How (Not?) to Study for an English Exam

Every year, I try a new way of studying for English exams, and every year, they go about the same. Yesterday’s post was about the one I sat last week, but my other English exams, in high school and in university, have all gone the same way. Other essay exams also don’t go brilliantly, but English, for some reason, is especially challenging. Why?

English is messy. Everything links up to everything else. This applies at every level, from words or phrases in individual stanzas in individual poems, to separate texts or even groups of texts. So, it’s easy to go off on a tangent, or end up going around in circles trying to explain something. Sometimes it seems like, in order to explain A, you need to explain B, and in order to explain B, your reader needs to understand A. Wrangling thoughts about literature into something linear can seem impossible.

Furthermore, usually the most rewarding way of thinking about a literary work is not the way that the work presents itself to you; obviously, books don’t come structured in terms of theme, character, symbolism, etc. This is, of course, a very good thing, but it is one of the main reasons why English can be so difficult to study. This is why I  think I find English more difficult than, say, philosophy. In philosophy, we have step-by-step arguments; that’s what’s presented to us, and that’s the format in which we’re expected to understand and respond to it.

Okay, so let’s look at how I studied for this exam. The standard advice, what any teacher will tell you to do to prepare for English exams (or other essay exams), is to write practice essays based on past exam questions. This seems sensible, and it was the main way I studied in high school. It didn’t go too badly, and it can be very helpful if you have access to someone who can read every essay you write and give you extensive feedback on it (when they go from making your essay bleed red ink to just telling you that it’s fine, you’re probably pretty well-prepared). Unfortunately, how much feedback it’s possible to get from university tutors can vary.

There are other problems with this approach, too. First, it’s exhausting. Yes, you’ll have to write three-ish essays in the exam itself, but don’t underestimate how much the self-control required to make yourself write timed essays over and over again drains you. I found that, even though each essay only took an hour to write, I could only bring myself to do one or two a day. In addition, this approach limits the amount of content it’s possible to cover. You can get through much more content in an hour of making summaries or talking aloud about a topic than you can in writing an essay about a narrow, specific topic. You’re also only really preparing for those specific questions, and while some of them might come up (like the Richard III one did for me), often they won’t, and you’ll probably be in trouble.

Some would like to say, of course, that English isn’t about “content”, that you shouldn’t try to memorise anything, that you need to focus on Understanding and Critical Thinking and Nuance and so on. That’s great – until exam leave starts. At that stage, assuming you’ve gone to classes and done the reading and made notes and asked questions and thought about all of it a bit, chances are you do understand it. When exams are looming, your main task is to take all that stuff that you mostly understand and make sure that you’re going to be able to reproduce it in the exam room. I should be clear, you can’t do this if you don’t understand it. But understanding is only half the battle. On these grounds, here’s how I studied for English this semester:

  1. I haven’t really got the hang of taking notes in English lectures, as the messiness of the subject tends to make it hard to pick out what’s really relevant and get it all down. So, my first task was to flesh out those notes, which I did by reading the relevant chapters of a couple of books, listening to a couple of lectures from iTunes U (look up Emma Smith from Oxford, she is amazing), and reading the introductions to my copies of the texts.
  2. I went through the past exams to see what topics were generally asked about. In the case of Richard III, all the questions seemed to be either about Richard’s character and why we like him, or about the role of history in the play.
  3. I took all of my notes from lectures and readings and divided them into those topics. Thankfully, they fit pretty well, so I could be fairly sure I wasn’t going to come across something outside of those topics that I needed to write about. I reordered these notes into logical categories so they formed a fairly comprehensive summary of everything I felt I needed to know.
  4. I wrote these summaries out over and over again.

This is a very brute force method, and it definitely wouldn’t work for everybody – at this point, I’m not at all sure it works for me, and I know some people who have had great success with the practice-essay route. There are certainly problems with it:

  • I didn’t write the summaries out nearly enough times;  it takes a lot for these things to get stuck in your head, and that means making the summaries early and spending time writing them out (or, as I tried a few time, talking out loud from them).
  • I didn’t try reproducing them from memory. This would have been helpful for two reasons: first, it would have made the content stick much, much better. Second, it would have given me a way to know what I did and didn’t know, allowing me to focus on what I didn’t know so well.

I feel like these are the reasons that this exam didn’t go so well (clarification: results aren’t actually out yet, and I think I’ll still get a good mark for the course as a whole. Here, I’m reflecting on the experience I had in the exam, rather than the grade I’ll recieve), but as I’ve said, these are the results I’ve had with every English exam. My strategy is still evolving and I suspect I’ll work it out when I have very few English exams left, as they thankfully become rarer at the higher levels.


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