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Taking Exams

By Professor Jacki Thompson Rand, Department of History, University of Iowa

The Purpose of an Essay Exam

The purpose of the college-level essay exam is to compel students to analyze and synthesize the course material. An essay exam gives you the opportunity to demonstrate a mastery of the material above and beyond the memorization of basic facts.

Writing the Exam
A) Point of Departure: Present an Argument

History is far more than a collection of facts. The study of history is, in essence, the study of various interpretations about what happened in the past.  To write history well -- and to write an essay exam well -- requires you to present an argument, to offer an interpretation based upon an analysis of all the relevant evidence you have at your disposal. In short, there is seldom one right answer. What issues you choose to focus upon, what evidence you choose to emphasize, and what interpretation you choose to give this evidence all become part of the argument that you make in your essay test. Thus, even before you see the question, you should realize that your task is to respond to the question by presenting a tightly organized argument.

Here is a sample question that will serve as our example throughout this study guide.

"American Indians confined to federally-established reservations during the last quarter of the 19th century were hopelessly oppressed. Nothing about reservation life offered them any avenues of happiness, let alone autonomy or self-expression." Discuss the adequacy of this statement.

B) Understanding the Question

Make sure you understand everything stated by, or implied in the question. Do not rush ahead before reflecting upon precisely what is being called for in the essay question. After reading the question above, for example, you should think about all of its implications and then begin to break it up into its constituent parts. The sample quotation might prompt you to think about the following:

  1. A definition of 'American Indians.' Who were they in the context of the reservation period? Were all tribes confined to reservations? Did each individual tribe get its own reservation? Your essay will be weakened by generalizations about 'generic' American Indians. What specific tribal examples might you provide?
  2. A definition of reservation. What is meant by that? Besides referring to a fixed locality, how did the reservation work?
  3. The quotation asserts that reservation-based American Indians were oppressed, but if they were oppressed, who oppressed them? (Note that the quotation is written in passive voice.) Can you describe expressions or manifestations of oppression? Was the oppression the same for all reservation people? Was oppression the only experience of reservation American Indians?
  4. Is 'hopelessly' too strong a word? The question implies that reservation people had absolutely no avenues of power or agency open to them.
  5. What is implied by the words autonomy and self-expression?
  6. The question implies that reservation life might contain some realms of experience beyond oppression and victimization.
C) Organizing Your Argument

After thinking about the implications of the question, but before beginning to write the exam, jot down a brief outline of your argument. Five minutes spent organizing your argument is worth thirty minutes of aimless writing. Your outline might include your thesis statement, the major points you intend to cover and the order you intend to present them, and perhaps a list of basic examples you will include to substantiate your thesis. Your outline might look something like this:

  • Statement of thesis.
  • Definition of American Indian in reservation context and reservation.
  • Nature of reservation environment
    • Role of the agency and agent
    • Power of government over daily reservation life.
  • Avenues of autonomy
    • Intergenerational ties, social organization
    • Kin connections
      • Family as resource
      • Cooperative farming, work
    • Ceremonial Life
    • Types of work available; work and life rhythms
  • Conclusion

As you write your essay, try to stay true to your outline. One of the keys to a good essay is a tight organization. Every essay must have an introduction, a body, a conclusion. The introduction can be brief, but it must contain your thesis statement. All elements of the body must be tightly organized, logically connected, and relevant to the thesis statement.  The point of the body, of course, is to substantiate the thesis statement. The conclusion restates the thesis statement, now acknowledging the evidence put forth in the body of the essay, and suggests some of the broader implications of the argument.

D) Evidence

To support your answer, you must present relevant evidence to substantiate your thesis. To say there is no one right answer does not mean that all answers are equally valid. You must back up your answer with evidence.

  • Be concrete. A weak essay makes assertions and generalizations without producing specific, concrete examples to back them up. It is not enough, for example, to write: "Indians had a tough life." It is far better to write: "Indian agents complained about the inferiority and inadequacy of the average ration distributions that Indians received. Annuity payments, usually paid out twice per year, were far less than families needed to provide for their needs. In the case of the southern Plains tribes, the uncultivable reservation lands in western Indian territory and the low rainfall contributed to their inability to farm successfully, the major focus of the civilization program."
  • Be selective. Do not go for quantity of evidence over quality. It is far better to find just the right example than to lard your essay up with a lot of irrelevant detail. Remember, you are constructing your argument, not writing an encyclopedia. Furthermore, be sure that the evidence you include is relevant to the general argument you are trying to make. For example, it would do no good to provide a lengthy description of battles between the U.S. Army and Indian tribes as a part of the above answer. Although you might mention military pressure as a contributor to tribal surrender to the reservation, a long discussion of Indian casualties would simply be a waste of time.
  • Acknowledge ambiguity. Sometimes the evidence is ambiguous. For example, Hagan's book argues that Indian policy prior and during the reservation period was compromised by corrupted federal Indian agents and a lack of commitment of sufficient federal resources to permit Indian financial independence. He also discusses specific tribal leaders who profited from their relations with government officials. Recognize this ambiguity and then go on to make your case. "Although Hagan suggests that reservation Indians did not receive sufficient compensation and promised resources because of agents' corruption and government failure to keep its promises, he also acknowledges the ability of some tribal leaders to use their political positions with a view toward personal financial improvement."
E) The Conclusion

A strong conclusion is critical to the success of your essay. Your conclusions should reiterate the argument you first presented in the introduction and then developed in the body of the essay. Your conclusion should also indicate the broader significance of the argument you have presented and your appreciation of why this issue is something worth knowing about. For example, you might conclude our sample essay in one of the following ways. Notice that each leaves the reader with a different sense of the implications of the argument put forth in the body of the essay.

a) "Despite oppressive conditions, reservation Indians found in generational bonds, community ties, ceremonial life, and unexpected work opportunities a way to mitigate the worst features of an impoverished reservation system. The fact that most found solace in kin and generational bonds, however, meant that Indian communities did not publicly challenge either the power of the federal government or the authorities that represented it locally. Family and community for reservation Indians in the last quarter of the 19th century might have offered a refuge from the difficulties of the reservation, but neither was a substitute for real, public power that might have challenged colonialism in its various manifestations."

b) "Despite oppressive conditions, reservation Indians found in generational bonds, community ties, ceremonial life, and unexpected work opportunities a way to mitigate the worst features of an impoverished reservation system. Family and community life offered Indians a realm of autonomy in a world that granted them few avenues of agency and self-expression. Thus, while federal policy might assert control over Indian lives in a variety of ways, reservation people perpetuated a hidden culture, drawing strength, power and happiness from the basic satisfactions provided by home and a persistent tribal identity. Colonialism and the federal government had its power, but so too did the people who inhabited the reservation. One was controlling, manipulative, and paternalistic; the other personal, familial, and private. Both survived; both became part of the structure of Indian-white relations."

Either of these two conclusions could be drawn from the essay outlined above. Each puts a final interpretation upon the evidence and argument developed in the body of the essay; each is provocative and leaves the reader with the thought that here is a student who has thought deeply about the implications of what he or she has studied. And that, after all, is what an essay examination is trying to discover.

A final note of encouragement.

Few of us will become a Hemingway or Angelou. The best that most of us can hope to achieve is competency in writing. The ability to write well is achievable through writing often, developing an inner critique of our own writing, discipline with our written expression. Writing well is not a mysterious gift given to only a few, but is attainable through engaging in the writing process often, revising ruthlessly, and scrutinizing our words to ensure that they accurately convey our meaning.

With thanks to Professor Melissa Stockdale, Department of History, University of Oklahoma.