Writing for in-class essay exams
Students examples with professors'
It is difficult to test a student's
knowledge using multiple-choice exams. Interpretation
of facts and demonstration of understanding
usually require that the student express his
or her ideas in writing. Thus, most students
will be required to take one or more in-class
essay exam. Such exams may involve short-essay
identifications or long essays.
Shorter In-class Essays
Typically, short-essay identifications
require students to define or identify a term
or concept and briefly
discuss its significance.
You should try to be very concise and direct
in your answer. In assigning this task, instructors
are looking to see if you can define
the term. They are also looking to see if you
know the term well enough to explain its significance
in relation to larger course themes and topics.
There are several ways you can
explain a term's significance.You could site
an example of how the term was used in a particular
lecture or reading. Or, you could provide an
example of how the term is applied in a particular
historical or contemporary context. You could
the term with another concept. You could even
analyze the conceptís meaning to point out conceptual
ambiguity or multiple meanings depending on
the context within which the term is used.
Students sometimes find short
identifications difficult to do because they
can't settle on one concise definition. Some
students simply donít know the term well enough
to give a convincing statement about its significance.
Longer In-class Essays
Longer essay questions typically
require students to respond to a question (or
questions) aimed at measuring their grasp of
course facts, theories and themes. In general,
instructors can discern how well the student
knows the material based on whether he or she
can respond to the question by drawing on class
readings and lectures. Those students who can
provide their own analysis (or
independent thinking) of course materials receive
higher grades than students who merely regurgitate
the material as presented by the instructor
or readings. Such exams often require the student
to balance a discussion of facts, theories,
examples, and analysis.
The first step in writing an in-class
essay is to determine exactly what the question
asks you to do. There are various keywords that
are commonly used by professors in essay exams.
Understanding what these keywords mean is a
necessary step in decoding
the question. If you are asked to define
a concept or theory, you are supposed tell what
the theory or concept is and is not. This may
involve placing the concept in its general class
and then differentiating it from other members
of that class. For example, a general definition
of "democracy" might be "government
decision making by the people." Within
that general definition, however, might be several
sub-categories including "direct democracy,"
"representative democracy," and "parliamentary
Professors in Government 101 often
will ask you to compare
and contrast two theories, concepts, or
authors' main points. To compare involves highlighting
the similarities and differences of each subject,
and then providing some details of the variations
between each subject. Contrast is similar to
comparison, but the emphasis is on the differences
or disagreement between subjects.
something involves the "how" and "why"
of it. You should try to make clear the reasons
for, or basic principles of something. If you
are asked to evaluate
something, you are required to provide your
judgement on its accuracy or usefulness. This
might involve judgement on a concept or theory's
accuracy in relation to actual events. In providing
your judgement, take care not to just express
your feelings alone. Instead, state how you
feel about the subject based on your informed
use of course concepts and theories.
For a more complete list of common
terms used in essay questions, click on decoding
the question. To see an example of an effective
long essay, and read an instructor's comments
on what he liked about the answer, click