The Difficult Answer to a Simple Question…

The question I have been asked most frequently by my own students is simply this:

How do I improve the mark in my exam essays?”

This is a fair question, with which students perennially struggle, but one whose asking seems to have increased in frequency in recent years in both my Pol-Soc and History classes. As someone who taught English at JC and LC for many years, I can’t help wondering how much this is linked to the fact that the new Junior Cycle doesn’t require English students to write any kind of extended essay, discursive or narrative? A question for another day, perhaps…

Well anecdotally at least, in the absence of that key skill, students seem to be arriving in to fifth year Pol-Soc class with lower levels of writing skills that we must nonetheless address. So over the holidays I tried to put together a one-page guide (God, I love trying to fit it onto one page!) to an incremental process designed to help students make gradual improvement in their discursive essay writing. Of course, there’s no substitute for content knowledge (which this takes as a pre-requisite), but I can’t tell you how often I’ve seen good students under-perform in exams because of poor time-management, rather than because of a lack of knowledge (and reciprocally, average students who have gotten to grips with this process, out-performing their seemingly abler classmates).

Similarly, students often fail to take the basics of ‘exam conditions’ into account. They fail to practice writing essays without the crutch of their notes for support, or fail to realize that they should find a neat, light pen (blue or black) that doesn’t require them to put too much pressure on their writing hand, that they use exclusively from Christmas in Sixth Year until the end of the exams (buying 20-30 of them so as to never worry about running out!). They wouldn’t use a brand new type of football boot at the start of a county final, so why should they do it during the most consequential minutes of writing they’ll do in the early part of their adult lives?????

Anyway, take a look at the one-page guide here: Study Skills for Pol Soc Essays, and if you have any suggested ways to improve upon it, I’m all ears (which is, unfortunately, both literally and metaphorically the case…). How I’ve explained this process to my own students is to remind them how they learned to ride their bikes. First they started off with all the necessary supports – a parent to hand, all the elbow and knee pads that money can buy, 2 stabilizers, smooth flat ground… Gradually, each support is removed so that the process no longer feels so daunting and insurmountable. Essay writing is actually just like that. (P.S. If you missed my post on suggested exam timing and exam strategy, you can find it here.)

The process requires students to make a brutally honest self-evaluation at the start so that they can identify what areas in the process they need to address most urgently in order to make maximum progress. We can’t help with the honesty bit, unfortunately!

Best of luck in the run up to the mocks (and if anyone is using the DEB paper, I’d be similarly interested in any constructive feedback that people might have about the exam).

And remember, as Ernest Hemingway said, writing is easy, “All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” Hard things are hard, but if you chip away at it, it gets ever so slightly less difficult in an exam setting…




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