many other resources you might want to try. To help you we’ve put together this list of some of the most useful online databases and collections for Translating and Interpreting studies.

Let’s dive in!

Scopus

Scopus is a large, interdisciplinary database of peer-reviewed literature, providing an index of articles, book chapters, conference papers and trade publications. 

One of the main advantages of using Scopus is that it provides a lot of useful information about the articles it indexes. This includes full reference lists for articles and cited reference searching, so you can navigate forward and backward through the literature to uncover all the information relevant to your research.  You can also set up citation alerts, so you can be informed of new, relevant material automatically.

Video guide from Scopus demonstrating how to expand your search results.

Scopus includes other smart tools that can help you track and visualise the research in your area, including author and affiliation searching, visual analysis of search results, a journal analyser, and author identifier tools. You’ll find tutorials and advice on using these features in the Scopus support centre and on their YouTube Channel.

JSTOR

JSTOR provides access to full-text materials including scholarly journals, books and book chapters in the arts, humanities, and social sciences. It has basic and advanced search options that allow you to search by topic keyword, author, subject area, title or publisher.

Take a look at our Get more out of JSTOR blog post to find tips for advanced searching on this database.

Screenshot showing the JSTOR homepage

Linguistics and Language Behavior Abstracts (LLBA)

Linguistics and Language Behavior Abstracts is an excellent resource for those interested in the nature and use of language.  The database focuses on academic resources for the study of language, including phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax and semantics, and descriptive, historical, comparative, theoretical and geographical linguistics.

LLBA has the added advantage of including a specialised linguistics thesaurus, which you can use in advanced search to refine and focus your search. The thesaurus provides a searchable list of all of the subject terms used in the database and highlights links between broader, narrower and related terms, helping you to select all of the keywords relevant to your topic.

Screen shot showing the thesaurus in LLBA.

ProQuest provide a helpful and detailed guide to LLBA which includes search tips for basic and advanced search as well as some sample searches you can work through to familiarise yourself with the database. 

Bibliography of Interpreting and Translation (BITRA)

BITRA is a bibliographic database containing over 80,000 records, including books, book chapters, journal articles and PhD theses, on topics relating to translation and interpreting. You can search the database precisely by subject, author, publication date and language, or choose from a selection of keywords (controlled vocabulary) to broadly search all records containing those keywords in the subject field.

Item records provide bibliographic information and an abstract to help you decide if the item is relevant to your research but you’ll need to use Library Search or Google Scholar to find full text copies of useful resources.

Nexis – International Newspapers

Newspapers can be a great source of information, with news stories and editorial opinion offering a fascinating angle on your research topic.

The recently updated Nexis Uni database enables you to search over 17,000 news, business and legal sources. This includes most UK national and regional newspapers, together with international sources, including newspapers, newswires and news magazines in multiple languages. Coverage of news titles often dates back to the 1990s and includes today’s news. Coverage is text only, and doesn’t include images, layout, adverts etc.

The simplest way to search is by selecting the News button from the Guided Search section on the database homepage:

Screenshot of the Nexis home page showing Guided Search with News highlighted
Screenshot of the Nexis home page showing Guided Search with News highlighted.

Type in your search term (use ” ” if searching for a phrase), select your date range, and click Search.

If you would like to try more complex searching (e.g. searching in a particular section of the newspaper, or combining terms together in various ways), then click on Advanced search from the home page, and select the ‘News’ tab.

Our Nexis blog post provides more details on how to get the most out of the database and you can explore Nexis Uni Video Trainings via the Help button at the top of the database homepage. You can find out more about the Library’s collection of international news resources in the international section of our Newspapers guide.

Remember to use your critical thinking skills when using newspapers as they may present biased opinion and inaccurate facts – watch out for Fake News!

Box of Broadcasts (BoB)

Box of Broadcasts allows you to access TV and radio broadcasts from over 65 channels, including most of the UK’s Freeview network, all BBC TV and radio content from 2007, and several foreign language channels. It’s a great resource for finding documentaries or critical opinions.

You can view archived programmes, create clips and playlists, and see transcripts to help with citation and translation. You can also search other user’s public playlists to see curated lists around topics similar to your own. There are lots of helpful tutorial videos on the BoB website.

Unfortunately, Box of Broadcasts is not available outside the UK.

Translating and Interpreting Subject Guide

This list was just a taster of all the great resources available for your subject area, to access these and to find out more visit your Subject Guide and explore the journals, databases and subject specific resources we’ve curated for Translating and Interpreting studies. 

There are also subject guides for specific languages which may be useful for you to explore, including Chinese and Japanese studies, German studies, French studies, Italian studies, and Spanish and Latin American studies.

Resources for Philosophy

The Library has lots of great collections and resources, so when it comes to finding wider reading for your topic, or beginning research for your assignment or dissertation it might all seem a bit overwhelming.  Library Search is a great place to start looking for information but there are many other resources you might want to try. To help you we’ve put together this list of some of the most useful online databases and collections for Philosophical studies.

Let’s dive in!

Scopus

Scopus is a large, interdisciplinary database of peer-reviewed literature, providing an index of articles, book chapters, conference papers and trade publications. 

One of the main advantages of using Scopus is that it provides a lot of useful information about the articles it indexes. This includes full reference lists for articles and cited reference searching, so you can navigate forward and backward through the literature to uncover all the information relevant to your research.  You can also set up citation alerts, so you can be informed of new, relevant material automatically.

Video from Scopus on how to expand your search results.

Scopus includes other smart tools that can help you track and visualise the research in your area, including author and affiliation searching, visual analysis of search results, a journal analyser, and author identifier tools. You’ll find tutorials and advice on using these features in the Scopus support centre and on their YouTube Channel.

JSTOR

JSTOR provides access to full-text materials including scholarly journals, books and book chapters in the arts, humanities, and social sciences. It has basic and advanced search options that allow you to search by topic keyword, author, subject area, title or publisher.

Take a look at our Get more out of JSTOR blog post to find tips for advanced searching on this database.

Screenshot showing the JSTOR homepage

Arts and Humanities Citation Index

Part of the Web of Science Core Collection, the Arts and Humanities Citation Index contains indexes for over 1,800 journals across 28 arts & humanities disciplines, dating from 1975 to present.  Once you’ve accessed the Web of Science homepage, select more settings and tick the Arts and Humanities Citation Index, to limit your search to this database.

Screen shot showing how to select the Arts and Humanities Citation Index from the Web of Science search page.

Like Scopus, the Arts and Humanities Citation Index provides a lot of useful information about the articles it indexes, including abstracts, keyword descriptions, full reference lists and cited reference searching within the web of science collection.  There are smart tools for analysing your results and options to set up search alerts to be notified of any new relevant material.

Web of Science provide a helpful and detailed guide to their Core Collection which includes search tips for basic and advanced search as well as a guide to setting up alerts and saving results.

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is a major reference work, compiled and kept up to date by experts in the field.  You can browse contents alphabetically, or use the search box to look for keywords, philosophers or philosophical movements. Each record includes an introductory abstract, entry contents, a bibliography, a list of related entries, and links to other useful online resources.

Reference works can be particularly useful at the beginning of your search when you’re looking for an overview of your topic area, or if you’re looking for a key fact to add to an argument, they can also be useful if you want to develop your knowledge of subject vocabulary.

Screen shot of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy home page.

PhilPapers

PhilPapers is a comprehensive index and bibliography of online scholarly material for philosophy, maintained by a community of philosophers.  The database includes books, journals and open access archives, while the linked PhilArchive repository provides links to open access publications. 

You can use basic or advanced search tools to look for material by keyword, find specific journals or explore user profiles of members of the community.  Item records provide helpful details such as an abstract, keyword and relevant categories as well as a list of references, citing articles and related reading.  You’ll also find a range of download options for the item.

Additionally, PhilPapers provides a reference collection of over 5000 philosophical categories organised hierarchically by topic, which you can browse from the homepage or via the Topic tab in the menu.  These are maintained by experts in the field and include a summary of the topic, a list of key and introductory works and a links to related categories.

Screen shot of an example topic page on PhilPapers.

Look out for the option to take a quick guided tour on the main homepage, this introduces you to the main features and tools of the database.

Box of Broadcasts (BoB)

Box of Broadcasts allows you to access TV and radio broadcasts from over 65 channels, including most of the UK’s Freeview network, all BBC TV and radio content from 2007, and several foreign language channels. It’s a great resource for finding documentaries or critical opinions.

You can view archived programmes, create clips and playlists, and see transcripts to help with citation and translation. You can also search other user’s public playlists to see curated lists around topics similar to your own. There are lots of helpful tutorial videos on the BoB website.

Unfortunately, Box of Broadcasts is not available outside the UK.

Philosophy Subject Guide

This list was just a taster of all the great resources available for your subject area, to access these and to find out more visit your Subject Guide and explore the journals, databases and subject specific resources we’ve curated for Philosophy students. 

Resource in focus: State Papers Online

The Library has access to the digitised State Papers Online from 1509 to the end of the State Papers series in 1782, providing a fascinating research resource for early modern Britain and Europe.

What are the State Papers?

They are predominantly official papers of the Secretaries of State from the period, and include correspondence, reports, memoranda and civil service drafts, covering a wide range of domestic and international matters, and emanating from the highest levels of power. The collections include letters from popes, diplomats, and rulers of other countries, as well as records such as military and naval registers, and thus provide a fascinating record of the Tudor, Stuart and early Georgian periods in England and beyond.

A selection of entries

It is an major resource for researching themes such as the monarchy, law and order, religious conflict, wars and treaties, international trade and the emergence of party politics.

What’s in this collection?

The digitised collections comprise the papers themselves, digitised from the original manuscripts, as well as the ‘calendars’, which catalogue and briefly describe or summarise the manuscripts, and which have been transcribed into text. The manuscripts themselves are mostly not searchable (except for a few series which have been transcribed). The calendars are searchable, and each calendar entry links to its manuscript, making the research process significantly easier than pre-digitisation.

How to search

You can search or browse the State Papers in various ways. We’d recommend selecting Advanced Search to access all the options for focusing your search. Note useful options such as fuzzy search, which enables you to search for spelling variants, plus the option to limit your search to records with a manuscript, and/or a transcript of the manuscript.

Advanced search screen

The Browse function may be useful if you wish to work through a particular series of State Papers: you can either browse the calendars or manuscripts.

There are various options for saving, downloading and exporting results.

Help and guidance

Help options
Help options

If you are using the State Papers for the first time, we’d recommend reading the relevant About State Papers Online section to get an overview of what each collection contains.

You will also find very helpful contextual information in the Research Tools section.

  • Reference includes glossaries, explanations of dates, weights and measures etc;
  • Links gives links to useful guidance such as paleography courses.
  • Essays gives more detailed insights into each collection, written by experts.
  • Key documents picks out important highlights from the collections.
  • You can also click Help in the top right of the screen for in-depth help with searching and exporting.