The rules for essay exams



At my university the time has come (indeed, the deadline has come) for the process of grading the final exams from the fall semester. I started working on my stack of examination books speedily, accurately, and efficiently, deriving great satisfaction and enjoyment from the process of reading what my students have written.

Oh, who the hell am I kidding. I didn’t. For several days I hovered near the stack like a nervous swimmer unwilling to enter the water on a cold day even though it would probably feel better to be in than to be standing around on the edge of the pool. I edged toward the pile of papers as if I thought they might bite me, and looked for distractions. It took ages to get into the groove. Grading procrastination is a terrible thing.

And once work actually commenced, I soon found myself thinking, once again, that if the regulations about acceptable scripts were ever seriously enforced, there would be hardly anything to grade.

Plenty of students forget to write on the cover of the booklet the numbers of the questions they chose to answer. Some write answers to questions they do not identify by number at all, so I have to guess which topic they are addressing. Some ignore the ruled margins in the examination books, and simply scrawl from the paper’s left-hand edge to the right, leaving none of the crucially needed space that I need to write occasional comments (“Good point!”; “Not exactly right, but sort of”; “Nice argument—never occurred to me before”; “No, this is the diametrical opposite of the truth!”).

And they forget the key rules of doing well in essay-style examinations.

1. You must always plan your time to permit some kind of answer to every question, even if one of them will be weak. If you write only three essays where it was required that you write four, you give yourself a maximum possible grade of 75 percent, and a strong result is completely precluded.

2. You should try your utmost to do what the question says you should do, not just what you know how to do and were hoping it might ask you to do.

3. You should never waste time saying things twice: Once is enough, and often more than enough. (Do I need to say that again? Don’t waste time saying things twice. You see how annoying that is?) The statements you write twice will earn credit only once.

4. No examiner in all of human history has ever given additional points on trust because you ended the last essay by writing: “Furthermore, a particularly important additional point about this is that the …” The sentences you don’t write are never graded at all.

5. Although organizational structure (section headings, sensible paragraphing) is not what you are being graded on, it is impossible for an examiner not to be favorably impressed by good, clear structure and helpful headings, so do what you can. Likewise, spelling isn’t the central concern either, yet it is impossible for an examiner’s opinion of you not to go down a little if you make careless spelling mistakes. Complements and compliments are not the same thing; try to get key spellings right, because the last thing you want to do is to give your examiner any excuse to feel grouchy.

But why am I telling you all this? You know this. It’s just that when you last sat an essay examination, you forgot half of these rules, just like every other student. I really must stop writing these things you already know and get back to grading the remainder of the exams on the table in front of me. The time for procrastination has passed; now is the time for desperate efforts to avoid further distraction. Go away. I’m busy.

Author Bio: Geoffrey K. Pullum is professor of general linguistics at the University of Edinburgh.