Posts Tagged 'exams'

Advice to students writing science essays and answering exams

I’ve just come off the back of marking a quite sizeable pile of exams and coursework for my job. While I have done bits in the past (and earlier this year) this was the first time I had to deal with a large and concerted mass of the two and it allowed me to spot a series of things that irked me. While I am easily irked, the issue is not trivial, good clear writing is essential to communicate your ideas and if you are not doing that right, then this is a problem. It matters not that this is zoology or even biology, in any job or field, precise communication is critical. And not just accuracy but ease of reading – the information can be 100% accurate but if it’s buried in waffle or phrased badly it makes it hard to follow.

I know that I have a fair few regular student readers on here and others find me on occasion so I hope this will be useful. I’m only sorry I wasn’t able to think of this before the last round of exams or this might have been posted in a rather more timely occasion. So, here’s a few things I kept seeing that I’d quite happily never see again. They are all stylistic and people would probably not mark you down for using them, but they are at best, clumsy and inelegant and you want your work to appear astute and well produced. Helping someone to follow the thread of your work and ideas when they are reading their 37th five page long essay on the subject will help your cause.

–       Long and flowery introductions. There is noting wrong at all with a bit of craft to your writing (indeed, it is a good thing) and a little (a little) hyperbole can be good. But having to read a whole half a page before we get anywhere with actual detail is pointless and especially so in an exam. I don’t want, nor need to be told about how magnificent birds are and how they being joy to all who behold them. Write about them.

–       Repeating the question. It if helps you to focus, then feel free to write out the question before answering it. But if the question is “Define the 4 features of X and why their function is important”, don’t write “X has 4 main features, and their functions are important. These are…”. I know there are 4 and they are important, it’s the damned question!

–       The I’s have it. Science is really supposed to be about dispassionate reporting. Don’t talk about yourself. “I think”, “I am saying”, “I will show that”. Even when a question says something like “What do you interpret Smith et al.’s 2004 paper to mean….” you can avoid the first person. Say “It can be shown” or “This can be interpreted to mean”. It’s obviously your interpretation, you are writing it.

–       Don’t describe what you are describing. This seems to go hand-in-hand with the point above. I read far too many things that went “I will now describe the following features of X”. This sentence is pretty much absolutely redundant. Just describe X.

–       An alternative version of this is repeating information in reverse. Where it is pertinent, there’s nothing wrong with reminding the reader of a key point later in the answer. But writing “There are four feature of X” describing them and finishing with “…and these are the four features of X” at the end of the same 2 or 3 sentence paragraph is nonsense. I even saw it done in the same sentence a few times.

–       Try to avoid repetition of phrases. I lost count of people who needing to make similar points over a number of paragraphs would start each section with “Another point / idea / function is…”. About the 4th time you read that it gets very, very boring. Just add a smidge of style. “A further function is”, “The next function to be considered is”, “X is another key function, “In addition, function X”, “Furthermore, X” and so on.

–       Avoid ‘believe’ like the plague. Ideas can be supported, though of, understood to be, have a consensus behind, be agreed upon and others, but not believed. Yes, the vernacular use is one of genera “I accept that” but it really should be kept out of science. It’s even worse when you say it about other people “Smith et al. believe that X…”. Not they don’t, on the balance of the evidence, that’s the hypothesis they support.

–       Unsuitable anthropomorphism or odd terms. Something like an ankylosaur was slow, and heavy, and didn’t move very fast. But to call it ‘ponderous’, ‘clumsy’ or ‘lumbering’ is to give it something close to emotive or descriptive characters that just aren’t suitable for animals.

And finally, on a related note, answer the question. That one really seems to have gone past far too many people.


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