A Student's Guide to Philosophy Courses By David Benatar
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Philosophy Exam Tips
1. Preparing for the exam
Preparation for the exam starts at the beginning of the semester. During the course, you should have (a) attended class, consolidating work covered each day, (b) carefully read all the assigned readings, (c) come to grips with the various arguments that pertain to each topic, and (d) formulated (or reformulated) your own views.
As the exam approaches, the following preparatory steps may be taken:
As one’s memory of some of the arguments (or details thereof) will likely have become dulled, one should review these by referring to one’s lecture and other notes as well as the readings. However, simply reading over these is unlikely to do much good. Re-reading the whole course reader during the study break (or reading it then for the first time!) is likely to be very time-consuming and may distract one from more profitable forms of preparation.
(ii) Review arguments
Rehearse the various arguments in one’s mind, or to a class friend, or on a piece of paper. Make sure one understands the connections between all the arguments, such as how one argument constitutes a response to another. One way to do this would be to plot out, in point form, some possible essays on various topics, including all the arguments and counter-arguments (both one’s own and those one has read and heard).
(iii) Think in advance
The duration of the exam itself is too short in which to do any real philosophising. Formulating your views and the arguments in their defence, must be done in advance of the exam. This will enable one (simply?) to apply one’s thoughts to the particular questions that one is asked.
2. Receiving the exam paper
When you receive your paper, do not be in a hurry to start writing. First do the following:
(i) Take note of exam structure and special instructions
Check, for example, how many sections there are, how many questions one must answer from each section, and whether there are any limitations on which questions one may answer. Determine how much time one can afford to spend on each question. Look to see whether there are instructions about, for example, writing different questions in different exam books.
(ii) Read the questions carefully
Despite warnings, it is surprising how many people fail to read the questions carefully - or at least that is the way it appears, judging by the answers that are given. Philosophy questions tend to be worded precisely. Ask yourself what exactly is being asked of you.
3. Answering the questions
(i) Answer the exact question you have been asked
Once one has read the questions carefully, one must be careful to answer the exact question that has been asked. Many people seem to look only at the general topic from which an essay question is drawn, and then write an essay on the general topic. If the examiner wanted you to write everything you know about topic X, the question would have said “Write everything you know about topic X”. Typically the questions call for the exercise of some judgement or discernment. You need to determine which of the arguments and issues about which you have learnt are relevant to the particular question you have been asked. Raise only those arguments and issues. If one has planned some possible comprehensive essays in advance of the exam as part of one’s preparation, those need to be adapted in order to answer the particular question one has been asked. In some circumstances, it may be appropriate to devote part of one’s essay to clarifying its scope.
Short questions are also precisely worded, especially those that are of the true/ false or multiple-choice variety. Do not simply look at key words and leap to a conclusion about what you are being asked. Read carefully and answer the exact question you have been asked.
(ii) Plan your exam essay
Rather than rushing into writing your essays, spend some time planning what you will say. You might employ the techniques referred to in the section about how to write a Philosophy essay.
(iii) Draw on course material and lessons
Many people write exam essays as if they have never taken the course for which they are writing the exam. They seem to think that it is sufficient to spew out opinions and the sort of impoverished arguments of which they would have been capable before they took a philosophy class. If that were so, there would not be much point in doing a philosophy course. One’s answers should be informed by what one has learnt. This does not mean that one must slavishly recount or regurgitate material from class. Some degree of originality is always desirable, even if only in how the material is presented. However, few (if any) people are capable of making advances in philosophy without drawing on the work of others and on concepts and ideas they have learnt. Show the examiner what you have learnt. This need not preclude some originality or a refreshing approach. It is usually advisable to use the work of others as a framework or a starting point. Otherwise one sets about reinventing the philosophical wheel.
(iv) Do not be too brief, but also avoid padding
Some students seem to think that an exam essay is nothing more than a few paragraphs. Essay answers should not be too brief. When asked to write an essay, you are being asked to demonstrate your knowledge of some area and your ability to write well about it. That cannot be done adequately in a page or two (of average size handwriting). However, there are both correct and incorrect ways of avoiding the problem of brevity. Some students, who have very little to write but who are keen to appear to write essays of a reasonable length, sometimes labour under the mistaken belief that they can fool the examiner if they “pad” their essays, either with extraneous information and arguments or by repeating what they have already said. It does not work!
(v) Present the work neatly
Not everybody has a beautiful handwriting, but it is quite important to present one’s work neatly. Illegible scrawls create a bad impression. Moreover, if an examiner cannot (be bothered to) read your scrawl, you will not get credit for any ideas you might have had in your head.