How to Score Higher on a Close-Booked English Lit. Exam Under Pressure?
January 10, 2014 2:33 AM   Subscribe

Want methods for memorization, time management, and other study tips...

Typically, as you might already know, English Lit exams consist 2 parts -- short answer and essay. Hand-written. 3 hours.

1. What are the tricks that allow you to quickly identify passages?

2. Normally, what are the major components to include when answer passage-identification questions? Close-reading analysis is a must...what about contexts? (I once answered my questions including the close-reading in a sandwich format that basically resembles an essay paragraph that describe the feature+function+meaning of a passage. Then was told by prof that I didn't include historical context, hence I lost a point for each question. Do you always have to include the context particularly mentioned by the prof in lecture, even if the instruction does not particularly specify so?)

3. How does one prepare for the essay question?

4. What are the best ways to memorize quotations and hard facts?

Bonus questions --

What's the most efficient way of studying for such exams? If running out of time, how to prioritize time to get the as many points as possible? Anyone can combat attention-span/focus/stamina issue?

Muchas gracias!
posted by lorn to Education (11 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Normally, what are the major components to include when answer passage-identification questions? Close-reading analysis is a must...what about contexts? (I once answered my questions including the close-reading in a sandwich format that basically resembles an essay paragraph that describe the feature+function+meaning of a passage. Then was told by prof that I didn't include historical context, hence I lost a point for each question. Do you always have to include the context particularly mentioned by the prof in lecture, even if the instruction does not particularly specify so?)

This seems like the kind of thing that you'd want to take up with the instructor for the course. What professors want/expect can vary and while it's maybe not fair of them to expect something they haven't specifically asked for in the question, the best way to find out what they expect is by asking.
posted by juv3nal at 3:11 AM on January 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

Yes, ask your prof. Go to see them in their office hours, and ask the most specific questions you can. Although this sounds like comprehensive or government exams, perhaps?

Also, see if you can find copies of earlier exams written by that prof.

Passages chosen for ID are usually key or central: if you have read the material with care, attention and understanding you should get them all.

FOLLOW THE INSTRUCTIONS. Most students who obviously know the material often lose points because they haven't answered the question that was asked.

Close reading is less important, for ID questions, than actual identification: I ask them to give me author, title, context (where in the play) and significance. If someone only paraphrases the passage back to me instead of telling me why it's important and how it's important, I get right pissed off. Close reading a passage is a particular skill and you will be or may be asked to demonstrate it, but ID questions usually ask you to provide information that's in your head, not sitting in front of you on the page.
posted by jrochest at 3:23 AM on January 10, 2014

3. How does one prepare for the essay question?

Practice. Gather a few sample questions and think about how to structure the answers. You don't have to write the entire thing, but outline the structure. Check if you hit all the points.

[Not related to Lit, but to essay questions: I always liked to highlight/color code the important aspects of the question during the exam so I could easily check if I answered everything. And usually I'd scribble a few notes (my initial ideas, facts I remembered, etc) right after reading the question (with a pencil, if you are allowed to use one). If I got somehow distracted during the essay writing, I could glance over my notes to see if I had forgotten anything.]

Re: historical context. Yes, I'd include a few sentences about the relevant historical period and why this particular piece/author is a good/bad representation of it. (What defining characteristic of the literary movement can be identified in the text/was used by the author). Obviously, focus on the exam question and mention the historic context briefly.

4. What are the best ways to memorize quotations and hard facts?

How about acronyms?
Example: If you know KPCOFGS or remember the phrase "Kindly Please Come Over For Great Sex", you'll have the order of biological classification (kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species).

Good luck for the exam!
posted by travelwithcats at 4:12 AM on January 10, 2014

Write right now. Work out the sentences, the paragraphs, and the arguments now and they will come back to you when you need them.

And use flash cards for simple facts. Make a stack of them for some app or make a stack of actual cards to carry around in your pocket. Discard the facts you know and concentrate on the elusive ones.
posted by pracowity at 4:33 AM on January 10, 2014

In University I used smell to study for exams. It sounds woo but it really does work as smell can be really powerful in memory recall. Lots of science backing this up.

I had a bunch of bottles of essential oils and had primary one for each subject and sometimes used a second one if the subject warranted it. While studying...just smell. Then in the exam I would have the bottle though interestingly enough just remembering and imagining the smell was enough most of the time.

It does come with a warning though. It's been over ten years since I took an economics and to this day whenever I smell 'pine' scent it comes back. US history after the Second World War gets triggered by lemon. Stick a lemon under my nose and I could probably rewrite most of my final essay.

So yeah, don't use favorite smells....
posted by Jalliah at 5:09 AM on January 10, 2014 [4 favorites]

In addition to the tips above, you need to consider the big picture. What critical perspective does the instructor adopt? Answering questions posed by a formalist will require a different approach than would answering questions posted by a historicist or a psychoanalytic critic (if there are any of those left) or a Marxian. Knowing the instructor's position within disciplinary and critical traditions will help a lot; part of the point of English lit courses is to help you better understand not only the texts but also the distinct ways in which readers have interpreted the texts.
posted by brianogilvie at 6:25 AM on January 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

Say it's a Shakespeare class and you read Hamlet, Othello, and Twelfth Night

Go through your copy of Hamlet. Identify all of the following quotes:

-passages your professor mentioned in class, specifically those she read aloud.

-passages discussed in any detail in the secondary material you read.

-passages that you yourself underlined, while reading, that seemed particularly salient.

(Doing this well obviously requires you to have been attending lecture, taking notes, and doing the reading throughout.)

Type all of these quotes, in full, along with citation information, into a word document under the heading "Hamlet." This will take a while. Good. It's helping you memorize.

Once all the quotes are in the document, start from the top. Under each quote, write a little cheat sheet, answering the following questions.

-Summarize, in brief
-Who is talking to whom?
-What happened immediately before this quote?
-What happened immediately after?
-What, if anything, did your professor or the secondary material directly tell you about this quote?
-what does the quote reference ('that undiscovered bourn'=death)
-What are three close-reading observations of your OWN you can make about this quote?
-BONUS - does this quote connect directly to any other quote in the play?

Repeat this process for Othello and Twelfth Night.

Study your documents, flashcard style, until you can recall this information from memory, rapid fire, and can also quote, from memory, at least a line from each quote. The quote you memorize doesn't have to be long. "To be or not to be," "The beast with two backs," etc. but you should be able to discuss it in the context of a larger passage.

Now, combine all three of your documents into one place. It's game time.

Come up with a list of twenty possible "themes." Not full essay topics, but one word ideas. So, idk, Self and Other., or Puns, or whatever. Your topics don't matter THAT much but they should be a mix of stuff your prof has talked about and new ideas, and they should be applicable to all the plays.

For each topic, challenge yourself to find three separate quotes that would work as the frame for an essay discussing that topic, and write a topic sentence for that essay. Start by cutting and pasting your quotes+cheatsheet and then start doing it from memory. "If I were going to write an essay on Nature Symbolism, I would use Ophelia's X, Desdemona's quote Y and Viola's quote Z, and I would say ABC. If I were going to write an essay on the Other, I'd use Rosencrantz's quote X, Hamlet's quote Y and Othello's quote Z, and I'd say ABC." Start by doing this with your document in front of you and aim to transition to doing it from memory. Remember, you're not WRITING these essays out, you're just building little outlines in your head.

It depends what level you're at, but I'd say by the end of this process you should have at least 50 quotes at your fingertips.

Now, go back and skim the plays, secondary material, and your notes. Are there any other quotes that leap out at you now, or things you didn't notice before? Take them down, add them to your study list.

With all this information in front of you, are there any super-themes that obviously leap out at you? Is your professor obsessed with puns? Is the class called Flower Imagery in Shakespeare? Take a stab at writing out, in full, without notes, one or two essays on this Big Theme. If you feel like you need info that you don't have in your head, now is the time to go back and memorize it.

When you go into the exam, do the IDs first, regardless of what order the test itself is in.

People are right to tell you to talk to your Prof regarding what should be in the IDs, but I'd suggest the following form:

This quote is from play A. X is talking to Y, in the last act, discussing Z. The quote is important because ABC (stuff your prof has talked about) and also because of (one line of your own close reading, i.e. 'As we can see by the use of Blah Imagery...')

Then, when you get to the essays, look at them ALL before you write a word. Then, play the game: figure out 3 memorized passages for each, ideally all different, covering all three plays in each essay. Figure out your topic sentence, and add a line about how you'll use each quote. WRITE THIS DOWN. It will save your ass if you run out of time. Write the essays. Check your work.

posted by pretentious illiterate at 6:41 AM on January 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

Lots of good advice above re: approaches to essay questions. I would add, specifically in regards to being able to drop quotations into your long answers (which most profs expect), that the best way to do this is to be as comfortable as possible with the texts in question. Obviously, you can't memorize entire plays or novels, or commit every poem on the syllabus to memory, but if you've been paying attention to the major themes of the course and the critical bent of your particular prof, you honestly should have a pretty clear idea of what types of essay questions are likely to be asked and can thus focus your "memorization" preparations on pertinent passages and quotations (i.e. a course that focused on gender and performance in the Renaissance is likely to have essay prompts which approach this central theme from a variety of angles. Having a few quotes from "Twelfth Night" or "Epicoene" at your fingertips would therefore be very likely to be useful for many of the prompts you would expect to find on the exam). In regards to the process of memorization, for me, one of the best ways to "memorize" prose and verse passages or poetry is to READ ALOUD. Your learning style may be different, but language (especially poetic language or dramatic language) is written to be heard as well as read, and giving your brain two sensory pathways to retrieve the info is bound to reinforce your ability to recall specific quotes.

Preparing for Lit exams (an all exams, really) is mostly a matter of really understanding the specific texts and materials covered AND (equally important) understanding the goals and trajectories of the course as a whole.
Good luck!
posted by Dorinda at 6:43 AM on January 10, 2014

I had these type of exams all the time. I would:

*Skim each text that was being covered.

*Underline all important passages - important for: analysis of character, statement of theme, topic shift, statement important to point of class (new historicism/womanism/ect).

*Write those passages on an index card below the following information: Title, author, 1-2 sentence summary, statement of theme, historical importance.

Then I'd study from those cards. I also - and I have synesthesia so YMMV - grouped titles by their overall "feel". That way if I couldn't quite remember from the sentence, the general melancholy or sentence length would help me remember.

I freaked out and went a little notecard crazy before the first such test, but remember: the professor is *not* trying to play gotcha. You're not going to have to identify "She sat down." Zhe will pick notable passages and expect you to remember 1) why it was important to the text and 2) why the text is important overall. You don't have to have the books memorized, just have accessible what they're about and why that matters.
posted by blue_and_bronze at 8:22 AM on January 10, 2014

I love flash cards for this type of thing, and made tons and tons of them during my college days. In this case, maybe quote on front, bullet point ID answer on back + any other pertinent details?

In terms of what's required for an ID answer, talk to your prof because everyone will be a bit different. I'm not in English Lit, but in a discipline where we do have IDs on exams. For me, typically half the points are for giving a correct and full definition, and half the points are for outlining significance (i.e. linking the term to a broader course theme, telling me why the term was important historically, etc.). But, every prof may have a different idea of what they want for these questions. Really, it is their job to outline what they're looking for during lecture and/or a review session, but if you're not getting that info (or if you may have missed it), office hours are your friend.

For essays, I highly recommend working in groups of 3-4 with other students in the class. As a group, come up with some ideas of potential essay questions and outline answers.
posted by rainbowbrite at 2:24 PM on January 10, 2014

In your formula for passage analysis you include 'function'. Sophisticated analysis of function requires understanding of social context. This is not an 'add on'.

You should have criteria that makes this clear, surely?
posted by jojobobo at 1:08 AM on January 11, 2014

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