The exam essay, on the other hand, is summative assessment. It attempts to capture your knowledge and ability, to award you a final mark. It is only a sample of all you know and can do, so beware of interpreting the question too broadly. If you look at the Examiners reports on the marking of previous years' exams, you will notice that one of the most common issues raised across all papers every year by examiners is the importance of addressing the question:
- “The biggest mark-loser was lack of or tenuous relevance to the question.” (Examiners report 2010)
- “Most disappointing were the number of essays that avoided answering the question, either because a slightly different question had been prepared in advance, or because the candidate had not read the paper closely” (Examiners report 2010)
- “Candidates have a clear and definite responsibility to address the issues raised by a question, and any quotation which may form part of it.” (Examiners report 2009)
- “Students approaching this paper are reminded, as ever, of the importance of reflecting carefully on the implications and assumptions of the examination questions, and of developing a clear, strong, and sustained argument in response thereto.” (Examiners report 2009)
- "That last point needs its perennial emphasis. Candidates should attend carefully to the wording of the question, and address it in some non-perfunctory way. An answer which altogether fails to address the question set is a failing answer." (Examiners report 2008)
"I set questions - I think most of us do - to enable as well as to test. I want to enable those who have done good work to represent that good work in exams. I also want to test that work by approaching things from a particular angle - but not a tricky or annoying one, I hope."
The exam is a test not just of what you know, but also how well you apply that knowledge to answer the precise question set by the paper. It is understood that you do not necessarily know the answer before you enter the exam room; what is being tested is how you go about constructing an answer. The extent to which a candidate engages closely with the question can make the difference between a 2:1 and a 1st class answer. The more practice you get in supervisions at interpreting a question, identifying its implications and engaging with it closely in your answer, the better prepared you will be for the exam, when you will have to do this at speed.
In an exam situation, potential pitfalls might include:
- not reading the question carefully, and possibly mis-reading it.
- not interpreting the question well, so that the answer is limited. (These errors are understandable in the pressure of an exam situation, but it is worth making a careful reading of the question a focus in your exam routine.)
- misunderstanding of the purpose of exams, and therefore poor revision and exam technique.
Implications for revision and exam technique
Some candidates' revision strategy consists of preparing generic essay material on a text or topic, which they then use for any question set on that topic. The resulting answer will not gain high marks, as they have not shown that they can interpret the question, apply their knowledge of the subject and construct an argument that answers the question set. They have simply 'regurgitated' pre-prepared material. As with supervision essays, the exam is not simply a test of how much you know, but how you can use it to solve a specific problem. Although it can feel reassuring, memorising pre-prepared essay material is not a good revision strategy. A better approach is to review past papers, not because those questions are likely to come up again, but because they make good material to practice your skills at interpreting questions, and give you an idea of the kinds of questions that examiners might set. Once you have familiarised yourself with the kinds of questions that are set in exams, you might also try making up your own questions and practising with those.