Despite the progress I made on DD307 I’m still not confident about my exam technique. However, by pooling the best advice I’ve been given I do have a very specific approach that I intend to apply for the DD303 exam. It’s born from confusion and cogitation and its efficacy hasn’t be validated, but I was reassured to find that the essay plans it produces are very similar to those in the Erika Cox/Rob Jarman DD303 revision pack (from which I’ve incorporated some additional tips).
What should an exam answer contain
A lingering problem I’ve had is knowing exactly what level of writing is appropriate for exam answers. Compared to writing essays, this has been a harder question to answer as there are fewer assessed exams and the only feedback you do receive is your exam mark! I found it virtually impossible to track down specimen student exam answers to get see examples of good (and bad) answers. Descriptions of what examiners are looking for are rarely prescriptive, often promising more than they deliver. In the end, the most useful summary came from my tutor. What I heard was that you should aim to
Demonstrate understanding and knowledge (1) that is relevant (2) to the question being asked, has a structure (3) and contains supporting examples/evidence (4).
Make the question do the work
This approach is a prescriptive application of the “sift, select and arrange” strategy which aims to meet the 4 objectives above. It’s founded on an ability to rapidly and surgically analyse exam questions.
Choosing the right question
Content words are all about relevance. When you turn over the exam paper, look for the content words in each question. Assuming you’ve been selective in your revision this will immediately allow you to eliminate any questions which aren’t relevant to you over the next 3 hours (i.e. you don’t know much about them). For the remaining questions do another, very careful reading of the content words. This is a crucial moment and time for very clear thinking. The questions you choose should be based on your confidence that you clearly understand which aspect of the topic the question addresses. There are a few possible scenarios. If you know your topics and understand the questions so well, that you can quickly assess which you can recall the most relevant information for, that’s the question I would choose.
For example, the question
Critically consider the role of episodic and semantic memory in autobiographical memory.
would be on my list of potentials, as I’ll have studied autobiographical memory. It’s also a candidate for an answer as I know something about issues relating to episodic and semantic memory in relation to autobiographical memory. The process words can help in making your decision. ‘Critically’ says to me that this is an evaluation question. If I can recall the definition of ‘criticise’ and ‘consider’, I can check my confidence in terms of my ability to
Criticise: Make judgements (backed by discussion of the evidence or reasoning involved) about the merit of theories or opinions or about the facts of a matter.
Consider: Look at two (or more) sides of an argument, and present the logic, evidence, etc. of both sides.
A less ideal scenario is that you know exactly what one or more questions are asking, and that you don’t know much about the topic, but you’re unclear about what the remaining question(s) are asking. In that case I’d say it’s a higher risk strategy to go for a question you don’t understand. You’re more likely to do well dredging up as much knowledge as you can and checking its relevance, than gambling that the knowledge you have matches the question. Clearly there are other combinations and degrees to these scenarios, but the principle is to use the content words to help you make your best judgement.
Writing your best answer
Having chosen your question(s), a lot of the important decisions have been made. You can now let go of all of the other topics and sub-topics from that part of the exam (phew!) and, with laser precision, focus your spotlight of attention on the relevant sections of your chosen topic. You’re in recall mode, using whatever tricks you have to get as much of that information onto paper as quickly and concisely as possible. Repeatedly looking at the content words might help with cued recall. I’m presuming that the questions are worded such that the offprints associated with the chapter topics will always be relevant (to a greater or lesser extent). I’m still experimenting with using linear or radial writing approaches at this stage (as you can see from an early plan I did below). Hopefully with practice I will refine this approach so I can create much neater plans!
Having exhausted your memory for content, you can turn your attention to the process word(s). These are mostly about structure. If you can manage it, it can be useful to combine the generic process word definition(s) with the specific content words to produce a prescriptive plan (I’ve also found this a useful 5 minute revision task). For example, you might re-write the question above
Identify two (or more) sides relating to the role of episodic and semantic memory in autobiographical memory. Present the logic and evidence for each, then use this as the basis of a judgements about their relative merits.
Whilst I had access to exact definitions of consider and criticise, it took me about 3 minutes to write that. Having done so it’s a pretty good guide as to how to organise the information at my disposal, and actually suggests some improvements I could have made on the the answer plan I came up with on my first attempt.
The way I impose my structure on the information is to write numbers against the notes to indicate the (paragraph) order in which I’ll write the answer. This will give n points (given my writing speed, n should be about 6). I was advised by my tutor to get straight into answering the question, so point 0 is an introduction to the topic as a whole, and is likely to include some key definitions. (The revision pack I have explicitly advises against using the introduction to simply list the points and conclusion which are about to follow.) This ticks a box of using relevant key terms, and using those terms (and abbreviations) then makes writing the rest of the essay quicker. The remaining points are the heart of the answer. Point n+1 is a conclusion which ties points 1-n together around a statement showing how they answer the question e.g.
In the context of autobiographical memory, semantic and episodic memory play the role of “binding the self to reality”, so as to create a coherent sense of self in the past. …
The outline answers in the Erika Cox/Rob Jarman DD303 revision pack are structured in a similar way to this i.e. numbered points with pointers to relevant material. An interesting feature of these outlines is that they’re written using process words. For example
2. Outline the five axioms assumed by SEU […]
This gives ideas of how to use process words from the Description and Summary categories to create internal structure within your points/paragraphs i.e. most changes of point benefit from some initial definitions and outlines. It’s worth analysing one of these outlines as they show you can apply process words like account for when you need to address, for example, limitations of one theory from the perspective of another.