WORRIED ABOUT THE PY3001/PY3004 EXAM? HERE'S SOME GUIDANCE:
Compiled by: Patrick Greenough
The advice below is designed to help you succeed in your exams. You may have heard some of this guidance before. Even so, writing philosophy essays (under exam conditions) requires a set of unique skills. Hence, some of this advice may well be unfamiliar.
Indeed, it might be that some of my recommendations don't suit your style of revising, writing, or thinking. That's OK, as there is more than one way to succeed in exams, more than one way to skin a philosophy question. That said, I think you will find that if you follow this guidance your performance in exams will significantly improve.
I should also add that this advice is often PY3001 (and PY3004)-specific. It may not always apply to other philosophy units that you are taking (e.g units in the history of philosophy for example).
- A good way to revise is by tackling all the set questions (given in the handouts) for the topics you intend to cover.
- In order to get better at giving thumbnail definitions of key terms, go to the glossary above, and run a quiz with some friends. (Nearly all of the terms in the glossary are defined in the lectures notes.)
- Do some extra reading before the exams from the recommended reading and elsewhere ¾ it is not enough to simply revise from your lecture notes.
- You don't need to overwhelm yourself with lots of extra reading ¾ but some is strongly advisable (if not essential).
- You are NOT allowed to reproduce the content of your essay in the exam, so it might be a good idea to have a quick look at your essay to remember just what you said.
- Many people find it helpful to do a number of detailed essay plans from past papers. This is one of the best ways to prepare yourself. Even if the same questions do not come up in the exam (or even if they come up but in a rather different form) it will still be very useful to revise via constructing essay plans. (Ten mock past papers are given below.)
At the beginning of the exam:
- There is an art to choosing the right questions. All too often people choose a question which looks initially promising (as they have revised that particular topic) only to find that they run out of steam half-way through (perhaps because the way in which they think about the issue does not exactly tally with what the question is asking for).
- You should spend some time thinking about what you will say before you start writing: don't just rush and start writing straight away.
- Make sure you do a quick plan before you begin (even scribbling down a few keywords can help).
- A plan may be brief (a few words), it may involve diagrams, slogans, quotes, name of individuals.
- A plan may contain ideas about structure or the sketch of an argument or arguments.
- Cross out your plan if you do not want it to be taken into consideration.
Thinking about structure:
- Write a short introduction to guide the reader as to what you will say (leave space for an introduction and go back and write one if you are not happy about writing one before you have written the main part of the essay).
- We are looking for a good structure as well as the right content: break things down into short sections if needs be ¾ yes it is possible to do so!!
- Where possible, break arguments down into a premise-conclusion format ¾ just as we did in the lectures.
- If you are tackling a particular philosophical paradox (as is very likely in this course), you can easily structure an essay by tackling each of the premises in turn, then turn to question as to whether the conclusion is really so unpalatable, or then you might look if the terms of the paradox are relevantly ambiguous, and so on.
- It can often be better to focus on a particular argument or set of arguments rather then trying to be comprehensive ('to be everywhere is to be nowhere'): don't be afraid of detail ¾ you have to get your hands dirty in philosophy.
- Leave a few lines free between each paragraph ¾ you may want to add something later.
- If time allows, make sure you include a brief conclusion ¾ this will also help shape your essay and guide the reader.
- It's also important to spend a roughly equal amount of time on each question. Far too many people fall into the trap of spending too much time on the question or questions they feel they know most about. Big mistake. The law of diminishing returns holds: it's much harder to scrape extra marks by polishing an already good essay than it is to have a bash at putting together an essay on a topic/question you feel less confident about.
- Don't take too much for granted (don't presume too much knowledge on behalf of your reader).
- Treat you reader like a sophisticated novice ¾ someone who has not done much philosophy before and is reading in order to be educated and stimulated by you.
- Remember that you are writing to best display your knowledge, understanding, and critical acumen.
- It's typical that an exam has more than one marker. Indeed, don't assume that the lecturer for the course will be marking the exam at all!! This should encourage you to be explicit and not rely on the reader to just cotton on to what you mean.
- I'm sure you've heard it before, but: BE RELEVANT. You must answer the question in hand: it's no good desperately trying to fit a memorised essay into a question which demands a different slant on the issues.
- In order to answer the question properly, you need to be sensitive to (a) any potential ambiguities in the question, (b) any implicatures (false or otherwise) in the question, (c) any presuppositions (false or otherwise) in the question, and (d) any vagueness or unspecificness in the question.
- It really helps if you circle all the key terms in the question and spend a bit of time thinking about the various ways in which one might construe the exact import of the question--what exactly is being asked here?
- Some questions are deliberately ambiguous, unspecific, or vague. It's up to you to spot this.
- There are no trick questions (questions which are deliberately designed to catch you out), but it might be that some questions seem to invite a particular type of answer when in fact a different answer (or range of possible answers) is called for. Again, it's up to you to spot this.
- Some questions are rather terse (e.g. 'What is meaning?). It's up to you to take some initiative to unpack such questions in the most relevant ways. Different questions often require a slightly different set of skills.
- Some questions might be a little bit harder than others. That fact is taken into account in marking.
- IMPORTANT: This means that you may well be able to get a better mark by picking questions which are that little bit harder.
Some further basics:
- Briefly define all relevant key terms (in brackets if needs be) ¾ remember that you are there to best display your knowledge and understanding.
- Try and think up your own examples and illustrations rather than re-iterating those used in the lectures.
- But the main advice is: don't simply regurgitate your lecture notes.
- Those who simply regurgitate lectures notes will tend not to score well.
- You are supposed to display evidence of independent research in the exams. That said, it's perfectly OK to use the lecture notes as a basis for answering a question. It's just that you need to go beyond the content of the lectures.
- If you can remember key quotes and give references for the authors that you mention then do so.
- If you think for yourself as far as is possible within the confines of the set question, then you will be highly rewarded.
- Taking intellectual risks is important, but risk should be handled with care.
- You can mentally colour code your exam (or indeed any philosophical essay) as follows:
(a) GREEN (mere exposition of a view, argument, or commentary on a view: low intellectual risk),
(b) YELLOW (evaluation and critical analysis of views and arguments: medium intellectual risk).
(c) RED (propose ways in which a view might be modified, improved; or, invent a new view: high intellectual risk).
- Some essays, even when well executed, are entirely green. Such essays are unlikely to score more than 13.
- To score highly, an essay does not need to be all red. A promising essay will typically consists of a blend of the following elements: the exposition of a view, the exposition of what has been said about such a view, the analysis of this view, the critical evaluation of this view, and an endeavour to suggest ways in which this view might be modified, improved or supplanted. Indeed a promising essay may be mostly green with areas of yellow and intermittent flashes of red.
At the end of the exam:
- It's amazing how many people fail to use the last minutes of the exam properly (and just sit and stare at the desk or wall). These last few minutes can be CRUCIAL to scoring a few more vital points.
- If you have left plenty of space between each paragraph, then there is ALWAYS scope to add: (a) a further qualification (b) insert a definition of something you have left undefined, (c) add a reference or even a paraphrase of a quote, (d) think up another example in order to more vividly illustrate your point.
- Moreover, you should read through what you have written with a critical eye (the eye of the critical reader). This will encourage you to add an extra twist or turn to what you have already said.
- Spelling and grammar are still important, so even if you feel that you do not want to add any more, you should always check spelling, grammar, and even style.
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This page was last modified on: 24th September 2003