Writing the English Literature Exam

English: A portrait of Anton Chekhov by his br...
A portrait of Anton Chekhov by his brother Nikolay Chekhov (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If there is one element of university education that tends to strike fear in students, it is surely the dreaded end-of-semester exams. Exams do take a lot of preparation, and even once you think you have a pretty good handle on the module content, it is still going to take some hard work to make sure that you are prepared to demonstrate to the examiners what you have learned. But in the same way that essays are a learning tool as well as a form of assessment, the preparation leading up to exams is when the ideas from the semester will finally ‘click’, and you will finally begin to see the connections.

Writing an exam response is different to writing an essay for one vital reason: in an exam, you only have one chance to get it right. This one distinction has a lot of important connotations. Because you only get one chance to get it right, it is essential to know exactly where you are headed right from the beginning. Just like in an essay, your exam should present an argument and then offer the reader adequate evidence and support to validate that argument. The process of writing an essay is often when the shape of the argument emerges. But in exam conditions, you need to discover your argument a bit more quickly.

Students will often write in the margin of their scriptbook a list of topics in lieu of an outline. But this kind of record doesn’t really demonstrate much in the way of the shape of argumentation. Instead, you can actually use the creation of an outline to help you find your argument. In an exam, begin with what you know, and then consider what argument this information might be supporting. Let’s take a look at this with a sample exam question:

Consider the way in which social change was explored by at least two playwrights from the early 20th century.

Remember, our goal here is to ultimately present an argument. We need to be able to tell the examiners something along the lines of “X and Y were the ways in which social change was explored by playwrights from the early 20th century.” We have revised the material extensively, have an hour to write the response, and aren’t quite sure what this argument might be. Well, let’s start with what we know:

Thesis Statement (argument): X was the way in which social change was explored by playwrights from the early 20th century.

Topic Sentence: Chekhov utilized doctor figures in his plays to figuratively ‘diagnose’ the problems of modern Russian society.

Topic Sentence: Shaw used bold symbolism (e.g. the destruction of an ark-like house by an unexplained bomb) to depict the more subtle problems of movement into a modern world.

Once you have you topic sentences, try to figure out what argument they might be adding up to. You will be surprised by the kind of extraordinary new connections that will find by looking at your topic sentences in this way. What seems to be connecting these two topic sentences is the idea of symbolism: Chekhov uses doctors as a symbol of the treatment of modern society; Shaw uses physical symbols to convey the issues faced by modern society. Suddenly, we have an argument:

Even those early 20th playwrights often considered to be working in the realist style turned to bold symbolism in their work in order to explore the often painful and incomprehensible changes faced by the modern world.

That is an argument, and exactly the kind of thing that the exam markers will be looking for. By working backwards through the outline during the first 2 or 3 minutes of the exam, you have a clear and sustainable argument that can be used to structure the entire essay. This argument can be introduced in your opening paragraph, supported with evidence in each of your body paragraphs, and then recapitulated in your conclusion.

This post is based upon teaching resources I developed while teaching at the University of Leeds.

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