Essay question has too many permutations or am I overthinking this?
October 8, 2014 9:27 AM   Subscribe

For my son’s high school history class, he has been assigned an in-class argument/opinion essay. The teacher ended most of the lecturing this week and has given them time to prepare thesis statements for the essays. Here is where it starts to get complicated (at least to my son and me):

What I want to know:

* What are the useful variable permutations of questions numbers 2 & 3 as explained below?

* Does this essay assignment seem a bit unreasonable?

There will be three possible questions for the essay. The students have been given all three to prepare. The teacher will pick one of these at random on the day of the essay:

1. Describe the extent and impact of new trading systems as they develop during this time period.

2. How do belief systems (Buddhism, Confucianism, Dao, Legalism, Christianity, Zoroastrianism) compare and what is the impact they had on their respective societies?

3. In the following areas explain the political development: Han China, South Asia, Greece, Rome, Persia and Mesoamerica.

The instructions are:

* 10 factual items of historical significance on the topic
* At least 3 specific analytical statements (commentary) addressing the thesis, to prove their opinion
* If question 2 or 3 is chosen on the day of the essay, the teacher will then pick at random two of the categories for that question. So for example, on the day of the essay the question may be “How do Christianity and Confucianism compare…” or “In Han China and Greece explain the political development”. Of course, it could be any two out of the list for each question.

My son’s is finding it difficult to prepare for the last two, as the variables are unknown until the day of the essay. In preparation, he is trying to formulate multiple thesis statements for each possible variable combination and come up with ten factual items that meaningfully correlate to those combined variables, as well as come up with three meaningful statements that support his thesis for each variable set. And then all of this needs to make a compelling argument.

I agree with him that it seems like a very difficult essay to prepare for. In his exasperation, he said it would take a mathematician to calculate are the variable combinations of (2x) variables + (10x) facts + (3x) commentary statements. I sat down and tried to figure it out, but I don’t math enough, so I think my formula of [n!/(n-r)! ] was wrong.

Again, my two questions:

What are the useful variable permutations of questions numbers 2 & 3 as explained below?

Does this essay assignment seem a bit unreasonable?
posted by bionic.junkie to Education (25 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
My quick take on this would be to focus on memorizing decent summaries of each individual belief system and region and not worry so much about pre-planning my comparisons between them, but then again I usually test well and tend to be good at ad libbing that stuff.

For instance, rather then prepare every possible combo for question 3 I'd just review whatever we went over in lecture about each region, and then pick a few categories to remember to include in my comparison. Say, how did the system regard the rights of the individual, or how was the government/leader chosen, or was slavery a part of the system. If there's a textbook with a chapter on each region or belief system I bet each chapter has common section headings, that could be a place to start.

It is probably worth clarifying with the teacher whether noting in the essay that society X was a monarchy while society Z was a direct democracy counts as one historically significant factual item or two.

As to your broader question of whether this is a reasonable essay prompt, I'd say it's typical of high school essay prompts in that actually answering the question as asked is impossible without writing a PhD-length dissertation, but there's an expectation that what the students will produce will neccessarily be an oversimplification focused on regurgitating what they learned in class or in the readings. Not saying it's the best way to teach, but it is what it is. I actually like that the student is expected to compare and contrast, at least there's room for some actual critical analysis in there.
posted by Wretch729 at 9:41 AM on October 8, 2014 [6 favorites]

What I would do is break it up into knowledge about each possible belief system/country and study that way. As in, make sure he can explain fully how Confucianism impacted its region, or how Rome developed politically. Comparisons should hopefully arise pretty naturally if he can condense the three major ways that each place developed/was impacted by a belief. Maybe even have him make a big t-chart with three major impacts, for the regions and the beliefs, and think about ways they could be compared. The point is broader knowledge, right? It'll be less confusing and less to study if he doesn't try to memorize specific combos.

On preview, seconding Wretch729.
The way the teacher presented this is strange, but as a former AP student it's not far off from the thesis model of idea, support, support, support, (aka his teacher's commentaries) with those "supports" each getting their own paragraphs and three details (facts) to in turn support them. It's also a long list of places and beliefs to know, but they're pretty standard for major historical practices and if he's gearing up to take an AP test or SAT subject test, these'll keep coming up.
posted by clarinet at 9:41 AM on October 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Depends, is it regular old World History, or is it AP World History. Frankly, it's a delicious assignment and one that requires not just facts but critical thinking and rhetoric. EXCELLENT!

Don't freak out. Many teachers have a high bar, but will grade appropriately for the exam.

Now, I'm assuming this is open book open note, so you and your son should review his notes and organize them so that he can easily get to the nuggets he needs.

For example, each of the religions should have some bullet points about the religion (date it started, general political culture during the time, tenants of the religion.) Therefore its pretty easy to compare and contract any of them, because those concepts line up pretty easily.

Ditto for the political development question. Of course the notes will hit the key points, and the text should provide a framework.

Better to work on the outline of the essay, and then just fill in the blanks on test day:

Introduction: A few sentences that restate the question, and offer the thesis.


Timeframe of the event
Geography/location of the event
External pressures (Political, religious, weather)
Internal pressures (Taxation, Ruler, Political situation)
Important/influential figures


That makes it easy to organize the essay, and to plug in the relevant information. Also talk it through with your son and see what conclusions, if any he has drawn about these topics. Often talking it through helps someone formulate their opinions and understanding of the subject.

This sounds like a great class! Have fun with it!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:43 AM on October 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

The essay itself does not seem that unreasonable, but the scope of the material is comprehensive. If it were my child, I would advise her to study all the notes and the chapters. I would suggest she approach the teacher and ask what the teacher thinks the best way to prepare for it is.

I don't think it is as random as the directions profess. My guess is that certain parts were covered more than others. I would focus on those. I would also see if your child knows anyone who took the class last year and either has a copy of their test or can give a briefing on what to expect.

It appears to me as a non educator that the goal is to get the student to learn all the material well but because of time limitations will only have to demonstrate some of that knowledge. I suppose you could try to game the system or just learn it all.

For example on Q#2, I would write down bullet points on an index card of what each of the belief systems were for each religion. Know those and comparing them is easier.

Same for #3 except with political developments.

In order to analyze or think critically about a subject, you first need to understand the underlying assumptions of each.
posted by 724A at 9:44 AM on October 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

It's not explained clearly...but just learning the "factual items" is probably all that's needed.

Learn 10 facts about trading systems, and 5 facts about each of those belief systems and political development areas (10+12*5=70 facts total). That's it. Maybe learn one extra fact about each, in case you forget one.

The "analytical statements" could be something like "(facts 1, 2, and 3) show that (something is true)". Practice thinking up a few of these if it's hard to do under pressure.

The thesis statement could be something like "(Some big idea) is true because (analytical statements 1, 2, and 3)". Again, practice writing a few of these, but not every possible one.

The idea is to know the facts and know how to organize an essay, but not to plan the whole argument ahead of time.
posted by sninctown at 9:49 AM on October 8, 2014 [4 favorites]

Yeah, in case I didn't say it clearly I agree with others here who are saying the point of the essay isn't to plan a response for every possible combination, but rather to ensure that the student has a decent understanding of all the trading systems, political entities, and belief systems covered in the class. If they have that, the comparisons should be easy and natural.
posted by Wretch729 at 9:50 AM on October 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

To me, this sounds pretty clearly designed so that students _can't_ memorize answers for every permutation in advance. Rather, they should study the basic facts and work to understand the style of argumentation & critical thinking needed to connect them on the fly. While this may or may not be typical of testing in secondary school these days, in my experience as a university instructor it _is_ typical of post-high-school education so I'm glad to see it happens sometimes before that.
posted by advil at 9:54 AM on October 8, 2014 [26 favorites]

This essay question sounds like a variation on a garden variety history test. I assume the course has covered each of those topics - well, the good news is that, on the test day, he will only be held accountable for a few topics. The bad news is that he will not get to show off his knowledge of the topics which are not tested that day.

IMHO, I'm not sure why your son is pre-preparing thesis statements. Everybody learns their own way and does what they need to do, but this particular subtask sounds like unnecessary work and unnecessary stress. Wouldn't the thesis statements (and corresponding paragraphs) simply be iterations of what he already knows? "Dao centers around ABC, but Christianity centers around XYZ. ABC is like this, XYZ is like that. They have some similarities when it comes to 123, but they also have sharp differences when it comes to 456 and 789."

It's easy for me to say, since I'm not the one taking the test, but the key to this kind of essay is being able to prepare yourself for being able to eventually wing it. Get comfortable with the material, not just in the traditional sense of studying the material until you understand it, but also in the sense that you can have faith in yourself to be confident, fluid, and expressive on the test day.

I would think that stressing the number of permutations would work against these latter concepts. He doesn't need to think about each permutation. He just needs to understand the material and to practice combining this material on the fly.
posted by Sticherbeast at 9:58 AM on October 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

I agree with others that this sounds completely reasonable and like a great assignment. Why is he trying to pre-write everything? He should be working on making sure he understands each belief system well, and understands each region's political development -- say half a dozen good facts (plus the like theoretical basis) for each one. For practice I would maybe pick two at random and practice the process of figuring out how to compare them (maybe spending 5-10 minutes to come up with a sketched out outline). But if he's trying to pre-write each possible essay then I think that's entirely the wrong strategy.
posted by brainmouse at 10:02 AM on October 8, 2014 [7 favorites]

It doesn't seem like the teacher wants them to write an entire essay before coming to class and then memorize it. Instead, the students are being given the opportunity to prepare and learn the facts, and to think through possible arguments. It sounds like the goal is for them to do the actual essay production in class time.

(I started to type up a more detailed answer, but on preview, sninctown covered everything that I was going to say more succinctly than I probably would have.)

This doesn't seem at all unreasonable to me for a high school essay. For what it's worth, I have done a fair amount of tutoring at the high school level, and this seems way better than a lot of the assignments students end up with. This is a good way to start getting them used to the kind of essays they'll have to write later on.
posted by litera scripta manet at 10:10 AM on October 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for all the great answers. Yes, this is an AP class. Ruthless Bunny - The essay is NO notes NO book. And to answer the "why is he pre-writing the thesis?" question: She is requiring that your thesis be approved for each question before the essay.

I think most everyone is on the right track and the teacher is trying to get the students to go over all the material, even though they are only going to test on a small portion. The instructions are stressing my son as the essay is worth a good amount of his grade, so he doesn't want to foul it up.

From what I'm hearing by the way of other parents, my son is not the only one stressed by this essay. Apparently many students have the same concern as him. Hopefully there will be more clarification from the teacher before the actual essay.

I really love the outline and writing strategies given here and will show my son this afternoon. Gladly take more if anyone has them. Thanks for all so far!
posted by bionic.junkie at 10:25 AM on October 8, 2014

I think another thing the teacher is trying to do is recreate the stressful environment and the randomness of the actual AP test. If your son gets used to preparing for this type of test, he will presumably do better or be more comfortable on the actual AP exam.
posted by 724A at 10:28 AM on October 8, 2014 [4 favorites]

The assignment seems reasonable to me. What seems weird to me is this level of parent involvement in homework for a high school level student, especially one at the AP level.
posted by seesom at 11:03 AM on October 8, 2014 [15 favorites]

I think your son is getting freaked out because there is the theoretical possibility that he could prepare an outline for every possible essay, by investing an unreasonable amount of hours into preparing for the exam. Of course, that is almost certainly not what the teacher has intended here. The idea is to give them a broad enough set of options that students do not actually prepare essays ahead of time but rather study the appropriate materials (belief systems, political development, trading systems) and think about how they would compare, and then come up with the actual essay on the day of the exam. I agree with some posters above that the correct strategy is to know each subject area well and outline one or two of the possible comparisons so that you get some practice with it.

This is both good preparation for the AP exam and for college essay tests, which often have this feature of "Here's a set of questions you could be asked, I'll pick some number to actually test you on the day of." There too, the idea is not to prewrite every single possible essay but to use the possible questions to guide your studying. So, it's good to get used to this model now and get some of the stress out before encountering it in college.

I'm curious why your son is more stressed by this particular assignment than he would be by an essay exam with the following instructions: "There will be an essay exam covering the material on belief systems, political development, and trading systems." Surely he's had that sort of test before?? It sounds like the teacher is actually trying to do them a favor by giving more structure and guidance about what she expects. I don't think there really needs to be more clarification from the teacher since she's already given quite a lot more detail than most teachers would before an exam. (I frequently had exams in school that were basically "This exam will be over everything in Unit 2.)

And, I agree with seesom that you should back off. AP courses are for college credit and are meant to prepare students for college. You don't want to become the sort of parent who's showing up at a university to complain about grades (YES, I'VE HAD THAT). I get it, this is stressful for your kid! But...learning to deal with the fact that exams can be stressful is part of growing as a student. If anything, I would focus on doing some research on exam-taking skills and ways to reduce stress around exams and sharing those with your son rather than worrying about whether an exam is "fair" or "reasonable." Although this particular assignment sounds totally reasonable (and actually quite excellent!) to me, at some point in your life your kid will definitely encounter an assignment or exam or job situation that isn't totally fair and reasonable, and will still need to do it. So...coping skills are good.
posted by rainbowbrite at 11:21 AM on October 8, 2014 [5 favorites]

The study and prep skills that your son can learn in this situation will be far more valuable than the actual knowledge about trading systems.

The key is not to think of how many possible different permutations there could be, but rather what the MINIMUM number of combinations could be. For instance, each of your regions has a political system, various religions, and a trading system, but these are definitely interwoven. So, the same set of facts will apply to multiple questions.

Similarly, the same thesis will apply to multiple regions. For instance:

"The political development in [one area] was more tumultuous and violent than in [another area], because of differences in resources, religion, and trading systems."

You can arrange your geographic areas on a scale from most to least violent, and then you'll be able to use this thesis no matter which two areas are chosen. Do the same thing for "more/less oppressive to minorities" or "more/less influenced by the outside world", and you're set - you only need 1 or 2 thesis statements. You can do the same 'arrange them on a spectrum' trick for your religions - most vs. least egalitarian, most vs. least stable.
posted by Ausamor at 11:56 AM on October 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

You could maybe help your son by having him practice talking through this while you listen, to help him think of coherent ideas of his own. For the last two questions, instead of focusing on the 20 possible permutations each, have him discuss what makes each belief system unique relative to all the others. Then he can take whatever two and craft that into an essay on exam day.

I think this may hit a good balance of supporting him through the thought process, without doing the work for him. Also, this is absolutely the kind of thing he needs to be able to do in the real world, and I'd emphasize this to him.

These aren't stupid questions, they're not-stupid questions, and if he's really absorbed the material in the course plus enough critical thinking skills to do well in an AP class, he'll do just fine.
posted by telepanda at 12:11 PM on October 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

This task may not be as bad as it first appears. I suggest making a chart for each question. The chart would have column headers for each belief system/ area. The row headings would be labeled with different "types of comparisons/ attributes." For instance row headings for Question 2 might be important people, essential tenets, impact on society, etc. (He should go through his class notes to see what type of information the teacher covered for all of religions/ areas).

The thesis for these types of essays isn't necessarily very complex. He will support his thesis with details from the relevant cells in his chart. It's good that the teacher will approve the theses ahead of time so that your son can figure out the proper thesis framing. I am not your son's teacher, nor am I going to do your son's schoolwork for him, but it is theoretically possible to use the same thesis structure for all the possible theses for each question.

As an aside, he should keep his preparation notes for this, since it will be useful to have while studying for the AP test.
posted by oceano at 12:22 PM on October 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

In order to justify the granting of college credit, AP courses should be structurally similar to college-level courses. I teach at a university, and this sort of thing would be standard except usually the questions would not be given in advance. You have been given good study strategies above. Your son is lucky to have an instructor who is willing to walk him through developing the sills he will need in college.

From your description of your reaction, you are hurting your son more than helping. I understand why a teenager would be sullen and nervous about studying for a big exam. I don't understand why a parent would mirror his exasperation back at him, or try and calculate all the variable combinations for the prompt.

I have seen what happens to anxious young adults whose parents were overly involved in their high school studies; it usually isn't pretty. I would encourage you to take a big step back.
posted by girl flaneur at 1:03 PM on October 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

The questions are very reasonable. You can see the released exams (including scoring guides) here. The teacher is doing their students a service by helping them practice the way they will be assessed in the spring. Definitely note the scoring guides.

To prepare, students should focus on the content and finding ways to organize info that works for them. I'm guessing he probably has pages and pages of notes. Maybe he should reorganize it into a chart or concept map. Whatever the format, he should keep these notes because he will be expected to know all this in April/May.... along with EVERYTHING else.

Finally, you/he may also want to review this doc, which lays out expectations for the entire course. Pay attention to the themes.
posted by adorap0621 at 1:25 PM on October 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks to everyone with constructive feedback and helpful study tips. This is his first year in AP level classes. This has been the only one of them he has been having trouble with.

The reason I posted the question here, is because it is a forum with people of typically higher levels of professional and educational experience. The people I can communicate about this issue locally are other parents who are getting the same feedback from their children. Much of this thread has been very helpful with some excellent information about study tips and where to put preparation focus. I very much appreciate that information.

As to those telling me to "step back": There seems to be some assumptions, maybe from the pertinent posters' own childhood experience, that I am some sort of helicopter parent who won't let his son fend for himself. That is far from the case. I am generally a fairly hands off guy, but when my son comes to me at wits end and is just going to give up on the whole essay because he is feeling so overwhelmed, I think it's best to try and help him out. If those posters would like to be helpful, I think they should kindly stick to answering the question. Since they do not know me, my son, his personality or our relationship, and it would be best if they did not play internet counselor or psychologist.
posted by bionic.junkie at 1:36 PM on October 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

"There seems to be some assumptions, maybe from the pertinent posters' own childhood experience, that I am some sort of helicopter parent who won't let his son fend for himself."

Um, no....I got the impression that you are overly involved from the way you framed this question and from the tags you used "pointless excercises in authority and control". Sorry. Good luck to your kid!
posted by travelwithcats at 1:48 PM on October 8, 2014 [5 favorites]

He's psyching himself out. This is a relatively easy question, but can seem daunting if you haven't written a million essay exams in your life (as I have). Study as follows:

-Write each religion or society on a separate note card
-List 10 facts on each said note card
-Memorize (maybe think of mnemonic devices for each one)

Essay as follows:
-Paragraph (or more) about religion/society 1, including 10 facts memorized
-Paragraph (or more) about religion/society 2, including 10 facts memorized
-Reflections on how they're similar/different (look at above paragraphs, draw simple conclusions -- no one's expecting dissertation-level analysis here)

If you can't remember all 10, don't sweat it. Unless the teacher is a major hardass, it shouldn't be all or nothing grading. These tests are as much about your ability to write coherently as they are about spitting back memorized facts. Have him take a deep breath and relax. It's one test out of a lifetime of tests. Even if he doesn't do well, it's not the end of the world - he can still go to a great college and get a great job and make great money (source: my life).
posted by melissasaurus at 2:26 PM on October 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

The teacher wanting to pre-approve the thesis statements sounds like the main issue for your stressed out son. I strongly doubt a separate thesis for each permutation is desired. Start with something generally assertable instead. For #2, for example, a thesis could be "The amount of control a religion asserts into individual's lives has a clear impact on the society those individuals produce". That works regardless of the two belief systems chosen, and doesn't require pre-stating the "impact", so that's customizable to the parameters he ends up with. The rest of the advice above about how to prep is solid, as is the assertion that this teacher is doing your son a huge favor by prepping them for the exam and college in this way. Good luck!
posted by donnagirl at 2:57 PM on October 8, 2014 [3 favorites]

The idea that the teacher wants to pre approve the thesis statements is a tad bit confusing in terms of total number of thesis statements required, and I would urge your son to ask his teacher for clarification. This is a perfectly reasonable question. In his future work and school life, he will be far better served by requesting clarification in this kind of situation rather than wasting time going down a rabbit hole of possibly unnecessary stress.
posted by telepanda at 6:38 PM on October 8, 2014 [4 favorites]

I agree with donnagirl, the Thesis statements should be fairly generic, with the ability to plug in the variables in further, clarifying statements.

The thesis statements can be something along the lines:

Belief systems spring up based upon the prevailing political climates and external factors contributing to certain societal pressures.

Political development within burgeoning Asian cultures was influenced by a number of factors...

See how this is going to work?
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:54 AM on October 9, 2014

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