Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Answering exam questions EXPLICITLY

If I said to you:

'Do you like chocolate? Can you explain why?'

How would you respond? Would you say something like this:

'Chocolate bars cost about £1 to buy in the shop and they come from cocoa beans, which are grown in South America because they need a tropical climate to grow. Different brands of chocolate include Cadbury and Galaxy. You shouldn't give chocolate to dogs. Different types of dog include Poodles and Great Danes...'

Or would you say:
'I think chocolate is the best! I love it because it tastes great, especially milk chocolate, and it puts me in a good mood, I've heard it's because it makes your brain release a hormone called serotonin that makes you feel happy'

Now obviously you wouldn't give the first answer. That would just be weird. Right? If you are asked a direct question you would give a direct and relevant answer. You wouldn't just start giving random facts that are only vaguely related to the question... or would you?

Well, unfortunately that's how a lot of people answer exam questions. They see a term like 'demographic transition model', 'desertification' or 'fossil fuels' and just start writing everything they know on the subject but without paying much attention to the rest of the question. If it's an essay and the question asks 'do you agree?' they might say 'yes I agree' or 'no I don't agree' but usually this only comes at the very end, as a sort of after thought.

It's true that exam questions are more difficult than explaining why you like chocolate, but try to think of them in the same way. After all, there are lots of questions that are just as difficult, but if you were asked them you'd probably still be able to give a direct answer. For example:

  • 'Do you think refugees should be allowed into the country? Why/not not?'
  • 'Do you think abortion should be allowed, can you explain why?'
  • 'Do you think David Cameron should resign as prime minister after the Panama papers leak?
  • 'We're going to have a new rule in our 6th form college - everyone has to wear a uniform; what do you think about this?'
You may not be able to speak on the subject for a long time - perhaps you can only give a few sentences explaining what you think and why. However, this is far better than giving a long-winded and rambling answer that doesn't really make sense to try and give the impression that you have lots of knowledge on this issue.

The same applies to exam questions. Even if you can only write half a page for an essay, it's better to have half a page of good quality, focused information than 2 sides of rambling. Those extra 1 and 1/2 sides are unlikely to get you any more marks. It would be much better to use that time on another question instead.

Let's look at a real exam question and try to apply this logic:

‘Soft engineering is a better river flood management strategy than hard engineering.’ Discuss this view. (15 marks) - GEOG1 - June 2011

The way a lot of people would answer this is to write a paragraph explaining what soft engineering is and then do the same for hard. They may list at a few advantages and disadvantages of each one and then only in the conclusion will they say which is one is better.

To answer this question more explicitly you could try the following structure:

- briefly define each type of engineering (max one sentence on each)

Paragraph 1 - Arguments in SUPPORT of the statement in the question
- say why soft engineering is good and, conversely why hard engineering is bad.
- use specific examples to support your statements
- use comparative words 'however, whereas, whilst, conversely, on the other hand'

Paragraph 2 - Arguments in AGAINST the statement in the question
- talk about the disadvantages of soft engineering and say how hard engineering can be better in comparison
- use specific examples to support your statements
- use comparative words 'however, whereas, whilst, conversely, on the other hand'

- say whether you agree with the statement overall or not, or to what extent
- briefly explain why - i.e. consider your strongest and weakest arguments from what you've already written.
e.g. you might say that overall you agree because the fact that soft engineering is more environmentally friendly outweighs any benefits that hard engineering has. Or you might say you disagree overall because the ability of hard engineering to effectively control flooding and thus saves lives outweighs the benefits that soft engineering has for the environment.

Click HERE to download a template for answering this question.

You can also find revision notes for 2 case studies on flood management that you can use to answer this question HERE and HERE

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