Writing for College Classes
You might well think the whole writing process goes out the window when you have to write an in-class essay.
After all, you don’t have much time to spend on the essay. The best writers of in-class essays bring as much of the writing process as they can into an essay exam situation.
Prepare for writing in class by making writing a regular part of your study routine. Students who write down their responses to readings throughout a term have a huge advantage over students who think they can study by just reading the material closely.
Writing is a way to build better writing, as well as a great way to study and think about the course material. Don’t wait until the exam period to start writing about things you have been studying throughout the term.
Read the exam prompt or assignment very carefully before you structure your response. Note keywords in the exam prompt.
For example, if the exam assignment asks for an argument, be sure to structure your essay as an argument. Also look for ways the instructor has limited the scope of your response.
Focus on what is highlighted in the exam question.
Plan your Essay
Sketch out a list of key points you want to cover before you jump into writing. If you have time, you might even draft an opening paragraph on a piece of scratch paper before committing yourself to a particular response.
Too often, students begin writing before they have thought about the whole task before them. Students who take the time to plan actually write longer in-class essays than those who begin writing their answers right after they have read the assignment.
Use a consistent approach for in-class exams.
Students who begin in-class exams with a plan that they have used successfully in the past are better able to control the pressure of the in-class exam. Students who feel they need to discover a new approach for each exam are far more likely to panic and freeze. Also, keep track of the time, you shouldn’t compulsively check the time, but look at your watch now and then.
A special issue of in-class exams concerns handwriting. Some instructors now allow students to write in-class exams on laptops, but the old-fashioned note pad is still the standard in many classes.
For students used to writing on a keyboard, this can be a problem. Be sure you don’t let poor handwriting hurt you. Your instructor will have many exams to read.
Be courteous. Write as clearly as you can.
Save a few minutes at the end of the session for quick review of what you’ve written and for making any small changes you deem necessary.
Don’t use any references if you cannot remember the source.
Check for spelling and grammar mistakes if there is time available to do so.
College instructors sometimes assign group writing projects. The terms of these assignments vary greatly.
Sometimes the instructor specifies roles for each member of the group, but often it’s part of the group’s tasks to define everyone’s role. Sort out your roles as soon as you can and meet regularly through the process.
Divide the Workload
Divide the work in sections and then meet to pull those sections together. But you might also think more in terms of the specific strengths and interests each of you bring to the project.
For example, if one group member is an experienced researcher, that person might gather and annotate materials for the assignment, one person for might construct a series of questions or a list of points to be addressed, to start a discussion about possible directions for the first draft. Another student might take a first pass at shaping the group’s ideas in a rough draft. And so on.
Play an Active Role
If you are assigned a group project, you should want to be an active part of the group’s work. Never try to ride on the skills of others or let others do more than their fair share.
Don’t let any lack of confidence you may feel as a writer keep you from doing your share. One of the great things about a group project is that you can learn from others.
Another great thing is that you will learn more about your own strengths that others value.
Online instruction is becoming more and more common. All the principles discussed so far apply also in online writing-and many aspects are even more important in an online course.
In most online courses, almost everything depends on written communication. Discussions, questions and clarifications take shape in writing. Feedback on assignments is given in writing. To succeed in online writing, apply the same writing process as fully and thoughtfully as with an essay or paper for any other course.
Scope and Focus
Ask about the scope (or focus) of the assignment:
Which of the assigned readings should I concentrate on?
Should I read other works by these authors that haven’t been assigned in class?
Should I do research?
You can also ask about the approach the instructor would like you to take. You can use the keywords the instructor may not have used in the assignment:
Should I just summarize the information or should I compare and contrast the views?
Do you want me to argue a specific point?
Would it be OK if I classified the information?
In online courses, writing is how ideas are exchanged, from scholars to students and from students back to scholars.
Instructors expect you to learn by writing, and they will grade you on the basis of your writing. While the grading in some courses may be based mostly on participation, assignment reports, or multiple-choice exams, writing is by far the single most important form of instruction and assessment.
By paying attention to your writing and learning and practicing basic skills, even those who never thought of themselves as good writers can succeed. As with other skills, getting off to a good start is mostly a matter of being motivated and developing a confident attitude.
As a form of communication, writing is different from oral communication. Instructors expect writing to be well thought out and organized.
In oral communication, the listener can ask for clarification, but in written work, everything must be clear within the writing itself.
Essay questions are used by instructors to evaluate your thinking and reasoning applied to the material covered in a course.
Good essay answers are based on your thoughts, supported by examples from classes and reading assignments.
Careful planning is critical to answering essay questions effectively. Note how many essay questions you have to answer and how difficult each question seems. Then allocate your time accordingly.
Read the question carefully and underline or circle keywords. Watch for words that describe the instructor’s expectations for your response.
Introduce your essay answer, but get right to the point. Remember that the instructor will be grading dozens of papers and avoid filler text that does not add value to your answer.
For example, rather than writing, “In our study of the American Civil War, it is helpful to consider the many facets that lead to conflict, especially the economic factors,” write a more direct and concise statement like this: “Economic factors help explain the start of the Civil War.”
What It Means
Analyze Break the concept into its key parts
Compare Show similarities (and sometimes differences) between two or more concepts or ideas
Contrast Show differences between two or more concepts or ideas
Critique Judge and analyze Judge and analyze
Define Describe the meaning of a word, phrase, or concept
Discuss Explain or review Explain or review
Explain Clarify, give reasons for something
Illustrate Offer examples
Summarize Give a brief, precise description of an idea or concept
When you receive your test back, sit quietly and take a close look at it.
What questions did you get wrong?
Do you see a pattern?
What were your strengths?
What can you learn from the instructor’s comments? If you don’t learn from your mistakes, you are doomed to repeat them; if you don’t learn from your successes, it will be harder to repeat them.
Correct the Information
The last time you wrote the information, you created a link to wrong information in your memory, so that must be corrected.
For true-or-false questions, write the new statement.
For math and science questions, redo the entire solution with the calculations written out fully.
Create a new outline for essay questions.
Incorporate your new answers in your notes.
Your corrected quizzes and midterm exams are an important study tool for final exams. Make sure you file them with your notes for the study unit.
Take the time to annotate your notes based on the exam. Pay particular attention to any gaps in your notes on topics that appeared in the quiz or exam.
Research those points in your text or online and complete your notes. Review your exams throughout the term to be sure you cement the course material into your memory.
When writing in-class essays, using an abbreviated writing process approach, helps produce more successful writing.
Group writing projects require careful coordination of roles and cooperative stages but can greatly help students learn how to improve their writing.
Writing for an online course puts your writing skills to the ultimate test, when almost everything your instructor knows about your learning must be demonstrated through your writing.
Working with exams does not end when your instructor hands back your graded test.
Quizzes and midterms are reliable predictors of the kind of material that will be on the final exam. When evaluating your test performance, don’t look only at the content you missed. Identify the types of mistakes you commonly make and formulate plans to prevent these mistakes in future assessments.
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