How to… write a good essay answer

Starting next week, my Ethics class will be writing an essay exam on-line.  The exam is over ethical theory — Utilitarianism, Deontology, Virtue Ethics and Social Contract theory.

As with all of my essay exams, my students will have a chance to look at all the potential questions in advance.  This semester there are five potential questions.  I’m expecting relatively short (for philosophy) essays, probably 2-3 pages double spaced.  I’m also expecting polished essays, including references as necessary.

They have almost two weeks to take the exam and once they get into the course management software, they’ll have three hours to write.

Given those conditions, here are some of my hints and tips for writing a good essay answer:

  • Access the questions early — my students can look at the questions as soon as the exam window opens.  I put them in a Word document.
  • Understand the question — these questions don’t come out of the blue, they come from class discussion, reading and message board topics.  If you don’t know what the question means, get to work.
  • Assemble your resources — get your notes together, print the PowerPoints used in class, review your readings etc.
  • Make outlines — for every question, give yourself plenty of space and then make an outline of the essay.  Include notes to yourself about where to find the information you might want to quote etc.
  • Write some answers — The questions that are the most intimidating should be the ones you write out in full.  Treat it like a short paper, write out the answer in Word and be ready to copy and paste it into your exam window if you get that question.
  • Review your answers — Make sure you specifically and clearly answer EVERY part of EVERY question.  Usually that means spending at least a paragraph or two on every distinct part of the question, at a minimum.
  • Edit your answers — look for spelling, grammar, punctuation and citation errors.  If you don’t know the correct forms, look them up.
  • Re-read your answer — does it make sense?  Does it say what you’d like it to say?  Does it reflect your understanding of the course material and class discussion?
  • Make a leap, take a chance — If you have an original thought on the topic, go for it.  This is your chance to shine.  Wow me with your brilliance, jump outside the box — trust me, I give budding philosophers lots of room to be wrong.

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