The Problem with In-Class Essays
“What is this testing? My memory? My time management? My coping abilities?”
By Jessinta Smith, Suffolk Community College
I had half an hour left and had only written half the paper.
I had spent the week before studying, researching, writing and editing in preparation for this day. I had written my four-page essay by hand two times at home and the outline three times, yet here I was with only half an hour and half a paper.
I threw the idea of legible handwriting out the door and started scribbling words as quickly as my little hand could go, and was already starting to panic when the professor announced the fifteen-minute mark. I knew there was no chance my essay was going to fill the skinny blue book.
My History midterm consisted of one multiple choice exam and one four-page in-class research essay, both of which were to take place within the hour and fifteen-minute time frame.
My professor is a hard-ass, and this is not just my opinion. The first words out of his mouth when he entered the midterm were “I am NOT a nice man!” Well, no shit, we’ve known that for three months now.
He continued explaining that he would not tolerate cheating, that no one would leave for the bathroom and that everyone would fill the blue book. If you failed to do any of these things, you would fail his class and presumably fail life.
The paper he required us to write was perplexing, especially for someone who majors in anything English-related.
He asked for an in-class research essay instead of a term paper, but he also asked that you write your essay out before class so that all you do in class is write from memory. Got that? The papers didn’t even need a citation page to explain where you got your information.
The entire process was odd and presented several issues.
My first problem with in-class essays is the fact that they exist. Intrinsically, they make little-to-no sense as a testing method, especially when they’re conducted in the way my professor conducts them.
I have to research, outline and write a full paper before class, yet I then I have to write that same paper again in class. How is this productive? What is this testing? My memory? My time management? My coping abilities? The only reason jumping to mind is that my professor is fed up with checking and estimating essays written by bid4papers or similar services.
Because of the time limit, my in-class essay was far from my best work and looked sloppy. When you have fifteen minutes and four pages to write you scramble, which means forgetting a lot of words and writing the words you do remember in an illegible scrawl. Needless to say, my in-class essay in no way resembled my previously written-at-home version.
Though professors will remind you that they look past most time-induced flaws, the mistakes are still unnecessary. If I had been allowed to type the paper, those flaws wouldn’t have existed in the first place and my essay wouldn’t have needed any looking past.
What’s more, the entire concept is antithetical to everything you are taught in school, namely the “Don’t write your paper the night before” rule. All throughout your life you’re told that “You can’t write a decent essay the night before it’s due.” Then you go to college and your professor makes you write an essay during class.
Even though the period is an hour and fifteen-minutes long, the first fifteen are dedicated to the “no cheating” speech, the next twenty or so to the multiple choice quiz, then I have to write down my outline so I remember my key points and finally I can start the essay with thirty minutes left.
Of course then the essay isn’t going to be any good because you only have thirty minutes to write, and you can’t write a decent essay in thirty minutes.
It forces several questions, such as: What is the point of writing an essay when you know it’s going to be shitty? What is the point of having to look past shitty aspects of writing when you could have had a paper that was well-written? What is the point of having to look past sloppy handwriting and missing words that are the result of an unreasonable time frame? The logic of in-class essays is bankrupt.
The paper would be much better—from an edifying standpoint and as a teaching method—if it were treated like any other paper and written out beforehand.
Plus, if you’re like me and you already have your final draft written, then rewriting the essay in class is a waste of everyone’s time.
Instead of learning something, I’m writing a paper by hand for the tenth time, even though I have another five copies of the same paper sitting on my desk at home. Instead of fine-tuning my writing abilities while editing a paper, I spend my time memorizing words so I can regurgitate them in class. Instead of actually studying and learning the material, I spend my time writing the paper several times to engrain the outline into my head.
Even though professors overlook minor errors, in-class essays are poor representations of a student’s work. Why create a situation that manipulates an exceptional student to write a mediocre paper?
Doesn’t it make more sense to require a longer, in-depth paper that shows a student’s ability to compose an essay, rather than having them dumb down a paper so they can finish it in an hour? The in-class essay is an inadequate testing method and should be reformed so that students have a better way to represent their abilities.
You’ve got two hours to write an essay, in class. You’ve studied for all possible prompts but you know the professor will only choose one for you to answer. What if you focused too heavily on a question that won’t be used during the exam? Don’t worry, here’s how to tackle the in-class essay.
Aside from being in-class, the time limit puts an unusual amount of pressure on the essay-writing process. Students usually get an hour to two hours, depending on the class, to complete their essays.With that being said, it’s important to move fast and not dwell on a key point you’re having trouble explaining. You don’t have a quote or an example of a point you’re trying to make? Then forget it, move on to another statement. Don’t waste precious time skimming through your book either, it’s important to stick to what you know.
So what do you know?
Some students like to gamble on in-class essays and study one or two topics heavily while leaving the other potential prompts unchecked. There are obvious downsides to this method while also some upsides. For one, if the professor chooses the question you studied most for, then you’ve got it in the bag, but the risk is you’ll have a half-baked essay if the prompt is one you weren’t prepared for.
Outline and Quote
You have to go in with a plan of attack. Do not go into an in-class essay without some form of structure, you need to have some sort of blueprint in your head or on paper, of what your essay will be. Think about which key points you want to introduce first and so on. Think about how you’ll be opening and closing the essay.
If you are able to use a textbook during the exam…
With every statement or key point, you should think about inserting a quote from the text to further emphasize your point. This not only makes your paragraph feel authoritative but it also takes up precious space. For each key point, you should provide at least two to three examples with one of those examples as a direct quote. Protip: mark up your book before class or leave sticky notes on the pages as quick ways to navigate the text. Be careful, depending on your professor, you may or may not be allowed to used a marked up book.
And don’t forget about properly citing your quotes with page numbers!
If you can’t have a textbook…
When you’re studying, pick one or two quotes and memorize them if you can, if not, you can always paraphrase the quote in your essay.
For more tips, tricks and help on your final exams, be sure to check out these tips from real professors. And for much more on your impending stress-induced panic-attack, keep it locked on the Chegg blog.