Study Skills

Study Skills

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Doing well on Essay Exams

For students who are comfortable with their essay writing skills, the onset of final exams featuring essay questions or short answers usually brings a sense of consolidation to a year's work and offers an opportunity to display the knowledge and thinking skills developed over the course of the year. Some students, however, are not quite so comfortable with the thought of doing essay exams; if you are one of these students, you will want to consider some ways to prepare which can foster this feeling of comfort. Doing well on essay style exams, as is the case for any exams at university, demands that you be well and thoroughly prepared with the concepts, ideas, and theories, and arguments of the course. It is vital that you understand the relationships between elements of the course as there is often an emphasis on the content of the discipline, the theoretical perspectives used to understand the course, and on the way knowledge is defined in the course. You need to be able to think analytically and critically and articulate your thoughts in written form.

Typically essay style exams have fewer question than we see on multiple choice exams, and often the few questions that are offered are related to each other quite closely, but worded and focussed slightly differently. Sometimes the test calls for the student to answer all questions, but often you are required to make selections, say a or b or choose three of seven. Questions typically emphasize some analytical and critical process around themes of the course with reference to particular theories, ideas, concepts, readings, or lectures through special direction words such as compare, contrast, discuss etc. In this section we'll look at a variety of these direction words and consider related preparation strategies. Next, we will look at a series of example questions and demonstrate how to interpret them to provide exactly what is requested. As well, we'll look at a series of in-test strategies to assist you with the actual writing of these exams. Some general suggestions for studying for essay style exams follow.

Perform elaborative rehearsal of key concepts, ideas, theories with a view to becoming fluent in the concepts of the course. The key focus here is on understanding the key issues, themes, and concepts of the course on a "big picture" level. This kind of understanding suggests an emphasis placed on the student understanding and demonstrating the ability to discuss the connections among the themes and issues of a course. As well, many courses offer students critical tools in the form of theoretical models which students are expected to be able to discuss and apply to course related situations. Thus, preparation needs to focus less on detail than on the broad themes, their interconnections, and on the application of critical tools to course content.

Effective writers of essay style exams also tend to emphasize the importance of gathering and constructing possible questions that would test the knowledge and skills learned in the course. You may want to look to course assignments for the kinds of questions to look for and for feedback on how to improve your answers. Past exams - used as possible models - and questions given on assignments or introduced in class as "something for you to think about" offer a good basis. A keen student may also construct some questions on the basis of her understanding of course themes and issues and critical tools. Answering these questions as self-tests (perhaps by forming an outline of ideas rather than by writing out the answer long-hand) may help you to "pull the course together". Study groups may also be very helpful in this regard because different members of the group often have a different way of thinking about concepts and come up with different questions to test the same course content.

It's all in the way the question is worded.

As you begin to study -- and especially as you begin to write -- PAY ATTENTION TO ACTION WORDS (discussed below from Walter Pauk's How to Study in College, 5th Ed., 1993) and be sure to read the directions carefully. Many students lose marks simply because their answers do not respond to the language of the questions. They may write about the subject matter mentioned in the question, but not in the precise manner that the question requires. Be sure that your response matches the requirements of the question. The following list organizes some key words that are found in examination questions. When you preview a test, circle or highlight them as reminders of what your answer should include and how it should be focused and structured. Do not try to memorize this list; simply note the subtle differences in meaning among these examination "action words."


The first group comprises question words which elicit direct answers and may tend not to elicit developed answers. Consequently, they may be rarely seen on essay exams. Nonetheless, they appear, and when they do, they often imply that the student should explain or elaborate.

LIST - Write an itemized series of concise statements

ENUMERATE - Write in a list or outline form, making points concisely one by one

DESCRIBE - Recount, characterize, sketch, relate in a sequence or story form.

DEFINE-Give clear, concise, authoritative meanings.

STATE - Present main points in brief, clear sequence, usually omitting minor details and examples.

SUMMARIZE - Give the main points or facts in condensed form, like the summary of a chapter in a text, omitting details and illustrations.

DIAGRAM - Give a graphic answer, a drawing, a chart, a plan, a schematic representation.



As a group, these words tend to suggest fully thought out and demonstrated answers. These terms tend to be a little slippery and it is often advisable to clarify the meaning of these words within the context of your course.

DISCUSS - Consider various points of view, analyze carefully, and give reasons pro and con.

ANALYZE -Summarize fully with detail in accordance with a selected focus, consider component parts of ideas and their inter-relationships

EXPLAIN - Clarify, interpret, give reasons for differences of opinion or of results, analyze causes.

ILLUSTRATE - Use a word picture, diagram, or concrete example to clarify a point.

OUTLINE - Organize a description based on main points and subordinate points, stressing the arrangement and classification of the subject matter.

TRACE - In narrative form, describe the evolution, development, or progress of the subject.



These action words are premised on an analysis which works to integrate ideas under focus; emphasizing similarities, differences, and connections between these ideas deepens our understanding of the ideas and may help you contextualize ideas more effectively.

COMPARE- Look for qualities or characteristics that resemble each other. Emphasize similarities, but also note differences.

CONTRAST - Stress differences, dissimilarities of ideas, concepts, events, problems, etc., but also note similarities.

RELATE - Show how ideas or concepts are connected to each other.

Related words: DISTINGUISH.



The words in this group direct the student to take a position on an issue and defend his or her argument against reasonable alternatives.

PROVE - Establish the truth of a statement by giving factual evidence and logical reasoning.

JUSTIFY - Show strong reasons for decisions or conclusions; use convincing arguments based on evidence




Writing an essay question with these action words involves invoking acceptable criteria and defending a judgment on the issue, idea, or question involved. Underlying questions here include "to what extent?" and "how well?".

CRITICIZE - Express your judgment about the merit or truth or usefulness of the views or factors mentioned in the question.

EVALUATE - Appraise, give your viewpoint, cite limitations and advantages, include the opinion of authorities, give evidence to support your position. (cf., CRITICIZE)

INTERPRET - Translate, give examples or comment on a subject, usually including your own viewpoint.

REVIEW - Examine a subject critically, analyzing and commenting on it, or statements made about it.


You can see that the various question words require you to be thinking at a variety of levels. It should be clear that you must go beyond simple definition of terms. The thinking that is involved in answering these questions is something that you have been practicing all year long as you have written papers and participated in tutorials. Here you are asked to demonstrate your ability to apply these skills to your course content.

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