How can I improve my essay grades, especially in exams, without learning “model essays” off by heart?

06 Dec

Preface (optional but interesting)

There really are some interesting cultural dimensions to this question. Louise White, John Allan-Rae and Darrell Fisher from Curtin University, for example, argue that children whose first language is Chinese show a superior grasp of mathematical concepts and enhanced powers of memorisation:

It has been suggested that the success of Asian students is due to rote learning of formulae and that they lack real understanding of the subject. Educators in Western countries often hold the belief that rote learning is an inferior learning. However, research suggests that this is a simplistic understanding of the kind of learning promoted in many Asian schools. Rote learning is often interpreted as repetition and memorisation without understanding.(Biggs, 1996) It could be more accurate to say that memorisation can lead to a deeper understanding and higher learning. Dahlin and Watkins (1977) have posed the question as to how Chinese students achieve so well academically if they only rely on rote learning. Their comparison of interviews with 48 Hong Kong Chinese students and 18 Western students of high school age reveals that the two groups had quite different understandings of what repetition means in relation to memorising and understanding text. The Western students tended to regard repetition as a useful mental exercise and to associate it with memorisation without understanding. The Chinese students, however, described repetition as involving “focused effort”. One in particular described it as something that created a “deep impression”. They perceived it as an activity that is an important step in understanding. Indeed this activity was not regarded as passive, but one requiring effort on the part of the learner.

Rote learning has become associated in the Western system with “parroting” or mindless repetition of facts. It can be argued that it is in fact something that can require the learner to be actively engaged in learning material and that memorisation and understanding are not mutually exclusive. As with learning to read, learning mathematics involves both top-down and bottom-up processes that need to be developed and utilised at the same time. The discipline of memorising basic facts gives students a sound basis and confidence in learning mathematics. The Confucian work ethic promotes a willingness to go over and over tasks until they are understood. The value or satisfaction expressed by many students was in the intrinsic enjoyment of gaining mastery of the subject and they were prepared to work hard in order to achieve it.

To underline the relevance of this, Asian students have a profound and embedded understanding of the concepts of mathematics resulting from the learning of the skills of mathematical manipulation at an early age. The close links between the learning of their language and mathematical concepts are a real advantage for them. In many Asian families parents as first educators regard the learning of mathematics as an integral part of the process of educating children. This is continued through to tertiary level. The role of repetition and memorisation is fundamental to this process. The willingness of Asian students to go over and over material could be utilised rather than discouraged. Our last point is that their positive attitude to learning is not just built on the Confucian work ethic, but on experiencing success. If students arrive with these positive views of work in the area of mathematics it could be translated into all areas of the curriculum.

See also Christina Au and Noel Entwistle, “‘Memorisation with understanding’ in approaches to studying: cultural variant or response to assessment demands?”

But there is no doubt that excessive reliance on memorisation, or perhaps memorising the wrong things, can lead students astray, especially in subjects like HSC Advanced English where flexibility, unpredictability, and critical thinking are highly rewarded. On the other hand, even here we need to be careful, as this (PDF FILE) paper, “The Unbearable Vagueness of Critical Thinking…”, shows.

OK, so what is a student to do?

See also (on Geocities) Essay writing for (clever) dummies and the links in the side bar here on Writing and Study Skills.

1. Develop efficient question analysis. You can see me model this in the “Images of Men” essays which start here.. See also the Online Academic Skills Resources page from the University of NSW. Go there to see the steps you need to follow. You need to know exactly what the question is asking you to do. More good advice is on this PDF file: “What does the question mean?”


How else will you achieve RELEVANCE to the question?

Memorising answers beforehand tends to cut you out of this vital first step.

2. Practise relevant answering. Use lots of questions for practice. You may get them from past papers, other schools, teachers, tutors, or you can even make your own. Be active when you study by setting yourselves problems.

When you are sure exactly what a particular question requires, go through your notes, your texts, material you may have memorised, and decide what MAJOR POINTS will be needed to answer this question and no other. Jot down those points. Think about any quotes, examples, and expansions you might use in developing each point.


— Write an introduction in the register and style appropriate to the task. Then skip the body of the essay and write a conclusion. This exercise can be done in five or ten minutes, and frequently done with many different questions makes your work very adaptable. So do LOTS of these.


— Write the full essay, not worrying about time, but just trying to get the ideas sequenced correctly. Put it away, and take it out again (or retrieve the file) a few days later. Now look at your answer again and decide what needs to be changed.


— Write the full essay in 40 or 50 minutes to simulate exam conditions. This is important as timing is often part of the problem, and the more automatic it becomes the better.

3. So what about memorisation?

Yes, it is a very useful skill to possess. Just be careful what you choose to memorise. Useful things might include:

— Quotations from the text you are studying, related texts, or critics. Always acknowledge them when you use them, and NEVER use them just because you know them. There has to be a reason to use them.

— Basic facts that could prove useful. Again, never use them unless they really are relevant to the question.

— Some carefully crafted passages of your own, argument or exposition for example, may be useful but there is a BIG danger. Anything you use has to fit neatly into the style and content of the answer you are writing.

Guess what?

You learn to write by writing, you improve by doing, you gain confidence by practising. Your teachers will be pleased to give feedback when you practise. If your teacher gives you the opportunity to practise, GRAB IT GRATEFULLY! Do not ask: Is this assessed? The answer to that is actually “Yes”. It will be assessed when you do the “real” task much more effectively as a result of this practice!

Good luck!

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Posted by on December 6, 2006 in English studies, esl for students, HSC, questions asked, student help, study skills, writing



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