Preparing for interpretive open-book essay exams

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For the upcoming exam, each student will be asked to write short essays (about 250 words each) in response to 3 questions (from at least 4 choices), worth 3 points each. Either handwritten or word-processed essays will be accepted. Since this course emphasizes interpretation rather than memorization, the exam is open-book, meaning that students may use their own readings, notes, and resources (print or digital) to provide supporting evidence for their essay responses. During the exam period, students may not communicate nor share information with anyone other than the instructor.

You responses will be evaluated in a blind-review (without your name), based on the insight and accuracy of your claims and the strength of your supporting evidence. To directly quote from a text during the exam, you may use a simple inline citation, without a full reference, like this:

“. . . and the development of capitalism” (Kaestle, p. x).

Typical questions may resemble one of these generic formats:

  • Explain why reformers A and B supported the same movement, but for different reasons.
  • How would reformer C, from one historical period, respond to the ideas of reformer D, from a different period?
  • Read a new passage by author X below, and explain whether it is more compatible with the views of author Y or Z, whose writings we previously studied in class.

Sample: Spring 2012 mid-term exam, with selected student responses

Note that the questions vary from year to year, depending upon the readings, presentations, and class discussions.

Although you cannot study in the same way as you would for a memorization-based exam, successful students have found it helpful to work in small groups to brainstorm a list of anticipated questions, then rehearse (oral or written, solo or group) how they would answer each. Also, organize your materials in advance, since it would be unwise to waste your time flipping through hundreds of pages when you should be writing.

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