How to Take an Exam

May 1999. Revised September 2003

Exams are a challenge for instructors. At best they are a necessary evil. Unlike research papers, in which students participate in the real work of historical scholarship, exams are mostly designed to coerce students into doing work they might otherwise avoid. On the other hand, if all we wanted to do was make sure you had done the reading and attended lectures, we could simply ask you to summarize each book, throwing in a few interesting facts as illustrations of the main points. But there would be two problems with such an approach. First, our ultimate aim in assigning texts and giving lectures is not to have you memorize the material, but to apply it. The exam is our chance to test our success in helping you do that. Second, and more important, grading twenty-five or thirty bluebooks–each repeating with more or less accuracy and neater or sloppier penmanship the same arguments drawn from texts we had already read–would be unspeakably boring. Remember, then, as you take the exam, we are not so much interested in your ability to regurgitate as your ability to digest. We want to see not just a mashed-up version of the course material, but a synthesis in which you use that material for your own ends.

Imagine a course in the history of American technology that included several books on the origins of the Internet, one emphasizing curious scientists, another tracing the Cold War as the source of funds and structure for ARPANET, and a third celebrating the playful, anarchistic attitudes of hackers and hobbyists. The final exam asks a straightforward question: “Who created the Internet? Discuss the roles of scientists, the military, and the 1960s counterculture.”*

The boring, regurgitative answer would begin, “Several groups created the Internet in the 1960s and 1970s. Scientists, military officers, and members of the counterculture all contributed to the Internet as it exists today.” This thesis statement, if we are to call it that, regurgitates the question even as it threatens to regurgitate the books. Moreover, its laundry-list structure suggests that as each book is barfed up in turn, it will be kept separate from the others, so that even if each of the authors is rabidly opposed to the others” interpretations, such conflict will not interfere with the exam-taker”s tidy compartmentalization. Note also the timidity of this approach: who could disagree with so bland a statement?

A more interesing, digestive answer, might read, “Though each book emphasizes one institution and tradition and dismisses the influence of others, the worlds of science, defense, and the counterculture met and melded at such universities as MIT and Berkeley, the cradles of the Internet. Real people do not draw boundaries as starkly as do these historians imposing their rigid frameworks on the past.”

This is a critical response. It does answer the question–for it allows the student to engage the categories presented, rather than merely ignoring them. But rather than confining itself to the bounds set by the question, it introduces a new element: the role of universities, perhaps suggested by another reading in the course or a lecture on the sites of innovation. Like the boring answer, it will draw from each book, for scientists, military officers, and hippies did meet at research universities. But by looking at all three books together, rather than in sequence and separately, it will create a synthesis, a whole greater than the sum of the parts. And it goes beyond the particular question at hand to address a problem in writing history in general. The reader asks, can this student pull off this argument? The reader (me) is awake. Even if he eventually disagrees with the student, he will probably prefer the wrong but interesting answer to the answer so cautious it could not be very wrong or very right.

You can”t hope to pull off an interesting answer just by reading the books and showing up at the exam. As you study for the exam, you must begin the digestive process, breaking down the books into their essentials, throwing away what is useless and thinking hard about what is useful. What does each author argue? How does that jibe or conflict with other arguments presented? What patterns connect the readings and lectures together? When the scholars disagree, whose side do you favor, and why? (Trading such questions with a partner or a study group is vastly more rewarding than asking them of yourself.) By the time you are handed the exam, you should at least have thought about what questions you might be asked, and how you would answer.

When you do turn over the exam sheet, take time to think and outline before beginning to write your essay. Most students who run out of time on exams do so in part because they have spent too much time filling their bluebooks with extraneous facts and thoughts that have nothing to do with their arguments. A good thesis can save you an enormous amount of time. Once you settle on a thesis, keep focused on it as you lay out the facts of the case, the arguments of the authors you have read, and your own spin on the subject. And keep in mind that after a half or whole semester of being taught by your instructors, this is your chance to show that you have digested the course well enough to teach them something in return. If you can do that, we will be very grateful.

* The Internet example, and the interesting thesis, are drawn from Roy Rosenzweig, “Wizards, Bureaucrats, Warriors, and Hackers: Writing the History of the Internet,” American Historical Review 103 (December 1998): 1530-1552. The enterprising undergraduate looking for models of thoughtful, critical essays of the type that do well on exams could do worse than to spend an afternoon reading review essays in the AHR and other historical journals. The boring thesis imitates some of the boring theses I have graded in my time.