On Decoding Essay Exam Questions

Today I proctored my literature class’s midterm exam. I watched my students frown in concentration; one or two looked patently anxious and overwhelmed. I wanted to pull those students aside and say to them, “It’s okay. Don’t worry. There’s nothing to be anxious about – I have carefully placed clues in all the questions to help you answer them successfully.

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Don’t think of this as a test; instead, think of it as a communication. Once you understand what the questions are asking, you will be able to answer them.”

Of course, it’s easy for me to say that: I’m the professor. I know the subject inside and out. What seems clear to me may be a mystery to my students. And I’m not taking into account that factors outside the exam may be causing their anxiety: they may not have studied, they may not have kept up with the reading, they may have had a hellish week of exams, they may be exhausted or sick, or they may be dealing with personal challenges. My students have a lot at stake in their exams; it’s natural that some of them would respond with anxiety.

The more I thought about it, the more the exam seemed to be an analogy for the myriad difficulties of the communicative process. I, as the writer, wanted my students to understand the exam questions as I had intended them to be understood. I expected my students to have certain background knowledge (a solid grasp of the course readings, lectures, and discussions) in order to be able to understand the exam and respond appropriately to it.

My students, as the readers, come to the exam with a variety of perspectives, none of which correspond exactly to the ideal student-reader I have in my mind. This accounts for the diverse responses to and performance on the exam, which I had intended to be an opportunity for them to demonstrate their success in learning course concepts.

Writers work to make the gulf between themselves and their readers as narrow as possible. But there are also things a reader – that is, an essay exam taker – can do to succeed in interpreting the exam. If you can recognize common essay exam clues, you can answer the questions more effectively.

I found some great ideas in Patricia Spatt’s book Writing With Sources, which I drew on for the following discussion. Spatt argues that the key to understanding an essay question is to decipher the meaning of the question’s key verb.

For example, if the question directs you to summarize, outline, or list, you are being asked to present information you read about or discussed in class. Your object here is to show the professor that you know the concepts that the question specifies. These three verbs ask you to present that information in different ways, however. A summary is by definition a condensed version. An outline (again, by definition) sketches the broad overview of an idea or argument. A list asks for many pieces of information presented one at a time, often in a somewhat choppy manner.

Another kind of essay question verb gives students a long leash: verbs like discuss, explain, or show don’t dictate a particular organizational strategy. When you’re given this much freedom, make sure you stick closely to the question’s topic. Don’t discuss (or explain or show) more – or less – than the question asks you to. For example, if the question asks you to discuss the Norman Conquest’s effect on English literature, don’t spend a lot of time discussing the conquest itself. Focus on the vast influence that Anglo-Norman culture had on English literature’s development.

A third category of question asks you to apply a specific organizational strategy, using verbs like compare and contrast, analyze, or define. Although you’re often pressed for time in an essay exam, these questions repay a little time spent planning. Make sure your essay’s central claim and your topic sentences clearly signal the required organizational scheme.

Finally, some essay questions ask you to take a stand. Verbs like interpret, evaluate, or justify invite answers that have a persuasive purpose. Keep in mind, however, that an essay examination is an instrument used primarily to evaluate whether you have mastered subject material. Questions like these invite you to present your viewpoint, but don’t get carried away. Let the question’s topic be your guide.

Do you have any test-taking stories, either good or bad? Share them in the comments!

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2 Responses to On Decoding Essay Exam Questions

  1. Charlie says:

    Great post, Loren. I’ve made making my students better writers the primary focus in the past few semesters, and a lot of what I’ve been doing is teaching them how to decode what’s being asked of them. I’ve also focused more on writing templates–there’s a few “standard” ways to write philosophical essays, and I explain what the templates are, who they generally appeal to, and so forth, and I’ve noticed that this has really helped them get their ideas in a somewhat manageable structure. As I hone this process, their papers, from an objective point of view, get better and better.

    This bothers me sometimes, because I generally avoid “5 paragraph” ways of teaching how to write. I don’t teach that any template’s better than any others, so I stay away from normatizing their use, and the students have commented on how helpful they are, but in the back of my head there’s still the worry that I’ve put them in a box.

  2. loren says:

    Hi, Charlie — I think there’s a distinction to be made between putting students in a box and giving them tools to structure their ideas.

    I think it helps students to learn to write within a discipline: many students come to college-level work believing that there is basically one way to write well. When they’re confronted with the widely differing expectations across academic disciplines, they often struggle to adapt. It seems to me that you are doing them a great service.

    Thanks so much for a wonderfully thought-provoking comment.


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