Now that I’ve sat my last exam, I’m in a position to look back and survey the damage. This one’s going out to all you incoming students: what is the nature of the English exam at the University of Leicester? Let’s take a look, shall we?
I’ve sat quite a few different exams here, and they can be divided into three formats I just made up: Essays, Analyses, and Combination [skin]. I don’t think there’s any exam I’ve taken that’s been radically different from what I took in secondary school. There’s much more continuity between secondary school and university exams, I would say, than there is between secondary school coursework and university coursework.
Now an essay exam is exactly what you’d expect: writing a coherent argumentative essay under a strict time limit. The standard essay exam is three hours long. You answer two questions, so that’s an hour and a half per question. You should refer substantially to four authors during that exam, which generally means two authors per question. Now a question might be something like ‘Did literature of the period explore contemporary social and/or political issues?’ or ‘”The other Romantics are losers and I am the best” (Robert Southey, 1834). Discuss.’ Since past papers are available on Blackboard, the University’s online community, students can look at these to see what kind of questions have been asked in the past. That way, they’re prepared for the kind of themes and topics that are likely to come up.
Something I’ve seen emerge in my final year is the pre-seen exam essay, which is exactly the same as above but the questions are released to students exactly forty-eight hours before the exam. Students therefore have forty-eight hours to choose the questions they’re going to write on, think about their arguments and texts and quotations, and can then go into the exam hall and presumably write a more studied and thoughtful answer than whatever they would have written otherwise. It tests different skills.
The analysis exam is like what I did for English LitLang A-Level, except with fewer syndetic and asyndetic lists. The student is given a passage of a text and told to analyse it. They won’t know what the passage is prior to the exam, but they’ll have a pretty good idea about what kind of text it’ll be. These tend to occur in modules with a stronger linguistic element, such as Reading English, Old English, or Medieval Literature. With these you’re being tested on your knowledge of grammatical terms, your vocabulary, your close readings skills, your understanding of things like dialect, maybe a bit of historical knowledge. Most people probably find them harder than essays because you can’t craft them to your advantage in the same way.
Finally, the combination exam is something that is part essay and part analysis. You might get a passage to analyse and then a question to answer. There’ll be a choice of passages and a choice of questions. After all, the marker doesn’t want to read about you trying tragically to pretend you understand medieval ecclestiastical law. They want to read you writing about something you’re knowledgeable about and interested in.
Most modules have a mix of exam and coursework assignments, although this coursework (which isn’t called coursework) is just the same as what you do in exams, but in more favourable conditions. You’ve got time to check your references and quotations are correct, re-read stuff, and so on. Does anyone prefer exams to essays written in the comfort of their own room? I sure hope not.
I think most people tend to over-react about exams and forget about what the exams are actually testing. We’re influenced by American college movies into thinking that we should leave studying for exams until the last minute, and then spend a week in the library off our heads on Lucozade. Really, an exam is something you’re studying for just by doing your degree. If you’re reading the texts, and thinking about them, and reading what other people think about them, then you’re revising for an exam. Sitting in the library isn’t the same thing as revising.