Monday, January 31, 2011

Studying for an Essay Test

Test day is here. You’ve packed your brain full of definitions, dates, and details, preparing for the traditional multiple choice and true & false questions, and now you’re staring at a fairly unexpected essay question.  How did this happen?  You've got a lot to lose if you cannot answer this question...a grade is a pretty steep sacrifice for lack of preparation for an essay test.  As you stare at the blank white paper you pick up your pencil and begin to muddle through a question which you do not know how to answer.  What can you do? Next time, prepare for the test as if you know it will be an essay test.
Essay questions are not meant to be easy.  They are meant to find out a deeper level of knowledge than a traditional "objective" test question.  Essay questions are based on broader ideas from the unit you studied.  Often, these questions are formulated around themes or "big ideas." Teachers like to use essay questions because they give students the opportunity to express everything they’ve learned over the weeks or months, using their own words. Essay test answers are not meant to be a regurgitation of simple facts (or even complicated facts).  They are to be more analytical and need to be organized in a sensible manner.
Review chapter titles. Textbook chapters often refer to themes. Look at each relevant title and think of smaller ideas, chains of events, and relevant terms that fit within that theme. Use the titles to help you.  They are there for a purpose.
As you take notes, look for code words. If you hear your teacher use words like “once again we see” or “another similar event occurred,” make note of it. Anything that indicates a pattern or chain of events is key. LISTEN for such clues.
Use your notes to outline some possible essay questions.  Try to formulate your own essay questions or have a study partner ask you broader questions using the chapter section headings to guide him/her.  If your teacher is kind enough to give you the essay questions ahead of time, make yourself an outline of what you want to cover in the essay.  Going into an essay unprepared is sure to lead to efforts to persuade your teacher you know about what you clearly don't (in other words, "bs your way through") or an effort that stops after about 2 sentences.
Practice your essay questions. Don't try to answer an essay question exactly like you think the teacher wants.  Part of the challenge of an essay question is putting the concepts and knowledge gained into your own words. Your overall evaluation should be based on how you express your knowledge in your own ideas that show your teacher he/she did the job of helping you learn.
**Ask your teacher for a copy of the rubric that he/she will use to evaluate your essay response.  While objective tests are much easier to evaluate (usually a right or wrong answer) essay tests are much more subjective in nature.  Teachers who use a rubric make the challenge of evaluating work much more objective.  Lack of a rubric means the teacher is left open for more inconsistencies between papers. 

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