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Taking Essay Tests
How to write essay items that score points with your teacher!
Have you ever wondered what your teachers are really looking for when they grade your essay exam items? If we could draw a picture of what your teacher is looking for, it might be something like the illustration below:
picture of abstract to concrete organization
Let's break down this illustration into its component parts and see how they work together. To begin with, we might imagine that everything you say or write about could be classified on a scale representing the spectrum of abstract-to-concrete concepts. The figure below represents such a "spectrum of abstraction." Almost any statement we make could be placed at a point in the spectrum, depending on how general or how specific it is.
picture of abstract to concrete
 
picture of concept cloudConcept: At the top of the figure, at the highest level of abstraction, is what we might call a "concept." Concepts are vague, difficult-to-define thoughts. Little productive communication can occur on such vague concepts; they must be narrowed considerably. Two people "talking about" concepts like those listed below would experience frustration until they are able to focus their communication on some more specific aspect of the concept.
  • love
  • family
  • poetry
  • respect
  • economics
  • religion
picture of proposition oval Proposition: We narrow our focus on concepts by expressing some proposition regarding the concept. It might be helpful to think of propositions as statements, beliefs, or value judgments about concepts. Propositions begin to provide a more precise shape and clearer focus for our communication. Here are some examples of proposition statements:
  • Americans have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
  • The two-parent family is the backbone of American social structure.
  • Shakespeare is the greatest dramatist of all times.
  • Tax cuts stimulate growth in a free-market economy.
  • Baseball is the most "American" of all sports.
  • Several categories of consumer electronic devices are currently very popular.
Each of the proposition statements above serves to focus and clarify a belief about a concept, and each makes specific and productive communication more possible.
picture of justification box Justification: Justifications are groupings of ideas that support proposition statements. Depending upon the type of writing or communicating we are doing, justifications might be described as "reasons," "arguments," "categories," "classes," "causes," "proofs," "features," or any other number of labels. If you look at each of the proposition statements above, you might be able to predict the types of justifications a writer or speaker could use to support his or her proposition:
  • The two-parent family gives a home stability, positive role models, and economic advantages.
  • Personal computers, camcorders, and digital video players are the most common electronic purchases by today’s consumers.
  • Shakespeare’s enduring human themes and powerful characters justify the playwright’s position as the greatest dramatist.
Note how the justifications play a role in supporting the proposition and move the communication to an even more specific level.
picture of detail cubes Details: Finally, the most specific level in the abstraction spectrum is in details. Details represent the realm of concrete experiences: events that can be observed or "sensed" directly, examples, factual information, statistics, and so on. As suggested by the illustration, details have a depth, texture, or "color" that mark them as real and unique. If Shakespeare’s plays have enduring human themes, what are some of the examples and how are they illustrated in the plays? How many digital video players are being sold? What are some examples of how two parents give a family economic advantages? Each justification must be supported by concrete details.
Perhaps you have heard the folksy sayings that express the common-sense view we have about judging the merits of a person’s ideas: "The devil is in the details" and "The proof is in the pudding." These sayings mean that it is easy to talk generally about concepts, propositions, or even justifications without satisfying any burden of proof. Only when we get down to the "nitty-gritty" level of detailed information can we see the merits of a person’s justifications and the proposition he or she is trying to support. It might be helpful to think of concrete details as the essential foundation of a person’s communication. Without them, communication remains too far up in the abstract level of the spectrum and of little practical use.
 
OK, so what does all this have to do with answering essay questions?
A well-written essay answer must "cover the spectrum" just described. Some student essays remain up "in the clouds of abstraction," stating little more than generalities and offering little in the way of tangible support. Others provide lots of detail, but have no clear statement of an overall proposition they are trying to support. Some may jump from a proposition to details and leave out clear statements of justification that explain how the details support the proposition. You can learn to write strong essay answers by making sure you have the following components:
1. A concise opening sentence that clearly identifies the topic and the proposition you intend to support.
The most important sentence you will write in your essay is the first one. It should meet two main requirements: First, its phrasing should clearly indicate which question you are answering. Many teachers allow you to answer essay items in whatever order you prefer, so it is important to make it clear which you are responding to by echoing the phrasing of the question. Secondly, the first sentence should be a clear, straightforward statement of the proposition you intend to develop in the rest of your answer, such as, "Santiago exhibits three of the character traits associated with the tragic hero."
In terms of the information presented earlier in this page, this first sentence does two things: it establishes the concept your essay explores, and it poses the proposition. Both of these should make it very clear to the teacher which question you are answering and what you intend to do with your answer.
A quick word about shaping your proposition and planning your response to an essay: be sure to use the clues provided you by your instructor in the phrasing of the question. Instructors often indicate the type of response they are expecting from you by the use of "pointing words." These are words like discuss, prove, trace, list, analyze, characterize, and so on. The following descriptions might help you interpret the question and shape your proposition:
  • Discuss suggests that you develop your answer in standard paragraph form, and that you go into considerable detail on each of your main points.
  • List suggests that you are expected to cover a number of main points or features, but perhaps not go into as much detail on each as if you were asked to "discuss" the same points. Within the paragraph, it would probably be appropriate to number or set off your listing of points in some way to make them more apparent.
  • Prove always points the writer to a persuasive proposition. You are expected to take one side of the issue at hand and develop reasons why that side is the most valid. Don't try to make the essay informative by looking at both sides of the issue.
  • Trace is a common pointing term for history essay items and those topics that occur as a process. It directs you to examine something in a time sequence that is broken down into phases, periods, steps, or some other chronological arrangement.
  • Analyze is a term that directs you to break something down into its component parts and show how each part contributes to the functioning of the whole.
  • Characterize suggests looking at the key features of something, particularly those that make it unique or capture its essence.
2. An obvious structure that is organized around two or more main points.
We establish our justifications for our proposition by clearly stating and developing two or more main points in our essay. Remember the role of justification statements: they state the relevance of the details to the proposition you are trying to develop. Avoid writing a lengthy essay where all the ideas run together without a sense of "connecting" to two or more main ideas.
Many questions break down very naturally into subdivisions, but if this is not the case, you should consider having at least two distinct supporting examples to develop the single main point. Before you start writing the essay, work up an outline, "mind map," or some other organizing device that forces you to think in terms of main ideas that serve as groupings for the detail you plan to discuss. An outline or mind map can save you time in the long run and keep your writing on track.
Be sure to make your main ideas stand out in your essay answer. Start a new paragraph for each or number them, and be sure to use obvious transitions when moving from one main division to the next. Don't try to be subtle.
3. A minimum of 50% of the essay focused on the detail level.
A good rule of thumb to keep in mind as you write is that at least half of your essay answer needs to be do9ywn in the "nitty-gritty" detail level. While the more abstract levels of communication have a purpose in your essay, in identifying your concept and proposition and in stating your justifications, those tasks can be accomplished in just a few sentences. Everything else ought to be detail. Your teacher will be looking to see if the proposition you made in the opening sentence will be justified or allowed to die for lack of adequate support. Don't leave out basic details because you don't want to "talk down" to your instructor. In fact, you might want to imagine that the audience for your essay is a confused classmate, who requires that you explain clearly, patiently, and thoroughly.

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