Tips for memorising your next essay

First we consider whether it is even a good idea to be memorising an exam essay before offering some tips on how to approach the art of memorising and how to remain adaptable to unseen questions come exam day.

4 months ago   •   4 min read

By Michaela Spiteri
Photo by Yannick Pulver / Unsplash


Before we jump straight into the art of memorising, we should consider a very important question: is it even a good idea to try to memorise an essay or an extended response in the first place?

Should I memorise?

The pros

  • It's often less less work
  • Gives you reassurance that you have something up your sleeve going into the exam
  • You can finesse your response prior to the exam which means less time spent thinking about what to write in the exam

The cons

  • Exams (especially essay questions) are becoming increasingly unpredictable with changes to syllabus, rubrics, modules etc. For example, the more recent HSC English syllabus is all about testing students on how they can respond to an unseen question on the day… it's about thinking analytically and critically rather than memorising a perfectly planned response - so you can expect to be thrown a curveball.
  • If you are so caught up in memorising that perfect response it can actually prevent you from learning and understanding the concepts - so, if (or more realistically, when) you are given a question that is different from the one you’ve memorised a response for, you might struggle to adapt and think on the spot.
  • Markers can spot pre-prepared or memorised responses… it’s pretty obvious and they won’t reward you for it.

Adapt!

So, while it’s natural to want to memorise as much as possible, you need to avoid the tendency to simply regurgitate your pre-prepared response in the exam as, chances are, the question is not going to be identical. Sure, you might be able to predict similar questions (if you have a look at the exam patterns over past years, you can often get a sense of the style of questions asked and the type of content they are assessing) but that is only going to get you so far.

For example, for English it’s often helpful to have three solid generic paragraphs that you know how to adapt on the day – you have to integrate what you have ‘memorised’ with an original response that directly responds to the exam question and/ or stimulus.

You should definitely avoid regurgitating memorised introductions and topic sentences as these are the components of your essay that MUST respond directly to the question (particularly by integrating the specific keywords that appear in the question or stimulus). Other parts of any essay will naturally require memorisation - quotes, statistics, facts and general explanations of concepts. Once you have memorised generic essay components, don’t wait until the exam to practice adapting responses to unseen questions. In the lead up to the exam, look at practice questions and think about how you would adapt your memorised response. You don’t even have to write out the full response - jot down a thesis and your main points. This will improve your ability to think and adjust on the spot and ultimately strike the balance between being prepared and actually answering the question you were asked, not the question you hoped was asked.

With all that in mind, we can now rewind to what you came here for: how to memorise hundreds (or potentially thousands) of words for that next essay or long response.

Memorisation tips

Bit by bit

Depending on the subject, a timed exam essay or extended response often requires 40-50 minutes of writing which can demand around 1,000 words (give or take). But instead of thinking of it as 1,000 words, it’s much easier to think of everything in sections. For example, you’ve got your intro, three body paragraphs and your conclusion. Have a clear structure in your mind - what does each paragraph relate to and how might you use that general idea to create links to the question on the day?

Also think about how you can break it down further within each of the three paragraphs. For me, it was really useful to break my paragraphs into dot points or a table - that way I could visualise each key competent/ sub-point of the paragraph and often I would note where it would be appropriate to create a direct link to the question on the day. For example, for a HSC English essay I would generally include 4 or so pieces of evidence/examples in each paragraph - I’d memorise each quote, technique and general analysis but I’d leave room to make that connection to the thesis and work that into more specific analysis come exam day.

Read aloud

Reading your paragraphs aloud can be a useful memorising strategy as you create a rhythm or flow of words in your mind - almost like a song. Using the above tip, focus on one section or paragraph at a time. At first, it’s going to be hard to say even just a few words without referring to your page but, as you go, try to rely less and less on reading the words. If you’re stuck, actually think about what you’re saying and what comes next. Remember that you don’t need to remember the words verbatim - rather think more about the connecting ideas/ sentences as this will actually be more useful when adapting the memorised essay in the exam.

Write it out

For some, reading and speaking is the most effective method but for others writing it out over and over is what will make it stick. As above, use the same principle of thinking about what you’re writing to avoid getting stumped with the word-for-word memorising mentality.

Start now and keep practicing

Memorising an essay is going to be a whole lot harder if you’re leaving it until the night before. The more time you can give yourself, the better - that way you can approach it bit by bit rather than having to tackle the 1,000 words in one go.

Don’t be afraid to change your essay as you begin to learn it and, more importantly, APPLY AND ADAPT IT. As you continue studying, responding to past essay questions in mock exam-conditions and communicating with your KIS tutors or teachers, it will probably be appropriate to make changes.

If you’re after some help with essay writing and how to prepare in the lead up to exams, you can start by locking in a free 30 minute study skills consultation with one of our amazing KIS tutors.

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