I have been thinking about how I would like my exam experience this term to be different from my experience in previous terms. This term I am trying very hard to say exactly what I mean when attempting the exam questions. In the English and Comparative Literature Department we get to choose which questions we will answer, so there is no excuse for not saying what I mean, yet it is still a challenging thing to accomplish. Today I realized that it is really a matter of how thoroughly I think through the questions and my responses.
A good think is so invigorating and refreshing, I wonder why I do not do it more often. Today I also realized that thinking through a question and my response is a habit, so the process can be learned. Very often I read an examination question, promptly decide whether I agree or disagree, or that I will answer the question in a certain way. The problem with that is I am usually seeing the question for the first time and my ideas are not well developed. When answering exam questions the unique circumstances enable my unfortunate tendency to jump to conclusions. While thinking through my process I stumbled upon the ‘By The Numbers’ method of saying what I mean. ‘By the Numbers’ is a method used to teach complex issues in a coherent, simplified way; break any task down to one, two, three, etc., and master the steps. By mastering the steps you master the larger task.
Mastering the steps to organize exam essays takes a bit more focus and depth of thought than I have appreciated in the past. ‘By The Numbers’ really helps me to explore a range of relevant issues. It helps me remember to keep thinking until I have plotted my answer from one paragraph to the next. It helps me to completely answer the exam questions mentally before putting pen to paper. It also helps me overcome my tendency to jump to conclusions. Thinking through a question by the numbers, from beginning to end, and before stating a thesis, is a good first step to saying what I mean.
A good first step, like thinking things through before I start to write an essay, is the key to accomplishing my exam goals this term. One year, in an academic seminar on exam prep, virtually every participant stated they had difficulty with argumentation. In other words they had difficulty developing a complete answer to a question in an organized, efficient way. It is truly motivating when it finally does happen. The success, and the discipline required to achieve it, is very empowering.
For me, that discipline is one of the great appeals of this program. Approaching exams and essays ‘by the numbers’ is helping me to engage with the literature and the learning process. The education I am getting here is not just reading some great texts. It is also the opportunity to shape intelligence into a constructive and productive asset. The ability to say what I mean is evidence of disciplined intellect, and disciplined intellect is something I want quite badly.
Expressing myself in a disciplined, productive, and efficient way is very exciting and rewarding to me; it is well worth the effort, revision, and nerves invested. For me, it is evidence of a real personal achievement. It feels so rewarding and yet so surprising. It is surprising because the key to saying what I mean seems to be something so simple. Try it by the numbers and make a habit of the process: think through the question and the answer, make notes about your thoughts, rearrange the points of fact, review, summarize, state your conclusion, then restate the conclusion as a thesis. This year I just might be able to say what I mean, even when staring at the blank pages of our A4 exam books.