It’s That Time of the Semester

US Navy 030313-N-3228G-002 Nearly 250 candidates for E-5 mark their answer sheets while taking the March 2003 advancement exam at the Club Pearl Complex

U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate 1st Class William R. Goodwin. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

It’s mid-term exam season!

These are some checks you should do before turning in any take-home essay exam for a history class. If you have any ambition to do well, you should be at the point where you think you’ve “finished”  AT LEAST 24 hours (preferably several days) before the deadline, and then look at this checklist.

1. Did you do the reading for the course, and show up every day or nearly so?

Of course it’s too late now to fix this, but if the answer to that was “no,” re-calibrate your expectations for this exam right now. If you do well, it will be through sheer luck. (You might want to remember this experience next time…)

2. Look at your exam paper. Look at it next to any printed text — like your textbook, for example. Does the font on your exam look huge?

Guess what — it’s going to look huge to the person who grades it, too. And when the person grading a big stack of papers comes across one with a gigantic font, they sigh. They know they’re about to read something thrown together by someone struggling desperately to fill the space. I hope that’s not the case with your exam, but in a huge font, that’s what it’s going to look like. So make it a normal font. Times New Roman always works. An exam is not a time to be creative with fonts.

3. Now that your exam is in a normal font — does it reach the page length requirements you were given?

No? Well, guess what. If you wrote half as much as was asked for, the best you can hope for is half credit (even assuming everything you did write is solid gold!!). And half credit isn’t a passing grade.

Write more. And make it good.

Okay, now you have enough words. Now, worry about what kind of words they are.

4. Did you answer the question directly, and fully?

Read over the question again, and your answer. Did you stick to the point? Did you answer all the parts of the question? If there’s any part of the question that you dismissed as “impossible,” or for any other reason didn’t answer? You must answer it if you hope to get anything like full credit. I can guarantee you that in any class of 30 students, at least 5 are going to answer this same question thoroughly, in all its parts, incorporating course readings and their own original analysis. Those people will get As. You can be one of them, but you have to stop thinking it’s “impossible” and just do it.

5. Did you answer the question accurately?

Did you check all your facts and dates? And did you look them up in your course materials, NOT Google?

If there’s something in an exam that you don’t recognize, and you can’t find it in your course materials (the index in the back of a textbook is the first place to start, if you have one), then you might try Wikipedia just to get yourself enough information to know where to find the term in your lecture notes or other readings. But BEWARE OF WIKIPEDIA. Make sure you’re looking at the right entry, for starters. Wikipedia will often have many different people or events with the same name, so you need to make sure you’re looking at the one that’s relevant for your course. If you’re in “Hist 110, Russia since 1855” and the guy you’re looking up was a monk who lived in the 1700s, you probably have the wrong guy (yes, this is an actual mistake I’ve seen!).

Once you know you looked up the right term in Wikipedia, read the entry just to find out enough about the term to know where it was covered in lecture or the course readings. DO NOT USE WIKIPEDIA IN YOUR EXAM ANSWER! Even assuming Wikipedia gives you accurate information (it doesn’t always), and assuming you cite it (if you don’t, you’re plagiarizing and deserve an F in the course at best), Wikipedia still isn’t likely to help you. It’s a general reference work, and the answer you should be giving in a history essay exam should be a lot more than general reference information. Your answer is supposed to demonstrate your mastery of the readings and your analytical thinking about historical concepts. Wikipedia gives you neither of those things.

Instead of Wikipedia, find the term you don’t know in your course readings and lecture notes. Obviously, if you haven’t done the readings or been to all the lectures, you’re now in trouble. This is why we tell you to do the readings and go to class. You cannot expect a respectable grade if you don’t do those things.

But let’s say you have, and you find the terms that confuse you in your notes, and one or two of the readings. DO NOT REGURGITATE! Do not, in other words, just put what you found straight into your exam essay — for one thing, you should cite anything you quote or paraphrase from another source. For another, your exam is supposed to be almost entirely your own words and ideas (the occasional quote is fine, but a quote salad is NOT!)

Instead of regurgitating course materials onto the page, slow down. Read the materials carefully, and think about them. Re-read the question, and think about how the two are connected. Brainstorm how you want to answer the question — you might make some lists, draw pictures, talk it through with your cat. Whatever. Just sort through the material in your own way, thinking about what it means, what questions you have about it, and how you can answer those questions. Mull it over, and try it a few different ways. Then write it up into a nice essay. That’s what A and B students do.

The difference between B students and A students is that A students don’t just think through the material and arrange logical and accurate answers in their own way — A students also contribute substantive ideas of their own that demonstrate original critical thinking. It doesn’t have to be original in the sense that no one else has ever thought of it before. It’s original in the sense that the student independently brought their own ideas to the course material and synthesized the two in some meaningful way. They didn’t just pose interesting new questions about the material and its significance, but they made a thorough, thoughtful stab at answering them, too.

The following are NOT examples of a student’s original contribution:

Topic X is important because a lot of people talk about it.

Topic X matters because it’s the main subject of our course.

Topic X is really cool.

I’ve always been really into topic X.

I really learned a lot about topic X from this course.

If you’ve got statements like this in your essay, just take them out. Every word in your essays should be adding value — if you’re just re-stating information that’s already in the question, or stating the obvious, then delete it. If you’re just stating your personal preference, delete it. There’s a big difference between personal preference (“I like / don’t like X”) and your independent thinking (“When Trotsky argues that the ends justify the means, it seems to me like he’s assuming the ends are predictable, but they aren’t.”)

Okay. Now you’ve got full, accurate, substantive answers. Are you done? No.

6. Now it’s time to check your spelling and grammar.

This does not mean running the spellcheck and grammar check in MS Word. Neither are reliable.

And yes, this stuff does matter, even if your answers are brilliant. Because you may not get credit for your brilliance if the person grading you can’t tell what the heck you’re talking about because your spelling and grammar are all over the map.

Also, what do you think it looks like to your grader if you complete a whole essay exam on Imperial Russian history and you can’t spell “Tsar” correctly? (“Czar” is less preferable, but acceptable – “Tzar” is just wrong.) It looks like you’re sloppy, semi-literate, and/or just don’t care. That may not be the case, but that’s how you’re presenting yourself. For the same reason that you shouldn’t go to a job interview wearing shorts and flip-flops (no matter how brilliant and qualified you might be), you shouldn’t turn in any assignment for school or work with ANY spelling or grammar mistakes. It makes you look like an idiot. And you’re not an idiot, so make sure people know that.

To spell correctly, you need to regularly use an actual dictionary, not an in-built software spellchecker. While you’re at it, make sure you’re spelling your instructor’s name correctly on your exam. It’s disrespectful to not bother to check to get someone’s name right. Don’t start your exam by disrespecting the person grading it!

If you have trouble with grammar, you should be working with a writing tutor (most campuses have a writing center for this purpose). There are also a bunch of good books you can get to help you work on grammar and clarity. But the best thing you can do to improve your grammar — and a host of other skills — is to read a lot. Actual books, too, not just magazines and the internet. Read a variety of things, and think about the words.

When checking an essay before turning it in, read it out loud. Don’t read what you think it says, but read it exactly as it is on the page — this will often make you notice typos, fragmented sentences, and other problems that you didn’t notice before.

7. Turn it in in the right place, in the right format.

If your prof asked for a hardcopy, turn in a hardcopy. If your prof asked for an electronic copy, turn in an electronic copy. If your prof asked for both, turn in both. Are you sensing a pattern here? Follow instructions. Always. Honestly, if you show up and follow instructions when told to, you’ve already mastered 80% of success in life. Just do it. If your prof specifies a particular format for an electronic submission, be sure to get it right. If you don’t know how to upload to course software, now is the time to learn — you’ll inevitably have to do it more often later, so practice now. If a hardcopy, make sure you staple it. If you leave a hardcopy somewhere — an office, a mailbox — make sure it has your name, the prof’s name, and the course name all prominently on it, so it doesn’t get lost. If it’s an electronic submission, make sure it has a sensible file name, something like your last name plus the assignment title. Naming your file “Paper.doc” makes you look careless (and is also a good way to accidentally overwrite the paper you haven’t turned in yet for one class with a paper for another class…). If you submit your paper by upload, make sure you view your file after it’s uploaded to make sure it’s really there, and didn’t get turned into gibberish by the system. It is your responsibility to safely get your work to your grader — so double-check that you did it right! There’s no excuse for submitting a file in an unreadable format — in fact, if you do so, it’s likely your grader will think you have no paper at all and are trying to pull the wool over their eyes (since this is a sadly common tactic).

8. Now that you’ve turned it in, DON’T sit and hope for a great grade.

The grade you get is not a matter of hoping. Or praying. Or wishful thinking of any kind. It’s also not a judgment of how much, or how little, your professor likes you. It’s simply an assessment of how the work you turned in compared to that your classmates turned in. If you know the material and reflected that knowledge on paper, with your own original, thorough, specific reasoning, then you should do very well. If you know you didn’t do all the reading, you didn’t put much effort into your writing, and/or you didn’t really think about what you wrote down, then you don’t deserve to do well, and if you do get a decent grade, it will be a matter of sheer undeserved luck that won’t really feel good anyway (and deep inside you know that). Take responsibility. If it didn’t work out this semester, start fresh next time. You can do it.

This entry was posted in Teaching, Writing and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *