Department of History

Preparation for Exams
H.R. Spendelow
updated: 16 Oct 12

[Return to the course's homepage for links to templates for exams.]

As your syllabus has warned you, you will shortly undergo a traditional undergraduate "rite of passage:"  the hour examination, or "mid-term" (and, once you get through that, you get to take a final at the end of the semester).  For many of you this will be the first test you will take in this particular field.  If you already sense a rising anxiety level, if you feel overwhelmed by the amount and diversity of material thrown at you thus far and worry about how you will ever manage to master it all, if you awake from fitful slumber and realize you've been dreaming about all the cruelly obscure questions that might be asked, then relax!  Your responses are perfectly normal, and with a reasonable amount of focused effort you should find yourself in good shape.(1) (If, however, your mounting terror derives from the fact that you've been skipping lectures and haven't kept up on the reading assignments, then the remedies are as simple as your situation is precarious....)  In any event, this hand-out is designed to de-traumatize this necessary ordeal by letting you know what you are expected to be able to do on the test, by alerting you to potential pitfalls, and by giving some guidelines on how best to prepare. (The questions given in this hand-out may not seem immediately relevant to the particular course you're taking with me -- but, it's a useful analytic skill to be able to generalize from seemingly obscure examples.)

All tests in this course will be divided into two parts:  an essay section and a number of identification questions.  In each part, you will be given a structured choice, enabling you to deal from your own strengths.  However, each answer must stand on its own merits; you cannot cross-reference some other answer and expect it to count also for the question you are currently answering.

For the mid-term, you will choose one of several possible essay questions, worth 30 minutes of your time and 60% of the total exam, while the ID's you choose will be worth 20 minutes and 40%.  For the final examination, the essay sections will generally be worth 75%, the ID's 25%.

For the mid-term, you will be responsible for all the readings listed in the syllabus up to the date of the exam, and for all material actually covered in lectures by that date.  The final exam will be cumulative; that is, you will be responsible for all the material covered during the semester, but emphasizing material covered since the mid-term.

Essay questions may take one of several forms, such as a general statement for you to elaborate upon, a proposition for you to refute or support, or a quotation implying a specific interpretation or point of view.  Whatever the form, your basic task is to respond to the principles raised in the question.  Whether you agree or disagree, in whole or in part, you must take the focal point of the question into account. If the question asks you to choose between two different interpretations, it is essential that you not only say why you agree with "x," but also why you disagree with "y."

The final examination may well contain a number of general questions for which you can choose your own specific example to illustrate your point. It is not a good idea to pick the same example for more than one question.

Your answer should take the form of a coherently written essay, organized into paragraphs and bringing in enough specific data to support your overall thesis.  Also, make sure that your essay answers are complete in their logical exposition.  For example, if you're talking about some change which occurred, make sure you specify what both the "before" and "after" are.

As for the "terms" section, you will be presented with a list of names or terms, all of them taken from the readings or lectures. Your task is, first, to give the minimal amount of information (i.e., answering the newspaper reporter's questions of who? what? where? when?) to locate the person (or institution, event, treaty, etc.) in place and time.  Then you must provide a phrase or two that sums up the historical significance of the person (institution, event, etc.) -- answering the "why?".  Another way to approach the second part of the task would be to ask:  if we were so foolhardy as to generalize on the basis of only one example, what historical lesson could we draw from this career, event, or development? In judging "historical significance", the context is of great importance. For example, in responding to an ID question on "Aleksandr Borodin", you would give a very different answer, depending on whether you were taking a class in chemistry or in music history. The same would go for "Wallace Stevens", in the insurance industry or American literature...

Unlike essay answers, identification answers can be written in sentence fragments, so long as their meaning is unambiguous.

Two types of difficulties frequently crop up. For the first of them, we can use the ancient computer term, "memory drop."(2) If you were being tested on Japanese history, for example, this means that when some key term in a question -- for example "Meiji Restoration" -- provides a stimulus which passes via the retina into the inner recesses of the cranium, the brain immediately disgorges, via the hand and pen, everything it remembers with any connection to that particular noun:  the downfall of the Tokugawa Bakufu, Admiral Perry's "Black Ships," the revived role of the emperor, the industrialization program, etc., etc., etc.  Although this approach appears most frequently in answering ID questions, it can be especially disastrous in answering an essay question, for it leads you to overlook the focus to your answer which the question is trying to elicit.  The main point gets buried under a flood of correct but irrelevant information.

The second difficulty, the "buckshot approach," is like unto the first.  Here, the student offers up any number of statements about the significance of the Meiji Restoration, in the [often vain] hope that one of them will be right.  Instead, you should make an educated judgment about what you think the most significant point is.

In general, you should focus your answers as directed by the question and give only the information that is relevant for supporting your argument.  Remember that, especially for the ID's, shorter is better. Also, each answer should stand on its own; do not, in one essay question, simply refer to material presented as an answer to another question (this might lead to the conclusion that you're trying to get double-duty out of a minimal amount of knowledge...).

What about dates?  I don't require you to memorize dates just for the sake of filling up part of your brain with "facts-on-file," but it does help to be able to call upon a general chronology of world history and the separate histories comprised within it. If "the May Fourth Movement in China" showed up as an ID option, it would be perfectly correct and adequate to place it in the year 1919. Still acceptable (but much less desirable) would be "the 1910's," or even "early Republican period." But the best response would relate the item to some pivotal event; in the case of the May Fourth Movement, this would be: "in 1919, in the wake of the decision at Versailles to turn Shantung over to Japan."

What if your mind temporarily goes blank and none of the names on the test look familiar?  In that case, guess anyway.  My grading system distinguishes between an F (i.e., a 55 in my grading scheme), for a failed attempt and a zero for no attempt at all.  Also, if your failing answer has any wit to it, you might even earn an F+ (i.e., a 58.33), while a blank, either because you neglected to answer a question or simply gave up, means a 0 will be averaged in, which can be disastrous for your total grade.

So much for the intellectual approach to test-taking, but what about the mechanics of writing a test in only fifty minutes....  Does "neatness" count?  Yes, it does.  That doesn't mean that you get marked down explicitly for spelling errors, faulty grammar, or sloppy penmanship, but you must realize that the first two problems can influence the reader's appreciation, or even understanding, of your argument, while difficulties in the latter area may well strain the grader's eagerness to be charitable when attempting to decipher the seventy-sixth essay at 2:45 a.m.

Below you will find some "general rules" for test-taking.  These are not intended as hard-and-fast prescriptions, but only as suggestions for those of you who might be somewhat anxious about how to proceed.  The important thing is that you make a conscious effort to discover the preparation method that works best for you.

Before the test:

(1) Practice thinking up analytical essay questions and drafting answers to them.  This is one of the best ways to help put a wide variety of material into some coherent form.

(2) If you're anxious about time pressures, practice by taking a test you've made up yourself while sitting in front of an obnoxiously loud alarm clock set for fifty minutes.

(3) Keep your maps in front of you while you study.

(4) The worst possible study method is to stay up late the night before trying to cram in every possible name, date, or event.  At best, you will find yourself at test-time full of a lot of disjointed information but without the alertness and flexibility to organize it effectively.  At worst, someone else will find you still asleep 20 minutes into the test; the consequences of sleeping through an exam are too depressing to mention.

During the test:

(1) The basic ground-rule is:  I supply the bluebooks and the questions; you supply the pens and the answers.

(2) Start by reading over the whole examination and thinking about which questions you can answer most effectively.

(3) Spend some time focusing your answer, perhaps even drafting a brief outline; I am looking for quality of thought, not quantity of words.  Put another way, I'm looking for evidence of analysis, supported by historical facts.

(4) The "audience" for your exam is not the professor, but the intelligent neophyte. This means that basic terms and context need to be explained, however briefly.

(5) Answer the questions in any order you wish, but label all your answers.

(6) Answer the question, the whole question, and nothing but the question.

(7) Pace yourself according to the guidelines given.  For example, when you are allotted 30 minutes for an essay question on an "hour" (i.e., 50-minute) exam, that does not mean you should be writing for the full 30 minutes.  Rather, it means you should be thinking and writing such that you produce an essay of such depth and brilliance as to be worth 60% of the entire grade.  All too frequently, students spend too much time giving too much information on the ID questions and end up saying too little about the essay question.  Or, conversely, a student may beat the essay question to death and then suddenly realize there's only four minutes left in which to answer all the ID's.

(8) Do not use pencil for exams; it smudges too easily and is generally hard to read.  Instead, learn to cross out neatly if you must correct an error.  If you know you have problems with penmanship, write on only one side of the paper and skip lines.  Even a fanatical environmentalist should realize that test-taking is not the appropriate time for conserving paper and thus helping to save our national forests.

(9) Leave yourself enough time to check back over your test:  Have you answered the correct number of ID's?  Is your essay focused on the question asked?  Have you labelled all your answers?  Have you written your name on all your bluebooks? Have you filled out the grade-sheet distributed with the test (a good way to check that you've answered all the questions)?

After the test:

(1) To the extent you can achieve some emotional distance from what you wrote in the bluebook, wait a few days after getting your test back and then try to go back over it, assessing how your answers might have been strengthened or more clearly focused.

(2) If the grader's marks are unclear or too sparse, feel free to bring your test back for an explanation or elaboration.

1As Samuel Johnson once said, "The prospect of being hanged in a fortnight concentrates the mind wonderfully."

2In the olden days before fail-safe mechanisms were built into computer programs, a "memory-drop" occurred when a computer received a command to stop whatever computation it was involved in and instead start printing out everything in its memory bank.