Preparing For Philosophy Exams - 5 Tips
1. Make Your Revision Active
Active revision is the key to performing well in examinations. Good preparation is the foundation of good performance. Don’t waste time grazing over revision notes and nodding off over set texts. This isn’t the most effective use of your time. You need to prepare for the activity you will be judged on. In most cases you will be expected to write three or more essays in 3 hours or less. The grades you get will not be directly proportional to the number of hours you put into revision. The best marks usually go to clear, well-argued essays, focussed on the particular question set and which make a good case for the conclusion arrived at.
Revision shouldn’t be just a matter of looking back over what you have done, but rather preparation for what you will have to do. This sounds obvious, but once you begin taking the easy route of just glancing over your notes, you can easily be seduced into believing that this is all the preparation you need to do.
2. Write Practice Essays
The best way to prepare to write under examination conditions is to practise writing timed essays. If you were preparing for a marathon, you wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the best you could do was to run long distances. But because writing timed essays is a lot tougher than skimming over old notes, most students shy away from the undeniable truth that writing good essays against the clock is what you need to practise. Set aside an hour, take a question from a past paper, and try to write a legible, coherent, well-argued essay in response, without going back to books or notes. Even if the result is a mess, it is far better to get this bad essay out of the way than risk producing it in the actual examination.
There is no room for any digression. Everything must be strictly relevant to the question asked. Exposition of ideas takes time. Thinking up relevant illustrative examples takes time. Addressing arguments and counterarguments takes time. With all this going on, if you have to write by hand, you will probably be struggling to keep your handwriting legible. Yet if it is not easy to read, the marker may not recognise how well-argued your work really is. You may have to work on the physical preparation of writing legibly at speed as well as sorting out the intellectual side.
3. Write Practice Outlines
If you can’t bring yourself to write practice essays, then writing practice outline answers to specific questions is another good way of engaging actively with what you know. It forces you to structure your ideas as potential examination answers, and can be an effective way of discovering gaps in your understanding of material. When you write these outlines make sure that you are really answering the question set, and not just summarising your thoughts on a topic. Within the outline your angle on the question, the conclusion you are arguing for, should be clearly stated and supported.
4. Invent Examination Questions
Put yourself in the position of the person writing the examination paper. For any topic there are only so many questions that can be asked. Try writing examination-style questions yourself, using past examination papers as a guide. You can use the questions you concoct for writing practice essays and practice outlines. This activity is part of active examination preparation. Whether writing essays, outlines or questions, whenever you reveal a gap in your understanding, you will be able to go back to your notes and reference books with a specific question that needs answering, and some motivation to answer it.
5. Be Prepared to Think in the Examination
Expect to have to think in philosophy examinations. These aren’t usually just opportunities for regurgitating what you have learnt. You have to draw together relevant elements of what you have learnt to make a coherent case for a conclusion that answers the question set. The highest grades go to the best argued essays. If you begin the examination with your head stuffed with memorised quotations and preconceptions about what you are going to be asked, then you may fail to answer the actual questions in front of you – a bad mistake. Often the lecturers setting the examinations will have set questions that they know you won’t have anticipated simply to force you to think about and apply your ideas rather than just regurgitate your revision. If you have the appropriate frame of mind, such questions shouldn’t throw you. They should challenge you to organise what you know in a new way. If you are well-prepared, answering such questions can be stimulating. You will find that as you write you are thinking about the material in new ways. Some students of philosophy have even said that the subject didn’t really crystallise for them until they found themselves thinking things through as they wrote examination essays.
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For more about study skills in Philosophy, see my book Philosophy: The Essential Study Guide.
There is an extract from the book available here. For general advice about essay writing see my book The Basics of Essay Writing