Writing and Exam Advice

Writing a paper

A nice presentation on writing philosophy papers.

Allow yourself enough time. When the questions are set and you have decided which one to answer, try to do some preliminary reading as soon as possible. Give yourself time to write both a rough draft and a further more polished version.

You will find discussion (particularly of your rough draft) with others (either friends, or others in the course) to be very useful. It is part of the purpose of a university and in particular of a major in philosophy to give students opportunities for argument and the exchange of ideas.

Plan your paper beforehand. Read over the topic carefully and decide what exactly it means. (Check with the instructor if you are unsure.) Then consider what thesis or view you are trying to demonstrate in regard to the topic. Finally, try to work out what your arguments are.

The introduction to your paper should mirror your plan by succinctly stating your overall strategy. Don’t give enormous vague meandering introductions; get down quickly to the set topic.

The core of philosophy is learning how to argue your case coherently and validly, and the core of a philosophy paper is its arguments. Those who grade your work (in both essays and examinations) are more likely to be interested in the reasons you have given than in the truth of your conclusions. If, however, you feel you must offer a conclusion and cannot give reasons for it, give reasons why you feel that it is impossible to give reasons!

Don’t be afraid to defend a position which diverges from that of the instructor. You will not be marked down for this. (On the contrary, it is generally refreshing to have someone present careful criticisms of one’s views.) But you do need to offer arguments for your divergence.

Write as clearly and simply as possible. Write your paper (or examination answer, for that matter) as if you were explaining your position, and the arguments for it, to an intelligent person from another course who knows nothing about philosophy.

An indispensable tool for both good argument and clear expression is sensitivity to the correct use of words. Use words carefully. Don’t use words about whose meaning you are uncertain. Don’t adopt the vocabulary of some book you have just consulted. Use your own vocabulary; avoid jargon.

Avoid just stringing together quotations. Indeed, you should be extremely careful in your use of quotations. At most a quote can illustrate a point for you; it cannot prove it, no matter how great the thinker you are quoting from. Again, do not just paraphrase or summarize views without comment. This is generally of little value. If you refer to someone’s views on the topic under discussion, you should critically assess the worth of that person’s view.

Ensure that you follow the university Code of Academic Integrity, especially as it concerns plagiarism (‘intentionally or knowingly representing the words or ideas of another as one’s own’). Follow these three principles scrupulously:

  1. Direct Quotation: Every direct quotation must be identified by quotation marks or by appropriate indentation and must be promptly cited in a footnote.
  2. Paraphrase: Prompt acknowledgment is required when material from another source is paraphrased or summarized in whole or in part in your own words.
  3. Borrowed Facts or Information: Information that is obtained in one’s reading or research, which is not common knowledge among students in the course, must be acknowledged. Materials which contribute only to one’s general understanding of the subject may be acknowledged in the bibliography and need not be immediately footnoted.

Moreover: never down-load or copy and paste material from the internet into your paper without proper acknowledgement.

Taking an exam

The essays you write in answer to exam questions should be written in good, clear English; they should be well organized; they should avoid dogmatism (evidence, reasons, analyses, justifications, arguments, objections, and the like should be provided); they should be relevant (their content should comprise all and only what is needed to answer the question); they should display sophisticated understanding and wide knowledge of the subject matter; they should avoid jargon, repetition, and mere paraphrase of the views of others; and (of course) they should avoid falsity and invalidity.

There are a number of simple Dos and Don’ts that should be observed when taking any exam:

  • As far as possible allot the same amount of time to questions that have the same weight; and in particular, allow one hour to each of the two questions on a standard two-hour exam.
  • Answer the question! Irrelevance will be severely penalized (especially in a pre-released exam).
  • Don’t use the same material twice in answers to different questions. (If necessary, cross-refer to your other answer.)

Write as legibly as possible. An essay which is barely legible will tend to seem philosophically unclear too, and is apt to make graders less sympathetic.

If you incorporate quotations or other material from the writings of others or from lecture handouts, these must be explicitly acknowledged as such. The rules about plagiarism apply in exams too!

A variety of forms of exam is possible, ranging from long-release seen exams (where the exam questions are released to students well in advance) to traditionalunseen exams. Between these two poles can fall a variety of other forms of exam, including exams which consist of a sub-set of questions from a previously released set, and various forms of ‘open book’ unseen exam, in which students may take books or notes into the exam with them.

All forms of exam provide some defense against plagiarism. The rationale for exams at the unseen end of the spectrum is that, besides testing for the usual philosophical virtues (clear thinking, sound argumentation, and so forth) they also encourage breadth and retention of knowledge. On the other hand, the rationale forseen exams is that they test for the philosophical virtues without the distorting effects of surprise, nerves, and a capacity to think quickly under pressure. In addition, they enable students to pursue a question in some depth.

2(a) Pre-released exams. You should approach a pre-released exam in exactly the way that you would approach the writing of a term paper. Decide which questions to answer. Consult your lecture notes, lecture handouts, and notes made from books and articles you have been reading to remind yourself of the layout of the issues. Perhaps do some further reading if necessary. Then set yourself to plan, draft, and polish an answer. Having written a paper, ensure that you have a firm grasp of its structure so that you can reproduce essentially the same content in the exam room.

Remember that you will be expected to write somewhat longer answers in a seen exam than in an unseen one, and that graders will expect essays which are well structured and polished, with critical material well developed.

2(b) Unseen exams. Preparing for an unseen exam is a somewhat different sort of exercise. You should have received advice from the instructor on the range of topics to be covered and the kinds of question you might expect. Select three or four of these to work up in preparation. Do not just prepare two topics for a two-answer unseen exam. Since one or more of the topics in question may not come up, or may come up in a form which you don’t know how to answer, to do so is to take a big gamble.

In preparing a topic it can be helpful to assemble a variety of essay components (explanations of important doctrines or ideas, outlines of important arguments, developed criticisms or arguments of your own) which you can then assemble in a variety of different ways in answering the actual question set.