Essay Exams

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Exams with short-answer and essay questions can be the cause of anxiety for many students. It's common to be unsure of how to prepare for or how to write these exams, especially if you've had few exams of this type at university.

Learn what is required on exams that have a significant written component, such as detailed short-answer questions and/or formal essays. Included here are types of questions, as well as preparation and writing strategies.

Why Short-Answer & Essay Questions?

Essay and short-answer exams test your ability to demonstrate an understanding of the relationships between the course content, the course objectives, and the practical and theoretical perspectives used to understand the course. You are expected to integrate what you have learned in lectures, readings, and discussions over the duration of the semester and apply that knowledge. You are then asked to articulate these connections critically and effectively in written form, usually in complete sentences and paragraphs.

What's the Difference?

  • In general, both short-answer and essay questions require demonstration of your knowledge of the course material by tying your answer back to the concepts covered in the course
  • Essay questions typically require a thesis (argument) and supporting evidence, which comes from knowledge gained from course lectures, readings, seminar discussions, and assignments.
  • Short-answer questions generally require less analysis and are more concise than essay answers

Reading the Questions

Before you begin writing, you first need to look at the question critically, and analyze what the professor is asking and testing. The questions and terminology will give you an idea of the type of answer that is required and the amount of evidence that is needed to support your argument.

There are six general categories of terms that both short-answer and essay questions use: define, identify, describe, relate, demonstrate, and evaluate.

  • Define requires a detailed definition of the term you are given, sometimes with the use of examples.
  • Identify requires an answer which includes the who, what, when, where, why of a term. In some courses' exams, you may be asked to label a diagram's parts and/or describe the process(es) depicted in the diagram.
  • Describe (i.e. illustrate, describe, discuss) requires a written representation of the concept or question, sometimes including detailed examples. This can involve expecting you to look at the question from different points of view.
  • Relate (i.e. analyze, relate, compare and contrast) asks you to identify similarities, differences, and/or associations between concepts.
  • Demonstrate (i.e. argue, explain, justify, prove, defend) requires logical evidence or arguments to support a specific statement or conclusion. This may include the use of formulae, processes, methodologies, or diagrams learned in class to solve a problem.
  • Evaluate (i.e. criticize, evaluate, interpret) requires you to comment on a concept, theory or event, criticizing and/or explaining the meaning or significance of the question as completely as possible.

Preparation Strategies

  • Review course outlines to get a sense of the themes around which the course is organized. Course outlines can also be used to provide information to help prepare sample questions. The Library's online workshop, A Guide for University Learning , has tips for reading and understanding your course outlines and determining the course objectives
  • Review your lecture and text notes regularly to keep the content fresh in your mind. Look for themes, ideas, concepts, and trends that recur throughout the course; study notes can be organized around these major ideas
  • Be active in your learning strategies — don't just read your notes! Explain concepts out loud, tell them to a friend, or use a strategy such as concept mapping to organize your thoughts and show how concepts are related or differentiated
  • Remember that essay exams require you to be analytical and critical about the themes of the course. Think about the course themes and learn to recognize your strengths and weaknesses in the course to provide a focus for your studying as well as opportunities for improving on your weaker areas

Practising Short-Answer and Essay Questions

For many students, writing out the answers to practice questions is an essential part of preparing for these types of exams. Listed here are ideas for how to create and use practice questions before the exam.

  • Begin by reviewing your notes from lectures, seminars, and the textbook, as well as any course notes provided online, and creating summary or study notes
  • Formulate questions based on the different categories of questions discussed above. Use old midterms, your course outline, study partners, and your lecture and text notes to help you predict and create possible short-answer or essay questions
  • Create outlines to answer your possible questions. Choose a definite argument and organize the supporting evidence logically
  • Try using mnemonics or other techniques to help you remember your outline
  • Practise answering your questions within a limited time frame. Try to budget your time according to how much time you think you will have for each question on the exam
  • Arrange a study group to discuss possible questions and key issues or concepts from the course. Choose group members carefully to ensure everyone is motivated to participate. To make the group even more effective, everyone should be at about the same point in their preparation for the exam. Learn more about Group Work and working effectively in groups

Special Situations

  • The instructor gives the questions or areas of study to the class ahead of time: "Research the questions from your text, lecture notes, and other supplemental resources, and write down outlines for your answers ahead of time. Instead of trying to memorize a complete response, work on memorizing an outline or key points
  • The instructor gives a list of terms from which short-answer questions will be drawn ahead of time: Refer to your text, lecture notes, and outside sources (if applicable) to make a single coherent definition for each term. This list may also help direct your studying as you can use concept mapping to connect the various terms into larger themes or concepts
  • The exam is a take-home exam: You have some time to practise your answers. Prepare as if you were going to write the exam on campus. Don't put off all of your studying until you receive the take-home exam, or you may spend too much time researching the material and not enough time writing the paper

During the Exam

  • Read the instructions carefully, noting how many questions you need to answer in each section. Essay exams often include a choice of questions; don't waste time by doing more than required!
  • Read all the questions on the exam before you begin writing. Consider the mark distribution to give you a general idea of how you should divide your time and to help you determine how much detail is required for an answer. You don't want to spend 20 minutes writing a definition that's only worth two marks
  • Try to stick to your time plan — it's usually better to have something written for each question, even if the answer is incomplete, rather than to provide nothing at all. If you run out of time on a question, jot down the rest of your ideas in point form. Your instructor may give partial credit for your ideas
  • Process the questions to ensure you know how to answer them. Pay close attention to the wording of the question. Ask yourself what (i.e. identify, situate, explain) you are being asked to do and how you are required to do that (i.e. place within a time period, theoretical approach, formula, etc)
  • Make a brief outline for the questions you plan to answer. Writing out your points will help you be concise and fit in all the pertinent information. Finally, ensure that all of your answers have a clear structure, with all points evident and explicit, so that your instructors and TAs will find them easy to mark
  • Try to leave enough time to review your answers at the end of the exam. Read over your answers to make sure each response includes the required components

Need Advice or More Information?

The Learning Commons, located on the 1st floor of the Library, can provide advice and information on preparing for and writing exams:

  • We can provide information and advice on exam preparation, time management, and many other learning and study-related topics for Guelph students. You can set up an appointment for yourself or a small group from your class, cluster, or floor
  • We also offer individual writing assistance to first-year and ESL students. Take advantage of our writing help by stopping by during our drop-in hours. Please note that we provide assistance relating to preparing for essay or short-answer examinations but will not look over take-home exams.
  • Workshops, seminars, and short courses on learning, studying, writing, and technology topics are offered by the Library & Learning Commons throughout the fall and winter semesters.