Posted in Lessons by The Books Production Team on December 8, 2008


typewriter1          Well, ladies and gentlemen, I may not always be the most astute observer of the natural world, but as I’ve been walking my dog through the streets of the Central West End the last few mornings, it’s been difficult not to notice that it’s getting really fricking cold outside.  Now, I’m not sure how this whole “Long December” thing snuck up on us so fast, because it seemslike less than a month ago I was still wearing flip flops for a good portion of the week, but evidently there’s already been a dusting of snow across most of the Great Plains, the Rust Belt, and the Upper Northeast.  This can only mean a couple of things.  It means, first of all, as you read this, I’m certain that somewhere in America the Trans-Siberian Orchestra is hurtling towards a local opera house to play yet another horrific mash-up of Christmas Carols.  And it means, more importantly for you, that it’s time for one final push towards the end of the semester before we all go home to play Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel and “Rock Around the Christmas Tree.”  It is time, in short, to “get yo’ muthatruckin’ exam on.”

          Now, the context for this post is more or less the same as the context for THINK BRONZE MEDAL and HOW TO WRITE AN ‘A’ PAPER.  That is, I am much more qualified to give you information about the way the exam writing process works in the Humanities than I am in, say, the Natural Sciences.  But that doesn’t mean that I won’t give it my best shot on all accounts, because I think a lot of the information is applicable to multiple subjects.  Hell, George W. Bush was more qualified to run the Texas Rangers than he was the United States of America, and he did…well, hopefully, this post, whatever else it accomplishes, won’t alienate us from the rest of the world’s leaders.  So, just like Toad says when he picks up a turbo-mushroom in Mario Kart, “heeeere we go!” with four simple rules that should simplify the exam process and make it…simpler.

          Rule #1: Most professors have enormous egos.  When it comes right down to it, most of your professors think that they are awfully smart – and this is because, in general, most of us are smarter than the average cat.  Unfortunately, even though this is true, most of us also probably overvalue our intelligence in comparison with the rest of the world – but this is material for a different post.  The way this useful piece of information about your professors comes directly into play during exam week is this: if you are forced into making a decision between placing your studying emphasis on the original material as covered in a textbook and the meta-textual comments that your professor makes on that material during his or her lectures, go with the careful perusal of your notes.  In the real world, Eddie Van Halen’s guitar work on “Eruption” is way more important than anything your professor could possibly ever say about it, but in the world of semester exams, your job is to regurgitate your professor’s opinions regarding Mr. Van Halen’s tap-tap-tapping as close to verbatim as you possibly can.  Because, in the end, given our enormous egos, we mostly are looking for validation that what we say is important, and we look to you to give us that support – even though the premise of this artificial construction is completely ridiculous.

          Rule #2: If your professor gives you a study guide, that’s what you should study.  I realize this seems like common sense, but you’d be amazed how often students obviously neglect the study guide when preparing for an examination.  Now, let me tell you why this is a bad idea. While most of your professors have entered the teaching world because they derive genuine satisfaction from helping students learn valuable material, you must realize that we are also human.  Just like you, by this point in the semester we are tired – we’ve spent the last four months preparing for classes, writing letters of recommendation, and working on our own research projects – and just like you, your professors are looking to use their time as efficiently as possible.  The creation of a study guide represents additional, unnecessary work on the part of your teachers, and if we do this, you can be certain that we have two goals in mind: 1) to help our students because we want them to know what is important, and 2) to make the grading process go more quickly.  The better an examination is, the easier it is to grade.  If your professor gives you a study guide, use it.

          Rule #3: Memorize a quote or a few historical dates and use them during the exam.  Despite the prevailing notion that academia makes the majority of people cynical (and in many ways, it does), there’s also another common thread that can be traced among the professoriate.  At some point deep in our souls, we hate this cynicism, and as a reaction against this entropic force, we all become roughly akin to six-year-olds watching an amateur magician performing tricks at a birthday party when grading exams.  As Samuel Taylor Coleridge would say, we become very good, when dealing with our students, at willingly suspending our disbelief.  In fact, we want so badly to be impressed by you that we’re just waiting for you to pull a rabbit out of a hat – and, in the parallel world of the final examination, the metaphorical rabbit is a smart quote or an obscure piece of accurate history.  If you can do this well, you’re virtually guaranteed a high grade on any essay or short answer question.  But, you must also be careful, for although we are more than willing to be impressed, our cynical side becomes fiercely agitated if you perform this magic clunkily.  You must, first of all, be correct when presenting historical data, and the quote you select must make sense in the context of your answer.  We want to see the magic, not the rabbit’s ear sticking out of your hat’s trap door.

           Rule #4: Answer the question, but answer it in a way that accentuates your strengths.   The most common mistake that students make when answering essay questions on an exam is to completely ignore the original question.  Sometimes, this is the fault of a poorly constructed prompt.  More often, however, this is fundamental breakdown on the part of the student to recognize his or her primary responsibility – that of actually providing an answer to the question that has been asked.  That being said, you have a significant amount of leeway when writing your response.  Once you’ve answered the question, spend the remainder of your time giving examples (that are at least tangentially relevant) from what you remember best.  So, for example, if you are asked a question about the way Upton Sinclair’s literary naturalism depicts Chicago as a destructive environment in The Jungle, but you happen to also remember similar constructions in Native Son, feel free to impress us by telling us about Richard Wright’s dungeon of iron and steel – once you’ve at least briefly addressed the initial question.  This way, your answer shows depth and the ability to contextualize against other works – which is always a good thing.

           So, there you have it.  Four quick, simple rules to guide your way through the next week and a half.  Then, once it’s all over, we can all use our GPS systems to guide us over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house (we go).  Mine will be making cookies, and I’m quite certain they’ll be delicious.

6 Responses

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  1. MS said, on December 9, 2008 at 3:19 am

    Humphf…and sometimes an instructor learns something about his yet to be validated ego.

  2. Dr. Sanford Aranoff said, on December 10, 2008 at 12:09 pm

    Interesting advice. May I add something? Focus on the basic principles. Understand the logic and consequences. See “Teaching and Helping Students Think and Do Better” on amazon.

  3. CS said, on December 10, 2008 at 9:40 pm

    But really, pay attention the EVH’s guitar solos.

  4. The Other Barry H said, on December 10, 2008 at 10:59 pm

    I dont know Joe. When a student repeats something I said in class, or something I wrote on their prompt it makes me want to throw up.

  5. lastminuteacademic said, on December 11, 2008 at 3:23 pm

    It’s sad when we are told to regurgitate the info our professor has given us. The thing is, it’s true. The more I quote something my lecturer has said, the better grades I get. TIP: if you can intelligently expand on what’s been said you get brownie points.

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