Short Answer Questions for Dummies
June 23, 2011 5:46 AM   Subscribe

Do you totally nail short-answer questions on exams? If so, give me your blow-by-blow method. Inspired by this question.

I get near perfect grades for essays but I am performing only decently on SAQs in exams. I have no idea what I am doing wrong actually but would love some idea of what other people do!

I think I am missing some implicit 'plan', 'technique', or structure.

My field is psychology but it doesn't matter what you've studied.
posted by KLF to Education (13 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
If the short answer question has, say, 5 points possible, there are probably 5 distinct facts that you need to mention.
posted by acidic at 5:59 AM on June 23, 2011

Waffle will savage your marks. Especially if there's a word limit. If the sentence you're writing does not directly address the question, then cut it out. You have only a tiny number of words in which to get across the specific arguments/facts/concepts the markers are looking for. Make every single one count.

I often found a miniature essay-plan in the form of a bullet list of the things I needed to work into the answer helped me immensely in avoiding waffle and keeping on topic.
posted by talitha_kumi at 6:09 AM on June 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

1/ Review number of points available per question, total time available in the exam and allocate your time. Do not, under any circumstances, spend more time on any one question than this time allocation provides for that question. If you find you have time left at the end because you needed less time on some questions you can always go back.

2/ Read question carefully, underline key elements. Based on number of points available work out how many relevant facts/considerations you need to mention to gain maximum points. This is more often than not 1 key fact (perhaps 2-3 sentences) per point but please check this for your exams.

3/ Jot down a couple of key words for each of the facts. Arrange in order of relevance.

4/ Write out your answer, be sure to leave a line between each "fact", or two, to make this easier to mark and to allow yourself space to add things or amend if you have time to do so.

5/ Move on to next question - repeat.
posted by koahiatamadl at 6:13 AM on June 23, 2011

When I was grading exams with short questions on them, I was almost always looking for key words. So if the question was "What are the key subsites on", I would be looking for AskMe, MeTa, etc, perhaps as a bulleted list or in a sentence or two.

I am not looking for an answer that goes "blah blah blah," as in " is an important site that has enslaved thousands of unpaid content generators around the world. That reminds me of how, on my last summer vacation, I looked at Mefi on my iphone, and discovered that there were some subsites. The piña colada I was drinking was the same color as one of the subsites, and I think there were a couple of others. The important internet theorist Cortex once said blah blah blah blah..."

Almost always, those short questions are asking for you to demonstrate some key points (eg dates, author names, central concepts, etc), or to be able to capture a main idea in very few words. Cut all the blah blah blah, and just give that central answer, and you are good to go. Think of it as the no-bullshit answer, where avoid all fluff, and just answer the damn question.
posted by Forktine at 6:24 AM on June 23, 2011 [6 favorites]

As someone who has graded many short answer questions:

For the love of all that is holy, make it as short as you possibly can. That's why it's called short answer. You wouldn't believe how often I encounter the following situation: Student writes two sentences answering the question in what appears to be a basically competent manner. On the basis of those two sentences, I could happily give full credit. Unfortunately, Student has written another seven sentences revealing multiple misunderstandings I can't overlook. Student ends up with half credit.

Besides, reading overly long short answer responses makes your grader grumpy.
posted by ootandaboot at 7:13 AM on June 23, 2011 [3 favorites]

Reiterating what Forktine and ootandaboot said, when I graded short answer questions I looked for keywords or phrases. Anything long and rambly made me suspicious if the student actually had even understood the question (and usually they hadn't).

We usually used short answer questions to determine if people understood a concept correctly, and so what we wanted was for them to give us the textbook definition, maybe some examples. Or, the question will ask what's wrong with a certain example or procedure, and in that case we're happy with a bulleted list.

Also, have you discussed with your instructor what you could do to improve your answers to short answer questions? Go to their office hours with an old exam and ask them how you could have answered better. Make sure you don't come across as if you're arguing with the grade - you just want to know how to do better next time.
posted by needled at 8:13 AM on June 23, 2011

Think of an exam - any exam, really - as a game. You have to play by the rules of the game (the structure of the exam, what material is going to be on it etc.) - but the person who's writing the exam has to play by those rules as well.

In other words, when you are studying for an exam that you know will include some short answer questions, imagine yourself being the person who has to come up with those questions. Then, go through your course materials specifically looking for what would make for a good short answer question. What are the straightforward key terms and concepts that a student in this course will either know or not know, and that can be expressed in the format of a short answer? Which terms/concepts are you (as the exam writer) going to try to include in the short answer section, because they aren't likely to be fully covered in the essay section?

Besides just being a way to review the material more carefully (as you imagine writing the short answer question that would correspond to your textbook, lecture notes etc.) you also have a pretty good chance of predicting what exact questions might turn up on the real exam. As the person creating the exam will tell you, there are only so many possible questions that follow the rules of the game - and there's no reason for you, the student not to use that fact to your own advantage.

(Plus, ditto on the other suggestions here about being concise and specific in your exam answers, and about asking your instructor how you could have done better on previous exams.)
posted by amy lecteur at 8:24 AM on June 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I feel like I do everything you guys are telling me -- I plan it in a mini-essay form so it has structure and directly answers the question. I don't waffle and write free associations, but I do occasionally write a little more than I should (e.g., I had 6 SAQs in an exam yesterday, and for 2 of them I wrote 1.5 pages instead of the suggested 1 page).

I get HDs for my clear and concise language in essays so I don't really get how my SAQs are that much different. Can I get away with bullet points more than I think?

It's kind of strange that we get so much instruction on (or at least resources for) how to write well for assignments but we never really get given "sample SAQ answers" that would achieve full marks.

It's hard to tell how many points I'm meant to hit as well because in my exams there is never a breakdown of allocation of marks. It will just be like: 10% per SAQ, or 6.33% or something. Does that mean they are looking for 10ish specific points? Or just that they will give me an overall grade a similar way they would an essay?

Duly noted that it should be as super short as possible and that I should do everything in my power to make it shorter!
posted by KLF at 5:27 PM on June 23, 2011

woah- a page?

short answer questions to my mind are the ones where you get a bunch of questions on a page with a blank line or two for the answer.

Q1 what are the mefi subsites

Q2 name the founder of metafilter

posted by titanium_geek at 8:18 PM on June 23, 2011

Yeah, one page is what I would call "short essay", and they need to be treated like essays. Most of the advice above is for short questions, where you have a paragraph at most.
posted by Forktine at 8:26 PM on June 23, 2011

Response by poster: Oh! Sorry guys! Well these are always referred to by the school as "SAQs" so I didn't know the difference :)
posted by KLF at 8:52 PM on June 23, 2011

You are getting advice here from mostly or entirely people in US higher education, who are talking about how things work on US course exams. US course exams are likely to be different from Australian, English, and other non-US exams. Your best bet is *really* to speak to your instructors directly about this, ask for what they are wanting to see (how long? where are your answers missing the mark? etc), or find other students at your institution who are getting good marks on these exams and ask if you can see their answers.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:35 PM on June 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

I teach at an Australian university, and I mark SAQs. For one of my classes I wrote up a document with sample good and bad SAQs along with explanations of why they are good and bad. No promises that your lecturers are like me (or your field is like mine) but if you want a copy of that document send me a memail.
posted by forza at 5:38 AM on June 24, 2011

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