Doesn’t Respond to Question

Many students fail university-administered writing exams—exams that are similar to ones that test your competency level in subjects such as math and foreign language—sometimes because their essays are disorganized, but mostly because they don’t answer the question. What follows is an example of a typical essay exam prompt for English literature courses. We use this prompt to teach students how to respond fully to the question. Review Figure 17 and the follow-up information. You will learn how to categorize the instructions.

The first elements you must recognize are the different themes. They appear to be intimidating. Before beginning to take a test, if you place these elements into a listing format, you make the task before you that much more approachable. The second thing you must understand is that everything before “Develop an analysis . . .” is not the instruction. Therefore, a test prompt is two-part. It has an introduction and a set of instructions. You will know that a teacher is instructing you to do something when a sentence takes on the form of a directive and the professor uses action words such as develop, discuss, analyze, etc.

Figure 17:  Sample Essay Prompt for Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales

Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales center on a pilgrimage and a story-telling competition driving the telling of these tales; the groupings of these tales thus link together several ongoing themes and issues that are dependent on this dramatic interaction (Amtower).  Themes such as women’s role in marriage, the nature of experience and authority, and the “perfect/ideal” character, are all representative of a larger meaning that reflects a conflict between social hierarchy and subjectivity.  Develop an analysis that illustrates your understanding of 1 or 2 of these themes in relation to the larger theme by comparing and contrasting two of the Canterbury tales, focusing your analysis primarily on the “character” and relationship(s) of these tale-tellers.  In your analysis, include specific scenes and context. 

In the above essay prompt, your professor wants you to do the following:

1) Develop an “analysis.”

2) Use 1 or 2 themes.

3) Compare and Contrast TWO Canterbury Tales.

4) Give attention to “character” and “relationship.

5) Include specific scenes and context.

If you do anything beyond or not the above, then you have not answered the question. If you only discuss one tale, then you have not answered the question. If your paper is full of plot summary and lacks analysis, then you have not answered the question. If you don’t include any of the themes, then you have not answered the question. If you only compare two Canterbury tales, then you have not answered the question. If you don’t include specific examples, context of any kind, then you have not answered the question.

Always give attention to your conjunctions such as “or” and “and” because they are your greatest indicators of what to do and what not to do. “Doesn’t respond to the question” means that you have not given attention to all of the required elements of an essay prompt.

For an extended explanation, see also the comment “Focus on the Question.”

Copyright 2011 Regina Y. Favors. All Rights Reserved.

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