How to Write and Essay Exam, an In-Class Essay, the Blue Book Thing......
Like, What's a Blue Book, Dude?

Ever wonder 'What's a Blue Book' (you know) a 'Blue Examination Booklet'?  Ever consider the possibility that writing and thinking under pressure is not just another silly academic exercise, that it might reflect real-life survival skills?  Hate to work under pressure?  Fear struck in your heart?  Churning stomach?  Let's see if we can help!

In-class essays (Blue Books) are a normal part of academic life.  Academic life, of course, is not normal.  But it does present a socially acceptable way to focus on personal skills. Properly pursued, the whole process aims to bring about change we associate with learning. As one of many academic avenues, In-Class Essays offer a way to approach yourself, to confront what you know and how well you communicate your thoughts and beliefs.  What is sometimes most scary is that we don't like what we find.  What we want for ourselves and what we have are different. Learning focuses on this difference, and Exams provide a practical and periodic way to organize what you have learned and what is missing. It is designed to challenge. If you've taken an In-Class exam in the past, you have a fair idea how difficult it is to write persuasive prose under pressure.  Time will fly. You will not be able to write as much as you know. If you have not taken a Blue Book Exam before, pay attention to what follows. Be clear:  In-Class Essays ask that you present your understanding and interpretations of course material in lucid, persuasive prose. The 'Blue Book Challenge' is not designed for fun. But the process can be gratifying. 

Hint:  If you appreciate this distinction there is hope for you in University.

As a rule, the In-class essay asks that you respond to a question and provide a response (not necessarily an answer) in a limited time frame, say 50 minutes or 30 minutes.  Here's the skinny:  To do well you must be prepared.  Careful preparation and genuine commitment to your study skills and writing gives confidence.  To do well you might consider the following.

1.  Begin early. It should be no blinding revelation that you, gentle reader, are the central element in your education (no matter who you may be).  If this is the night before your exam, what follows may be too late.  If this turns out to be an all-nighter-post-mortem, please consider the following suggestion:  In future, make every effort to stick with the program.  Read the syllabus; attend lecture; keep up with the reading; ask questions.  If you need help, ask:  See your Professor during Office Hours or before or after class. If you have a disability, inform your instructor early in the semester and make appropriate arrangements well in advance of Exam Day. But in any case, prepare yourself for the exam now. Work on your reading, writing, and study skills.  Don't wait for the next exam.  Do it now.  You are the principal player in your education. Accept your responsibility. Please don't say no one told you.
Remember (Sorry to be preachy):   It takes two to learn and it is likely your professor is not an ogre (but never rule out this possibility).  For now take a chance.  A good question from you during class would be welcome. If you have any other kind of problem or concern, discuss it with your instructor before or after class or during office hours.  Communicate your concern.  In the meantime, do your job. Learn to listen critically, develop skills in taking notes, develop good study habits.
Remember University Guidelines:  Three hours of out-of-class study for each hour of class.  That means that a three-hour class will cost twelve hours a week.  Minimum.   Smart students spend significantly more.
2.  Syllabus & Notes?
If you have done the reading and attended lecture you may want to take a glance at the syllabus (it has lecture titles and reading assignments, etc.) and, to the discerning reader, it has a pattern.  Now ask yourself:  What is the big deal?  What are the themes, the major questions the course and readings ask?  Make an outline.  If you have a study sheet the task is simpler:  Review your notes and required readings.  Make outlines for each study question.  You may wish to organize a study group to discuss the questions and potential responses.  But perhaps you should have done that earlier.
3.  Cool! A study sheet!   If you have a study sheet in hand and you have reviewed your lecture notes, the next job is to review them again focusing on what the question asks you to do.  To be sure, you will have to write something.  But what?  First, as a rule, the more intelligent prose you write the better.  The logic is simple:  Ten good pages are better than three good pages.  But not so fast. Quality is always the key.  If your name is Abe you might be able to write classic prose on an envelope.  Alas, most of us do not write with the power and simplicity of President Lincoln.  Think before you write.  Remember the old apology:  'Sorry I wrote a ten-page letter, I didn't have time to write two.'  Good writing is succinct.  As a rule it is re-written writing.  But you have only one shot with an in-class essay!  To be on target aim to be prepared.
4.  Preparation:   That means getting your thoughts organized in order to write clearly.  Your essay should have good organization.  As Aristotle suggested:  A Beginning; A Middle; An end.  If 'The Philosopher' and 'Master of Those Who Know' does not impress you (he is, after all, just another dead guy) recall the standard issue of the United States Army:

i.    Tell 'em what you're gonna tell 'em;
ii.   Tell 'em;
iii.  Tell 'em what you told 'em.

Writing a Blue Book Examination is the academic equivalent of going to war, well, anyway, defending something worthwhile.  Boy Scout or Big Green: Be Prepared.

5.  What to include?  If your thoughts are organized, what do you include in your essay?  In general be specific.  A good essay has a thesis:  It says in simple sinewy prose:  I will argue that....  A good essay uses carefully selected examples.  Like a good poem or a good piece of science or a good historical argument memorable essays make a general claim supported by specific examples.  The general and abstract are grounded in the particular and concrete.  Make a general claim; organize your essay with clear arguments; support your arguments with thoughtfully selected examples. 
Time is short.  Because time is short your essay should show economy of expression.  Make it lean and to the point.  Truth is simple.  Your reader can usually distinguish pepper corns from mouse droppings, so keep fertilizer to a minimum.  Grab the bull by the horns, butt heads with issues.  Writers kid themselves more often than they fool their readers.
6.  Be simple, direct, detailed.  With Democritus 'Don't speak at length, speak the truth.'  Fifty minutes is short, thirty minutes is twenty minutes shorter.  So you must select in advance what you judge worthy of our time.  In preparing for the essay you must select and that means you are interpreting. You must make your own evaluation of all that stuff.  You must find (create for yourself) an interpretation, a critical position, that you can defend. That requires sound argument and solid evidence. Good writing should have a thesis; clearly stated objectives; a clear structure; careful use of evidence, and appropriate 'telling' examples to illustrate and support your claims.

To be even more specific, be specific. Remember the basic charge: In general, be specific. The most common comments on Mid-Term Exams include the following: Be Specific; Explain; Give Examples; Too Vague. The most common mistake in writing essays is ignoring, overlooking, or giving only short notice to major issues, concepts, or historical figures. Your essay must be balanced. So, look at the syllabus. Consider where the greatest amount of time, effort, and emphasis has been placed. If we have spent several hours talking about Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenes, Heraclitus, Parmenides, Zeno, Democritus, et alia, do not be content to talk about 'the Greeks'. Be specific. These Greeks have names. Mention them specifically, explain their views. Similarly, if we spend days talking about what the Egyptians and the Babylonians observed in the heavens, for heaven's sake be specific about what they observed -- eclipses, occultations, conjunctions, oppositions, risings and settings, that there was some very specific interest in Venus (why?), that there were specific developments with place value notation, with the 24 hour day, the 365 day year, etc. In general, be specific. Finally, notice on the syllabus that we have spent the bulk of our time on Aristotle and Ptolemy. Their views are important. Did they think the same way about nature and knowledge? Can you write a Mid-Term Essay without mentioning them? Think about balance and proportion when you prepare.

Perhaps you've heard something like the following:

'You mean, like, you just want my opinion...?'  No, not exactly.  Opinions (yours and mine) are warranted or not. If you state an opinion it is yours to defend.  Opinions involve responsibility, so you must mean what you say. The value of what you say depends on the argument and evidence you provide.  Opinions (yours and mine) have no special protection, they stand or fall on merit. None of us has an inalienable 'right to our opinion' -- there is no 'democracy of intellect' here -- the University has no laws to protect ignorance, it is not a place where opinions have equal value.  As a Citizen of the University we have responsibilities, each of us has an opportunity to participate as an equal provided we follow certain rules.  Respecting the opinions of fellow citizens does not mean accepting their conclusions. Far from it. We have a larger responsibility to each other. One obligation is to judge the merit of any claim to knowledge. If this is our central concern, there can be no refuge in the mindless swamp: 'Well, that's my opinion!'  In the University Community we show respect for each other by calling into question our most deeply held beliefs. Because this can be risky business we have time-honored rules forged from common sense and common cause. They are deceptively simple: We begin by identifying assumptions; we focus on issues; we emphasize evidence; we negotiate our interpretations.  It is a shared obligation. At our best, we teach each other how to analyze, strengthen, defend-- and yes, sometimes abandon-- our opinions. Our tools are argument and evidence which we apply critically and creatively. Learning to use these tools is a survival skill that extends well-beyond the university. If good citizens have good reasons, stating our opinion is just the beginning-- not the end --of an on-going conversation.

7.  Theory aside, it's time to practice.  No matter how many In-Class exams you may have taken practice will help you write more clearly and persuasively.  If you have not taken such an In-Class Exam, spend the appropriate time (several evenings, a lifetime) testing yourself.  Got an egg timer?  Try writing out your best exam within the time limit.  Bet it's not as lucid and persuasive as you had hoped.  Read it again.  Perhaps you thought you understood the material, at least until you tried to put it in good order, to connect the parts.  Perhaps you feel you didn't have enough time, that you had more to say than time to write.  This is the rub, the point of taking the exam. To do well, you must write down all the best things you have to say in a limited time.  The rub is this: No matter how clever or lucky you may be, you will have to think about what you write.  And you will not have much time to think about things during the exam.  That's the 'Blue-Book Challenge.'  That's why you must be prepared in advance. No list, no outline, no parade of facts, no literary conceits, no factoid flashbacks will do.  You must prepare thoughtfully. What you need requires life-long commitment not a one-night stand. The best form of preparation is continuous. If you practice every day you'll feel better every morning.

What About Writing Blue Book ID's? 

Blue Book Essay Exams are often accompanied by a section of Identifications (ID's).  ID's may be shorter in format but they are no less challenging than writing an essay.  In my classes I often have essay exams with an ID component, usually Part One of the Exam.  Here students are given several ID's (say seven) and are asked to select four.  In my classes ID's are usually allotted five minutes each, hence, 20 minutes for four ID's.  But what should a good ID contain?

As with essays, you must be prepared to write substantive and comprehensive ID's.  A good rule is to write as much intelligent prose as possible in the time provided.  In practice, this means that you should be able to write a good solid paragraph (say, 200-250 words) which should fill one page in your Blue Book.  Be clear about this:  Several sentences will not do, no matter how brilliant and concise.  Think of the ID as a mini-essay. Aim to connect the ID with as many appropriate issues as possible by means of specific examples. Answer the Question: Why is this ID significant?

What should the ID contain?  First, consider the relevant Who, What, When, Where, How and Why of the ID (usually a person or a concept, e.g., Aristarchus; Natural Place).  Put differently, provide a suitable context.  Second, be both specific and comprehensive.  Cover all of the bases and provide as many specific details and relevant examples as possible to demonstrate your understanding.  As we say:  In general, be specific.  Third, most importantly, focus the last part of your mini-essay on the significance of the ID:  Why is this important?  What are the implications and influences of this person or concept?  How does it relate to other issues in the course?  Remember there may be two, three, or four key points of significance.  In addressing the significance of the ID you have an opportunity to show how the ID is connected to larger issues in the course. In addressing several aspects of significance you have an opportunity to deal with more subtle considerations of interpretation. How is this specific ID related to the 'Big Picture'?

Finally, you must write your In-Class Mid-Term Examination in a Blue Examination Booklet. How do you get a Blue Examination Booklet? Answer: At one of the local book stores. They are inexpensive, under one dollar. It is a good idea to bring two Booklets to class, either format, large or small is acceptable. Other Suggestions: It is a good idea to arrive in the classroom a few minutes early in order to get settled. Bring several writing instruments. Ink is preferred but dark pencil is acceptable. After the Exam begins, please print your name in capital letters on the front of the Blue Book. If you have extra time at the end of the period, take a moment to read over your exam. Use every minute wisely. Everyone must remain in the classroom until the exam period is over.
What's next? About a week or so after the Mid-Term Exam the Blue Books will be returned by your instructor and discussed in class in some detail. Everyone is expected to participate and attendance is mandatory. The purpose of this discussion is to review the content of the exam; to connect the earlier material with the themes and issues that follow in the course; to indicate in detail what constitutes good responses in the IDs and Essay; and not least, to give everyone a clear sense of what other students in class have written. Taking the Mid-Term Exam and Reviewing the Mid-Term Exam should be a learning experience. Do your best to make it a good experience by starting now. As always, if you are having difficulties in the course, academic or otherwise, please see your instructor. Chances are that he can help -- provided he knows there is a problem. Take a chance. Discuss your concerns immediately. Don't wait.


Skinny: Hatch Mid-Term Examination Format

Study Sheet (c. One-Week in Advance):
Contains some 30 IDs & 6 Essay Questions for study in advance: Students are assured that all Examination IDs and the Essay are on the Study Sheet.

The Examination Format (Bring a Blue-Book):
Part I: 4 of 7 IDs: 5 Minutes each = 20 minutes: 10 pts each = 40%
Part II: Essay (1 of 1): 30 Minutes = 60 pts = 60%

Gentle Reminder: If you have questions before the Exam: Ask. But please take responsibility for doing your part. Do it now.

After the Mid-Term Exam, be certain to attend the Post-Exam Review. Attendance is mandatory.

OK. You made it to the end. Here is the Study Sheet. Use it wisely & well.
HIS 3463 Mid-Term Study Sheet