A bit on Philosophy exams

Essays of the sort discussed so far in this guide are not the only form of assessment in the Philosophy Department - examinations are also set. What is to be said about them?

First, not much that is different from what's been said above about philosophy essays. This is because what you write in a philosophy exam is none other than a philosophy essay. Have a look at past philosophy exam papers, in the Gibson and Baillieu libraries, to get a feel for them. The only basic difference between essays and exams is the matter of what constraints you're working under. Essays have word limits; exams have time limits. Again, stick to them. (Actually, you'll be made to stick to them by the exam invigilators.)

It's best, then, to think about how long to spend writing on an exam essay topic, rather than about how many words to write on it. Simple arithmetic will tell you how much time to spend on each exam question. (eg if you have a 2-hour exam and have to answer 3 questions, each worth one-third of the exam mark, then spend 40 minutes on each question.) Avoid the trap of "borrowing time" from a later question in order to perfect your answer to an earlier question, and then working faster on the later questions to catch up on lost time - this is likely to get you in a tangle. There are no word limits in philosophy exam essays, but don't think that the more you scrawl across the page, the more marks you'll get. Nonetheless, use the time you've got so as to maximise your display of your philosophical understanding and skills in answering the question.

Planning and structuring remain very important in exam essays. With regard to the niceties of footnotes, endnotes and bibliographies, etc., these are not necessary, so don't waste time on these. However, if you quote or refer to a specific passage from a text, do indicate clearly that it is a quotation or reference. (The principle of being clear as to who is saying what remains central.) If you have the reference handy, just put it briefly in the text of your exam essay. (eg "As Descartes says in Meditation I (p. 12), . . ." or "'[I]t is prudent never to trust completely those who have deceived us even once' (Descartes, Meditation I, p. 12)".) Generally speaking, you will show your familiarity with any relevant texts by how you handle them in your discussion. This is also true for your non-exam essays.

Your preparation for the exam should have been done well before entering the exam hall. Note that various subjects have restrictions on what texts and other items can be brought into the exam hall. (Consult the Philosophy Department's notice board for details.) Many subjects will have "closed book" exams. Even if an exam is "open book", if you are properly prepared, you should not need to spend much time at all consulting texts or notes during the exam itself.

You won't have time for redrafting and revising your exam essay (which makes planning and structuring your answers before you start writing all the more important). If you do want to delete something, just cross it out clearly. Don't waste time with liquid paper or erasers. Write legibly. Don't wr. "point form" sav. time. Diff. kn. mean. use incomp. sent.

Finally, read the instructions at the beginning of the exam paper. They are important. (eg it's not a good strategy to answer two questions from Part A, when the Instructions tell you to answer two questions, one from Part A and one from Part B.) Note the (somewhat quaint) University practice of starting Reading Time some time before the stated time for the exam. Philosophy exams usually have 15 minutes of reading time. (Check for each of your exams.) So, if your exam timetable says the exam is at 2.15 pm, with reading time of 15 minutes, then the reading time starts at 2.00 pm and the writing time starts at 2.15pm - so get to the exam hall well before 2.00 pm. Reading time is very important. Use it to decide which questions you'll answer and to start planning your answers.

Checklist of questions

  • Do I understand the essay question? Do I know when the essay is due?
  • Do I know which texts to consult? Do I know where to find them?
  • Have I made useful notes from my reading of the relevant texts?
  • Have I made a plan of how I'll approach the question in my essay?
  • Have I given myself enough time to draft and redraft my essay?
  • Have I written a clearly structured essay? Is it clear what each stageis doing? Do I do what I say I'll do in my Introduction?
  • Have I clearly distinguished exposition and critical discussion? Have I given a fair and accurate account of the author(s) in question?
  • Is my response to the topic relevant? Do I answer the question? Have I kept my essay within the general bounds of the topic?
  • Have I displayed a good grasp of the vocabulary of logical argument? Are my arguments logically valid and sound? Are my claims supported by reasons? Am I consistent within my essay?
  • Is my English expression clear and precise? Are my grammar, punctuation and spelling correct? Have I said what I meant to say? Is my writing legible?
  • Have I fully acknowledged all my sources in footnotes or endnotes? Are my quotations accurate? Have I included a bibliography?
  • Do I need to revise any part of my essay again?
  • Have I made a copy or photocopy of my essay for myself?
  • Have I kept the receipt for my handed-in essay?