The Rhetoric of Exams

Cicero statue

My favorite rhetorician: Marcus Tullius Cicero. This year in my courses I am studying the use of classic themes in English literature, and the importance of classical theories of rhetoric in the education of Early Modern, Restoration, Augustan, and Romantic writers.

The ‘Rhetoric of Exams’ might sound odd to you, but I think there is a definite discourse of exams that merits some investigation, analysis and understanding. This year my goal is to embrace it. During my BA English study I have worked with tutors and coaches in a variety of ways that have all proved to be very useful and productive. This year I have a rhetoric coach. Considering exams and my participation in them from this point of view is very enlightening.

My current interest in rhetoric all started in both predictable and serendipitous ways. Predictable because, like my colleagues, I am preoccupied with getting the most productive results from available study time, really learning and applying knowledge, and getting good marks in exams.  There is a real relationship between those three points which should be articulated in order to achieve those goals, and which brings me to the very fortunate serendipity which occasioned my meeting and beginning to work with a rhetoric coach.

All serendipity is fortunate, but in this case the happy accident should be magnified by underlining it.  I contacted a local university’s English Department about using their academic library and subsequently found their small band of lively, generous, doctoral candidates in rhetoric.  That’s not really the serendipitous aspect of the experience though it certainly doesn’t happen every day.  It really lays in the coincidence that contemplation and analysis of my study experience shows how focusing on the rhetoric of different domains, like reading, research, and composition, is the most productive area to place my time and concentration.

Why rhetoric?  All through the year I have been studying with an eye towards the points mentioned earlier, productive use of time, learning and applying knowledge, and exam results.  To help myself understand and manage these issues I made a Pareto diagram showing tutor feedback from my study support essays. Clearly stating points so that credit can be given for them, naming the critical arguments articulated in my papers, and using short, precise statements were frequent comments.  This is a little frustrating because I made the rhetorical decision to write my essay in a particular way thinking it showed my knowledge effectively. In my rhetorical process showing knowledge equaled argument, which I learned is not the only requirement for effective expression in the arena of exams.

Tutors regularly give me positive comments on my knowledge of texts, historical periods and expression, but something more is needed to achieve the best results. There is another clear step that I will benefit from taking in my study and writing. After all, we are evaluated on how we respond to a particular question, not on generalizations.  This strikes me as very fair, and I like having a high and immoveable bar to measure my learning and performance against.

For me, the ‘Rhetoric of Exams’ includes audience (in this instance our examiners) expectations, the rhetoric of the questions we are presented with, and the rhetoric of how I structure my response to them. While I study and revise for exams there is a rhetoric of reading, researching and writing that it benefits me to consider. It makes it possible to be persuasive, comprehensive, and clear when articulating a response to a question. I have gained some important insights from considering rhetoric in my study process and exams. Notable among them is how to gather specific information that will be useful to me in exams, developing a process for linking that information to my writing, and a process for producing an essay plan that engages with examiners’ expectations, the exam questions, and my unique challenges on exam days.

A good case of nerves, 4 courses, and the physical and mental stress of writing 12 timed essays in 4 days means that I need a plan to get the information in my head onto the paper consistently and at a high level of engagement and performance with precious little time for revising between exam dates.  My rhetoric coach is helping me to recognize ways of reading and writing to compensate for that challenge. Asking some simple questions like, what insights have I gained from reading primary and secondary texts, how those insights can be expressed clearly and vividly, and what would I like my audience to learn from reading my essay are excellent starting points. After all, rhetoric is about putting a name to something we already know a great deal about, isn’t it?

Caowrites is studying the BA English by distance learning with the University of London International Programmes.

3 thoughts on “The Rhetoric of Exams

  1. I really enjoy reading your blog – after the last entry and this one, I couldn’t resist the following quote, “if you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need” :-)

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  2. love this…. this has given me some more insight with regard to exams cause my exams start next week and i’m here wondering “how am i going to answer all those questions in such a short period of time… so thank it has been helpful and some what given me the encouragement that i can do it. thank u so much

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  3. I’m inspired to do my best and give my all in those exams. I felt the passion in learning through your blog. Thank you for your encouragement.

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