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Study Aids - Taking Exams

The purpose of Prof. Berkhofer’s exams is to see how you think about the past and to test your ability to organize historical information, as well as to determine whether you have certain basic factual information and read historical sources. Various parts of my exams stress different skills and information and you will need to prepare separately for each part of the exams.

I also maintain a page of sample answers which are password protected. If you are enrolled in one of my classes for which these are relevant, I will tell you the password in class.

Format of Exam Questions:

Identification Terms: These exercises test if you can identify key individuals, events, or concepts and explain their historical importance.

Source Analysis: These exercises test if you can read primary source materials and draw conclusions about past cultures from them.

Essays: These exercises test if you can integrate historical information (such as the kinds tested by the other exercises) and create interpretations of the past events that are persuasive using evidence.

All of these sections may not appear on the exams for every class. Please check with Prof. Berkhofer to see which of these sections are on the exams for your class. Typically, I will give you 4 or 6 ID Terms (from which choose to write on 2 or 3), one source to analyze, and 2-3 essays questions of which I ask you to pick 1 or 2. I will *always* announce the exact format of each exam in class. Return to top.

ID terms: The ID terms will be drawn from the "more important" words that I have put on the board for each lecture. You should study these terms and be ready to provide a short paragraph (3-4 sentences), which provides two key pieces of information:

  1. Identify and describe what the term was.
  2. Explain the historical significance of the term.

Usually, students find the first part, the identification and description easier. For this first part, you must explain who a person was, or describe what happened during an event, or what a concept means. It usually helps to also indicate when the person lived, event took place, or concept was relevant. However, the most important part of the answer to an ID term is the historical significance of it: Why the person, event, or concept was important for our study of the past. As you study ID Terms for the exams, make sure that you can clearly explain why the term is worth knowing about. One good way to be sure you include the significance of the term in your answer is to have a sentence which begins "(This term) was important because..." and then provide the reason. To see good examples of an ID answer, see the sample answers page.

Source Analysis: I will choose a short selection from a primary source, which will be drawn from the assigned source readings used for discussion in class. I will identify which document it is with a short title. You will be asked to explain the meaning of the passage in a short paragraph and to explain its importance in the context of the class lectures or crucial concepts we study. The purpose of this part of the exam is to see if you can understand historical sources and think historically using them. Since these sources often contain unusual vocabulary or can only be understood in the context of our class discussion, it is important to reread the sources and your notes on them. The analysis you provide should not be just a paraphrase of the source, but rather a guide to someone trying to make sense of it. Just like a good ID term answer, the source analysis should answer the question: why is this text significant? Studying for this aspect of the exam is a good way to prepare for the essay, in which you should be using examples of your own choosing from the sources we have read to illustrate your argument. Our source analysis assignments and papers in class are preparation for this part of the exam and you should review them to get an idea of what a good answer might contain.

Essays: To see how you think about the past and how you organize historical information, I ask essay questions which force you to present an argument supported by evidence in response. I do not give out questions in advance, but I do try to select topic areas which I stressed in class. The questions I ask will usually be on the most important material covered in lecture or in class discussion and should not surprise you. The questions themselves will usually ask you to compare and contrast information from different lectures, which will encourage you to think in new ways about material we have covered. To see if you retain basic factual information, I look to see how much evidence you use to support your argument in your essay and how specific it is. For the essay, read the question carefully. Does the question ask you to answer more than one thing? Then your answer must address more than one item. Does the question want you to compare, or contrast, different information? Then you should prepare an answer that will have information to support a comparison or contrast.

Be sure you know exactly what the question wants, and THEN begin to prepare your answer. Take two minutes and brainstorm for information you have studied that could support your answer—have you read something in one of the books or sources that could help your answer? Make brief notes of anything that could help your answer, and then think about how to organize this material—what logically belongs at the beginning? Does the question ask you to trace the development of an idea through two or three centuries? Then you should begin at the beginning and work your way to the end, putting in relevant information as needed. After you know what the question is asking and you have some information jotted down in your notes, begin to write your essay. You should write the essay on only one side of the exam booklet pages—this gives you the option of adding other information if you should think of it as you are writing (putting this new material on the blank page, and then showing where it belongs with an arrow).

Remember that you are trying to write an answer that shows your mastery of the subject. Your essay should include as much relevant information to answer the question as possible. Imagine that your essay is the only source of knowledge on this topic, and will be used to teach other students about the subject—it should be full of details and use as much information as possible from what you have read or heard (your books, e-sources, and your lecture notes). In your answer, act as if you have to teach to people who have never heard about this subject at all. And your essay needs to use all materials to appear masterful. If your essay reads as if you have only included information from the textbook, then it will not be as complete as it could be. Likewise, if your essay only seems to include information from the lectures, that will also not be complete enough. A good answer will show that the writer has studied and used material from all sources available! For a good essay example, look at the sample answers page.

Test-Taking Tips: One of the best ways to study for any exam is to try to anticipate the questions which are going to be asked. By doing this, you will be sorting out what is more important from what is less important. Students who prepare in this manner are rarely surprised by the topic of the question or even the question itself. There are also some basic test-taking steps you should remember:

1) Budget your time: Since the essay(s) are usually worth as much as the Chronological ordering, ID terms, and the Source Analysis combined (and sometimes more), you might want to begin the exam by writing the essay, then doing the source analysis, and doing the ID terms and chronological ordering last. Another solution is to do the shorter parts first and stopping so many minutes no matter how far you get and then writing the essay.

2) Read the exam carefully: Be sure you read the essay questions completely so that you don't leave out any important parts. Select which question to do only after having read all the instructions.

3) Outlining: Also, you should spend at least 2-3 minutes after you read the essay question brainstorming about all the information you might use to answer the question and your line of argument. Some people write out an outline, others merely make list of terms to remind themselves.  Either way outlining time is well spent, since you can start writing with purpose and direction and if you forget something, you have a handy list of reminders to get you back on track. Be sure to list the information under the parts of the question so that you are certain that you will cover every area.

4) Reviewing and Revising: Before handing in the exam, you should review what you have written and revise anything that is vague, misleading, or poorly expressed. Because the exam is timed and you are often writing quickly, you should make sure that what you have written makes sense to someone other than you. In particular, you should feel free to add details, be more specific in essays, and make sure that you address historical significance in the ID Terms and Source Analysis. Adding information, even between lines and on backs of pages is fine as long as you indicate where it belongs. As long as the exam is legible and intelligible, its appearance is totally unimportant to the grade. The most important thing is to communicate what you know as clearly and specifically as possible.

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Robert F. Berkhofer
Dept. of History
4301 Friedmann Hall
Western Michigan University
1903 W. Michigan Ave
Kalamazoo MI 49008-5334

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Last Revised:
December 15, 2011