Some Ideas on How to Approach and Write Essay-Type Statements under Examination Conditions:

(which are so similar to the many real-world situations
when you have to come up with a quick response to the boss's request
or a consulting question by phone or Email)

The 15-45 Minute Response!


Read Questions Carefully

Organize and Monitor Your Allocation of Time

Selection of Question or Topic (if you have a choice)

You know that it is unlikely that you will get any essay question or topic for a report which asks for specific non-conceptual, numerical or geographic facts (except as bonus questions). Thus do not fall prey to the temptation to select a topic about which you know a lot factually but little else. If you have e.g. done only relatively little work on your project, you may be fairly well informed about what the real world situation is all about. You recently have gotten a lot of numbers, have explored some basic background information, have learned about new places, etc. , in short you are very close to a lot of factual information, indeed, possibly too close. It is easy to see some trees but not the whole forest and you may not yet have advanced to any comparative or explanatory analysis. You may have few ideas how to conceptualize it in preparation for your own analysis (to say nothing about the context of the question which I have posed). You may not yet know many actual tools for analysis in this area and you may not even have thought much about what kind of analysis might be appropriate simply because you are enjoying the seemingly "interesting" facts so much.

Students in such situations often overwhelm their essays with unrelated and indiscriminate information having little time left and no basis for analysis and conclusions.

Instead select the topic for which you have the best overview, conceptual background and tools and for which it is relatively simple to set up a relatively sophisticated framework (to show your "stuff").

Sometimes it is indeed better to select something which is not close to you factually or in terms of your own preconceived notion about what is right or wrong. You are better able to keep some distance and are more open to new ideas (you may not be as set in your opinions)

Planning Your Response Statement

Too many students begin to write their statement before first planning their attack. When you have fifteen minutes for an answer, spending 3-5 minutes for outlining an answer is usually well spent. My approach (used first more than 40 years ago) still tends to do the trick: Divide a clean sheet of (scrap) paper into two parts: left and right: on the left, write down quickly keywords for everything you feel could potentially be related to the topic. Keep adding to it while you begin to think about a structure for your response. Since you have to give a "linear" answer (it is too hard to think about a "hypertextual" response in such a short time -- to say nothing about "clicking" in a blue-book), a linear outline will probably have to do. Start this outline on the right side of the paper. Draw arrows from the keywords (on the left) to their location in the outline (don't repeat the words).

What is important is that you organize the first part so that you set up your response properly because it determines what ideas you can actually use and which ones you will have to discard or find place for only in your very last sentence when you have to suggest that all your other bright ideas and their relation to the topic warrant further thought (and might be covered by you on your Web site... ). This preparatory but essential part of your statement, often ending with some kind of "thesis statement" is what we have called your "conceptual framework".

A sheet of paper of this kind, half chaotic, half organized allows you to monitor your progress, check off core ideas, reach some depth, come back to the surface and find an ending.

These kinds of broad and open-ended questions could potentially be the basis for many dissertations which would give candidates usually more than a year to respond. If you have 15 minutes only, and you want to reach some depth in your answer, you consciously need to break up one or more of the (very) general concepts (agglomeration economies, Hägerstrand's time-space model, "location", footlooseness etc.), identify the range of component parts or alternative perspectives (and make sure the reader gets a general overview of the issues and is convinced of your familiarity with this general but differentiated view of the topic, before identifying a more limited subset which allows you to reach the desired depth. This is an opportunity to point your answer into a direction which suits your background, insights and preparations! Take it, but set it up first.

Should we use concepts in our statements which have been covered in class?

Your instructor is very human.... I do like to see that the concepts which required a lot of time to be put on the Internet and into lecture notes are actually used. Would it be plausible that I would formulate questions totally unrelated to anything associated with the concepts covered in class? Of course not. Lo and behold, these concepts may also give you an opportunity to dig deep and thereby help you avoid giving "off-the-top-of-your-head", superficial answers which you could have produced without taking this class!
If you are convinced that your concepts are equally good and valid or better, so much the better. Most instructors don't mind learning from students (some do!) Just be sure that you give some credit to the inferior concepts of the class and briefly argue why you are dismissing them! I will be thoroughly impressed.

However, chances are that the class concepts are better suited to answer the question; usually that is why the question was formulated in the first place; the instructor tends to have this unfair advantage!

Once you have conquered your inherent animosity to anything having to do with the painful learning in this class, you need to make sure to organize, formulate and integrate these concepts into your answer in a way which gets you maximum credit.

If you want to get credit for integrating any particular (incl. 207-) concept into your statement, you have to do that a) at the right place, and b) so explicitly that you are convinced that I will not suspect that you only know the term, have a vague idea where it might belong, but have no clue what it means specifically or how it relates to other concepts. Those of you who had problems with the definition quizzes should be particularly wary about such suspicions. In short, if in doubt, do not hesitate to define the term and explain its meaning in the text or in a footnote.

On the one hand, while I want you to use and apply course concepts, I do NOT want you to throw in a couple of highfalutin terms for good measure in order to impress me, unless it is appropriate and you have understood the concepts behind the terms and their relationship to other nearby concepts in your write-up.

Beginning to Write; Use of Examples; and More

Do NOT repeat the question in your text (waste of precious time) However, especially if the question is complex and open-ended, a brief interpretation of the topic and some articulation of your response plans may be in order.

It is not advisable that you start with specific examples for something which you really have not identified yet. A general topic does not need examples directly, but only after specific arguments have been articulated which respond to the way in which you have interpreted and focused the question or topic and have broken it up into component parts. If you give examples for the same level of generality as the topic is presented, you may be foregoing the opportunity to suggest that your answer may "depend on" further, more fine-tuned conceptual distinctions. It is only through these distinctions that you can present a sufficiently sophisticated response and provide evidence for your conceptual skills and depth of understanding.

At the end of the hour-glass approach, you want to make sure that you do not leave the reader with a very specialized view of the issues, i.e. you want to return from the depth selected by you back to a more general perspective which indicates that you are aware that you just gave one answer out of many possible answers. In a 15-minute statement, you may not have time for more than one sentence to do that....

When should I turn in my Examination?

If you have organized your time efficiently, you will have just enough time at the end to proofread everything twice, once for content and once for grammar and spelling. (However, maybe you have read most of it already once just before you organized and wrote the conclusions to your essay statements, which, of course, is very advisable) Too many students hand in their examination because they ran out of ideas too early or their too restrictive organization (usually resulting from the lack of prior differentiation) did not permit them to add additional ideas once they were finished. Others simply cannot stand the class any longer and feel that they have to get out. This is not the time to do that. You have spent too much effort getting to this point. Bite your teeth together and think about whether this last substantial communication with your instructor could be improved by rewriting those answers with the worst hand-writing, most crossed-out words and/or the most to gain by having an opportunity to add a thought here or there.

Handing in your examination early does generally not tell the instructor that you are a fast thinker or writer, but that you are not optimizing the examination conditions for yourself. As I have told you a few times, my examination questions are often so open-ended and broad, that a few dissertation topics could be derived from them. They are giving you so much opportunity to create your own product, that it is difficult to believe that you are running out of ideas and materials after a few minutes.

Of course, there are others among you who have the opposite problem, namely running out of time because they have also not organized their time properly. Often, there are too many ideas still in your head when the examination is taken from you half-way through a sentence giving you no chance to find an appropriate ending. Tough luck. Many of us have that problem... You might recall the few times when your instructor had to stop his lecture in mid-sentence....

GOOD LUCK! And please, enjoy these rare moments of reaching an Intellectual High (or depth)

Additional Resources:

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