Archive for category Essay Exam Prompts

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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Focus on the Question

During your academic development, you always take tests in the form of multiple choice and short essay. Sometimes depending upon the class you are in, you will take primarily essay tests. In all respects and contexts, you are asked a question. The question typically has a question mark as the ending punctuation, but some professors turn questions into mere statements for which you must still “answer.”

Regardless of the form of a question, you must have an answer. The answer must correspond to the question. A student who has not comprehended the essay question will create answers/responses that do not completely fulfill each part of the question. Some answers that do not fit the entire question but fill the space will receive some point, even if the point is minor. Any point is better than none, but this is not the “point” I wish to make.

When confronted with the comment “Focus on the Question,” your professor wants you to break down the question into answerable parts. Not only do you answer each part, i.e., discuss at least two Canterbury Tales, but also you must focus on the hidden meanings of the question and what you can infer from reading the work. What do you deduce, or what can you conclude about The Wife of Bath’s behavior and understanding of men? What are the long-term implications of her perspective? What are the contradictions? How ironic is her behavior? Is she stable? What is the context of her attitude?

After you have focused on each element of the question, all of its parts, then at the end of your essays, dedicate the last concluding section as an extended discussion to provide more of an in-depth examination of the larger implications. With this in mind, “Focus on the Question” is a four-part process:

1) Analyze the question by separating it into parts.

2) Determine how many elements the question has by circling key coordinating conjunctions such as “and” and “or.”

3) Write an answer that is formal in structure (introduction with thesis, body paragraphs, and conclusion) and that reflects your response to each element of the question. 

4) Develop an extended discussion section within the conclusion with the purpose of examining the question more extensively to discuss its larger implications.

In other words, why does the professor choose the words “why” and “what” to ask the question?  For one reason, your professor is aware that you know “who” but he or she wants you to focus on the “why” of a character’s behavior; the “why” refers to reason, cause, motive, and purpose.  In terms of “what,” the professor needs your explanation of the events, your understanding of the method The Wife of Bath uses in her tale to get what she wants. When you think about “what” think about object, thing, and way of doing something. “Focus on the Question” means that you need to understand there is more to the question than what appears to you as numbered on the page.

Copyright 2011 Regina Y. Favors. All Rights Reserved.

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Focus on a Topic

In just about every context, “Focus on a Topic” means pick one. Don’t discuss more than one topic in a paper. Focus on one topic. Of course, the topic may have different themes and ideas, but think about what you want to write about, and write about that “one” thing, not the many. In some cases, “Focus on a Topic” can have other implications also.

Within a conversation it is easy to get off the path into ramble. Typically, the conversation heads down a certain path, but each time you insert a ramble or a digression, you get off the original path. The same is true in physically walking down a straight path and getting off the path because some thing or someone catches your attention.

“Focus on a Topic,” in this respect, means don’t get off the original path of the topic you choose. Believe in the topic you have chosen and believe that you will be able to support it. Don’t offer digressions and rambles as fillers. If the support and data you choose have no relevance to your topic, throw them out. If you are plagued with the challenge of offering more analysis about your topic, within a paragraph, then continue to break down each example you have supplied until the example is in its simplest form. In math, a fraction is broken down until it can’t be simplified anymore. The same is true in writing when it comes to analyzing a literary work. Stay fixed on your topic.

When offering examples, continue the process of analysis and reduce the example to simple form. In other words, answer all of the questions that need to be answered. If there is any question left to ask about your example, then you have not finished the process. Answer who, what, when, where, why, for what reason, how, and in what way. When you focus on each example, the nature of each, then you are likely not to incorporate a foreign element. “Focus on a Topic” in this sense means stay within the circle of your topic; any deviation from this path represents a willingness to substitute something that doesn’t fit.

Copyright 2011 Regina Y. Favors. All Rights Reserved.

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