Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Avoiding Exam Disasters

So now that I've been teaching for a while, it's become clear that certain negative patterns exist in regard to how students approach exam questions, especially essay questions.  So, in order to prevent these patterns from further perpetuating, here are some pointers.  It's not a complete recipe for exam success (you still have to study like your life depends on it and write lucidly and correctly), but it'll help.  In no particular order...

  1. Answer the question, not the question you've imagined based on the keywords that you’ve picked out of a question that you haven't read thoroughly.
  2. Make an outline.  Do bullet points.  Whatever method works for you, use it.  It'll not only help you organize your thoughts, but will keep you on track when you're writing.  They call it the fog of war because nobody can see clearly.  Same thing happens during exams.  An outline will help keep things tidy.
  3. Unless prompted to do so, avoid first-person assertions. The question is not about your opinions, beliefs, or feelings. This is not the time to tell me that you think Duchamp is a fraud or the Sistine Chapel is cooler than the School of Athens.  We can talk about that at some other time.  The exam is for proving what you know, not dissuading me from what I already believe.
  4. Talk about the work, not around it.  Talk about all the works you are given.  Or, talk about the required number of works.  If you do less, expect a lesser grade.
  5. If you make an assertion, back it up with specific evidence from a work of art.  The work is the evidence.  If you can't prove it using the work, think about whether or not it can be proven at all.
  6. Rhetorical questions are useless. Actual answers are useful.
  7. Description is never a substitute for interpretation. A pathway to interpretation, yes, but not a substitute. The “how” and “what” of an object’s making are important, but must be paired with the “why” and “with what effect, to what end, or with what influence.”
  8. Don’t be clever. Be correct. Be complete.  If I want wit and humor, I'll go watch George Carlin.  On an exam, I want a tornado of smart, well-phrased arguments.  Bells and whistles won't help unless you're already doing everything right.
  9. Discuss the historical context.  Formalism and aesthetics haven't been enough for decades.  It's called art history for a reason.  You need both parts.
  10. Use your art history vocabulary.  It's a technical language that will not only add clarity and specificity to what you're saying, but it will prove to me that you know a lot more than just the words themselves.  Wasn't it great when LeBron ran down the whole pitch and smashed through that field goal?  Maybe in another dimension where words don't matter.  Same principle with an art history test.  We teach you the words so you can use them.
  11. Please don't waste our time with intro paragraphs that spout platitudes or generalities.  Neither waste time restating the question in the form of a sentence.  I don't care what your high school taught you.  You're wasting time and space that could be better used saying something substantial about the art.  I wrote the question.  I don't need it echoed back at me.
  12. Proofread the damn thing.  Nobody writes a perfect essay on the first try in a dark room while being timed.  Proofread.

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