To Memorise, or Not to Memorise?

Writing an essay in 45 minutes on a Shakespeare play, having to work in context, sometimes a related text and then getting all of that to answer the question you get on the day is a feat for even the best English student.

Below are some tips from high band 6 achievers on the best way to prepare for these grueling written exams, based on our own HSC experiences.

Yuanze

I never ended up memorising any of my essays word-for-word. Some reasons were: I personally do not have a really good memory, especially when my memory capacity was taken up by all the quotes and (interesting) but extremely large amount of content from all the other subjects, and also because I realised that it would set me up to fall into the trap of not answering the question, which is to this day still the most important and I would say most difficult thing to do for most people. I didn’t want to make it harder for myself, knowing that I can easily forget what the question is asking for and just regurgitate a pre-prepared essay.

Here is what I found effective during preparation:
  • Preparing foundational ideas for each paragraph
  • Elaborating on these ideas in terms of the text as a whole
  • Writing in my own words what the elective outcomes are and my own take on the author’s main values
  • I memorised the order of quotes/techniques/significance of each of my paragraphs. This is just like memorising an essay, but not doing it word for word, and hence, not falling into the trap of deviating from the question.
  • I also memorised some extra quotes/techniques as back-up just in case the question required some further examples than I had already memorised.

All in all, my more important advice is to prepare well, with a personal understanding of all your modules and texts. As well as this, you also need to have a bit more confidence in what you can write. Rather than thinking, “have I prepared for this question?”, shift your mindset to “what have I learnt personally from this module, and how can I answer the question with what I’ve understood and prepared?”.

Will

On the one hand, comprehensive knowledge of texts and its critical analyses allows a student to adapt to any question on the day of the exam. Conversely, unforeseen circumstances and anxieties on the exam day may affect your ability to recall such complex analytical details which makes your essay suffer considerably.

Meanwhile the ability to take in a practiced and polished essay response in one’s mind gives you a lot of confidence and if the stars align, it gives you the ability to answer more sophisticatedly and stand out from your cohort. The obvious danger to memorise an essay is that you may be given a question which doesn’t fit your essay at all, which means you’ve spent the previous night memorising an essay to fail.

Provided you’re familiar with your texts, you should then be able to recall pieces of evidence which substantiate your points well. If you’ve written a draft essay, deconstruct it to its most skeletal form, isolating it by T.E.E.L sentences, familiarise yourself with each T and the E.E.L should eventually come naturally to you on the day. This also allows you to be adaptive to the question, omitting and changing parts of your essay that are inconsistent with the questions demands.

Rebecca

It’s best not to memorise whole essays, but if you really struggle to write under exam conditions, then consider memorising explanations of the effects of techniques and textual references.

During the exam, write new topic sentences that answer the question, then apply whichever prepared explanations you have that strengthen the argument raised in your paragraph topic sentence. If your topic sentences are shaped around the question, then selecting prepared explanations of textual evidence based on how well they back up those topic sentences means that you will also be answering the question directly. And answering the question is key – having sifted through mountains of exam feedback my students have received from their teachers over the years, it’s clear that the top criteron for rewarding or deducting marks is how well the essay answers the question.

But writing topic sentences that respond directly to the question on the day is not an easy task – and there is no magic formula that can be used to achieve this. Before the exam, it is essential that you practice writing topic sentences to different questions at home so you can do it faster during the exam, and recall relevant explanations of technique and effect with ease.