How To Answer Biology Essay Questions

COMMUNICATION IN THE BIOLOGICAL SCIENCES
Department of Biology


ANSWERING ESSAY AND SHORT ANSWER EXAM QUESTIONS


GOOD STRATEGIES TO ALWAYS EMPLOY

MISTAKES TO ALWAYS AVOID

INTERPRETING KEYWORDS

LONG ESSAYS

SHORT ESSAYS
 
 

GOOD STRATEGIES TO ALWAYS EMPLOY

1. Understand the question

Example 1 -- A long question with a short answer

Example 2 -- When highlighting does not work. A short question with a long answer.

  • Read the question carefully. Be sure to distinguish between the relevant information and the extraneous information.  

  • Underline or highlight the key points in the question. This is particularly important for essay questions that ask you to address several points. 
2. Plan out your answer before you start writing

Example 1 -- A long question with a short answer.

Example 2 -- A short question with a long answer.

  • This may seem like a waste of your time. However, it is a greater waste of time to write unnecessary information or to erase and re-write.  

  • Jotting down a quick outline will remind you of the key points that you want to make.  

  • Making a quick diagram can also help you focus your thoughts. 
3. Convey your thoughts in an organized manner

Example 1 -- A long question with a short answer.

Example 2 -- A short question with a long answer.

  • The key points to your answer should be clearly stated and be the focus of your answer.  

  • The key points should be obvious to the reader and not buried amongst peripheral material.  

  • Do not include extra information if it does not directly support your answer.  
4. Use relevant technical terminology to answer the question
  • Correctly use the relevant biology and science terms that you learn from your courses.  

  • Technical terms are highly specific and reduce the total number of words that you will need to write.

  • Using technical terms to communicate will be essential in your professional life.  
5.  Cause and effect relationships should be made obvious 
  • Do not expect the instructor to make these connections for you. 
6. Making a drawing can often assist you in your answer
  • However, your written answer must explain what is in the drawing. 
7. Support your answer with evidence and/or examples from class lectures and reading
  • A hallmark of a good scientist is that they support statements with evidence.

  • Some instructors and styles of tests require thorough descriptions of examples that were discussed in detail in the course.  

  • Check with your instructor to see if thorough examples are required on essay questions. 

 

MISTAKES THAT YOU SHOULD ALWAYS AVOID

1. Do not write too much
  • Do not try to write everything that you have ever heard related to the question.  

  • Answer the question directly, without excess information. 
2. Do not write a good answer to the wrong question
  • In other words, make sure that you answer the question that is asked and not something else on the related topic. 
3. Do not expect the instructor to figure out what you mean
  • Do not just make a drawing and expect the instructor to figure out what you were thinking from this. (Unless the question only asks you to make a drawing.)  

  • Do not expect the instructor to find the relevant information in a sea of irrelevant information.  

  • Do not expect the instructor to read between the lines and make connections that you should be making. 

 

INTERPRETING KEYWORDS IN ESSAY QUESTIONS

"Compare and Contrast"
  • The question will always involve two or more related items. 

  • "Compare" means that you should explain the similarities between the two items. Ordinarily, instructors do not want you to simply list the similar characteristics, but explain the characteristics and/or how they are similar. 

  • "Contrast" means that you should explain the differences between the two items. 

  • Typically, a comparison of the similarities and differences between the two items highlights some major concepts in the topic at hand. Be sure to try to address these in your answer. 

  • This type of question usually involves the use of specific examples from class.
"Describe" or 

"Discuss" or

"Explain"

  • These words alert you that the instructor wants a fair amount of explanation. 
  • Do not simply list terms or concepts. Write out sentences and complete thoughts. 
"Define"
  • Provide a definition similar to that you would find in the glossary to your textbook. A thorough explanation is usually not required. 
"List"
  • Here, a simple list of concepts or terms should be sufficient. Anything more and you might be treading in the too much information category. 
"Interpret"
  • Put the data or figure into words.
  • In other words, write an explanation of the meaning of the data or figure.
"Diagram" or 

"Draw" or 

"Illustrate"

  • Make a drawing. Keep it simple.  
  • Labels should be used whenever possible. 

 

ADVICE SPECIFIC TO LONG ESSAY QUESTIONS

Write logically organized paragraphs.

  • Because you will probably be given more time for these types of questions, your instructor will probably expect higher quality in your writing.

  • Start with a relevant topic sentence. Either state the key point that you will support in the rest of the paragraph or state the part of the question that you will address in that paragraph.

  • In general, instructors will usually be lenient with minor problems in sentence structure or punctuation on a timed exam. However, the organization of your ideas is paramount for earning a good grade.

Use complete sentences with a subject and verb.
 

ADVICE SPECIFIC TO SHORT ESSAY QUESTIONS

Organize your ideas in a logical manner, but do not worry so much about proper sentence and paragraph construction.

  • You will have less time and space for this type of answer. The most important thing is to convey the answer clearly. Sometimes logically organized lists of sentence fragments can achieve this goal as well as well-constructed paragraphs.

Home
 

Copyright © 2001, the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse and the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin.

In short, the same as any other exam. But here are a few useful ideas, hopefully.

Before the exam: Try and relax in the last half-an-hour or so before the exam. Read a book, sit quietly somewhere, listen to music - whatever works for you. Just don't do any last-minute revision. It almost certainly won't stay in your head anyway. So long as you've revised well in the weeks leading up to the exam you should be OK.

As soon as the exam starts: Read through the whole paper, paying attention to number of marks per question. Make a note of any questions you know you can do without much trouble. Don't spend any longer than two minutes or so for each hour the exam lasts.

During the exam:

  1. Time management. Almost always you'll be given the number of marks awarded for a question. Use this as a guide for how long you should spend on the question. For example, if you have a two-hour paper and one hundred total marks, then aim to spend no more than about a minute per mark. On a ten-mark question, if you still haven't finished it after ten minutes, leave the question and move on to another one. Time management is vital.

  2. Make sure you know what the question is asking you to do. This just means that you should read through the question carefully before attempting it. I've made this mistake a couple of times myself, missing a key word, and it can lose time or worse marks, so be sure never to put pen to paper until you know what you are going to write.

  3. Be clear and concise in your answers. For diagrams, don't fuss too much over perfect accuracy but make sure that all the key points are there, in the right place, and clearly labelled. For "Brief notes" questions, bullet-point sentences containing relevant information will do as well as, if not better than, a brief essay where the information required is buried under too many words. If you are asked to show your working, do so clearly, making use of the available space to answer the question. Don't skip too many lines of working at once.

  4. If ever you get stuck on a question but feel you know where you should be going, say so! It may not make a difference all of the time but if you can convince the examiner that you know what you are trying to do you may get a little extra credit. Also because it's possible that there's a mistake on the exam preventing you from answering the question, saying that you know what is required can help a bit to gain the credit you missed. This also helps if you found that you made a mistake and had to go back and make changes, to help guide the marker through what you actually did.

  5. Any mistakes should be crossed out, but just in case you weren't going wrong try to make sure it's clear what you wrote. Unless you're really frustrated, in which case scribble away if it helps to calm you down.

  6. Stay relaxed!!! If you're getting angry or frustrated or scared take a short moment to pause and collect yourself.

At the end of the exam: Just before the exam ends, if you can, leave yourself a few minutes (ideally five) to read over all you've done. You may pick up a couple of mistakes and gain more marks than plodding through the short question you were just trying to finish.

After the exam: Some people enjoy thinking about all the answers they gave and comparing it with other people's, but others prefer to forget all about it. I'd try to forget about it if you can and move on to the next one.

Hope all this helps. Remember that the main points are RELAXATION, TIME MANAGEMENT, and UNDERSTANDING THE QUESTION. Good luck.

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