Practice makes Perfect

My first blog focused on how much I enjoy the exam process with The University of London International Programme.  I used this week to think about the unique, writing oriented process during three years of exams and study with Goldsmith’s College and the English and Comparative Literature degree.  Practice makes perfect: managing exams requires a good understanding of writing as a process and clear goals about what I want to express.

Effective expression means thinking about texts in detail and developing an appropriately narrow focus in my essay plans. For me, the biggest reason time evaporates in the exam room is lack of clarity about what I want to say.  While studying the Advanced Units this year I realized if I cannot define exactly what I want to say in response to a question it does not matter how much time is allowed to write my essays.

 Writing an essay in one hour is like writing a short story; success depends upon having a clear message and good organization.  For me, the questions provide the organization and structure for my essay. Paying close attention to the question makes writing faster and easier. When I first started studying in this program I thought structure was my biggest writing challenge; this year I realized my biggest obstacle is having sufficient detail to develop ideas and arguments.

Developing an idea or argument can be a challenge. ‘Pre-writing’ exercises like the ones Joyce MacAllister advocates in ‘Writing About Literature Aims and Processes’ are very useful. At Pittsburgh Filmmakers we use similar exercises to develop characters, plot lines and ideas. It also helps me to write about a single theme in several texts. I might study love, desire, point of view, characterization, time, meter, psychoanalytic and feminist criticism in Chaucer, Henryson, Malory and Kempe.  One of my favorite essays compares love in Plato and Chaucer. For me, this approach is more useful than studying certain texts for each exam section.

Each exam section and every exam question has different expectations. Developing the habit of re-writing questions from each section as a thesis statement helped me learn how to develop essay plans. It also provides structure for my thinking process. Re-stating the question through out my essay plans, in my essays and in my transition statements helps me to stay focused on the question rubric.

Answering the questions can sometimes feel secondary to watching the clock in exams.  One tactic I adopted is to use the first hour for writing three essay plans rather than planning and writing one essay at a time. This thinking time is important to me; my ‘one hour plan’ gives me a better chance of recalling details and time to review my essays. That means 60 minutes to plan, 35 minutes for each essay and fifteen minutes to review all three essays. It is a different approach but helps change the ‘time’ dynamic.  It also helps me focus on details.

I learned to try different approaches to the exam model while studying and when revising. It is very stimulating and empowering to approach the task creatively. For me, exams are the most rewarding learning experience of the term. This year I learned how I approach exams informs the way I study all year; practice makes perfect.

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