Evidence-based Scripts; or, How to survive a ‘Beals Exam’

I am a very demanding lecturer. I typically write very long, very blunt feedback to my students in the hope that it will shock them into a more rigorous research and writing regime. This methodology served me quite well when I began teaching, as I primarily worked with first-year undergraduates. These fresh-faced, wholly impressionable students were usually very accepting of this well-meant criticism, evidenced by their marked improvement in subsequent assessments.

When I began to teach second- and third-year students, however, my honest appraisals were less well received. Those I had taught in previous years had learned my preferences (and expectations) and generally continued to improve their style and skill. New students, however, stormed angrily into my office, demanding I reconsider their marks, asserting that they had never received such a low mark before–I was obviously being overly harsh. I explained what their papers had failed to achieve, as well as which aspects they should maintain–no need to throw out the baby with the bathwater–and that I had no intention of altering their mark unless they could demonstrate my points were unfounded. I have only ever changed one mark in eight years of teaching–by two points–and that was a hard-fought battle.

Yet, every spring I grow fatigued of this battle. I wonder if I am not setting unrealistic expectations of my students. Would I have received a first on one of my own exams? I cannot be sure, but I hope that I would have risen to the challenge. Why? Because so many of my own students do.

One student in particular stands out in my memory. I had not taught him in his first or second year, and thus his writing style was well established by the time he submitted his first formative essay to me. It was pretty horrific. A pass, but with cringe-worthy passages. Sure enough, he came to see me and explained that he had always received firsts and could not understand his poor (2:2) mark. Over the next six months, he came to my office to ask for advice on sources, on structure, and on style–and not just for my module. He brought outlines for his other modules, too. His style improved very quickly and he was soon earning high 2:1s and firsts. After submitting his undergraduate dissertation, supervised and assessed by another member of staff, he stopped by office.

I had to decide if I wanted to write an essay I knew [my supervisor] would be okay with, or a ‘Melodee paper’. I decided to write a ‘Melodee paper’ and [my supervisor] said it was really great.

I do not claim to be a particularly eloquent writer or a flawless copyeditor–far from it–but it does not take a great writer to spot a poor one. As my students progress through university and into the job market, it will be a simple mistake–a lack of proof-reading or a formal fallacy–that will most likely be their downfall. If I can steer them away from an obvious mistakes, perhaps their own authorial voice will finally be able to shine.

In the end, I have very high expectations for my students because I know they can achieve them–and I know what will await them if they do not. But I am not a monster. I do not expect my students to read my mind or fail their first assessment with me. Each year, I present to my students a Rough Guide to Obtaining a First in Dr Beals’s Exam during the seminar programme. I present it to you in the hopes that you will critique and criticise it, and let me know what you expect from an undergraduate exam script. The more explicit we are about our expectations, the more likely we are to have them met (if not exceeded).

For a One-Hour, One-Question Exam Answer

  1. Introduction: May be extremely short, even reduced to a single thesis statement in which you clearly and directly answer the question or prompt. There is no need to provide significant background material, though you may wish to include any definitions or theoretical concepts you intend to use to prove your point. Be specific and avoid phrases such as ‘there are many arguments on both sides’ or ‘this paper will answer the question’ followed by the question.
  2. Body paragraphs: A one-hour script will generally have between 2 and 5 body paragraphs, depending on your level of detail in each. All body paragraphs within your script should be focused on proving your thesis statement or argument. There is no need to have a ‘balanced’ argument, with an equal number of paragraphs on ‘both sides’ of the argument; indeed, this will usually result in a lower mark as you will appear indecisive or unsure. You should include counter-evidence within paragraphs where it is relevant or obvious, but make sure you explain either a) its limited applicability or b) its inaccuracy.Each body paragraph should (roughly) follow this outline:
      • Topic Sentence: Which point will this whole paragraph prove? This is usually a smaller or more specific point that must be true if your main thesis or argument is true. It is not simply the ‘topic it will talk about’.
      • Assertion: What is something that you are claiming to be true? This is usually a sub-point of the topic sentence.
      • Evidence (1-3 pieces): Give details from the historical period, such as statistics, events, or specific trends, that prove your assertion is correct, or very likely. You should include historiographical arguments (arguments made by historians) where appropriate, but these are not (by themselves) proof that your point is true, just that someone agrees with you (or you with them).
      • One to three more assertion-evidence sets. The number will vary depending on the complexity of the point your paragraph is trying to make.
      • Concluding thought: Now that you have proven your topic sentence, explain to your reader how your paragraph helps prove your overall answer to the question.

    Example:

    • Overall Thesis: Strawberry is the best flavour of ice cream
    • Topic Sentence: Strawberry ice cream is healthful
    • Assertion: Fruit-based desserts do not need artificial ingredients
    • Evidence: Fruit already contains natural sugars
    • Evidence: Fruit already provides natural colourings
    • Assertion: Fruit-based desserts have health-benefits
    • Evidence: Anti-oxidents, present in fruit, promote longevity
    • Evidence: Fructose, the natural sugar in fruit, is easily digestible
    • Concluding thoughts: Because strawberry ice cream provides health benefits, and limits the negative health impacts of other ice creams, it is the best flavour.
    • Conclusion: A very short synthesis. Do not repeat any evidence that you have given previously or repeat all your topic sentences or concluding thoughts. Instead, briefly explain how your 2-5 paragraphs fit together to prove your overall thesis. Two or three relevant syntheses are better than 13 repetitive sentences.

You will be marked on:

  • How directly you answer the question
  • How logical and organised your answer to the question is
  • How accurate the evidence you use is
  • How reasonable your interpretation of that evidence is
  • The legibility of your handwriting and the fluency of your prose. If I cannot understand you, you cannot persuade me.

That is it. I am not expecting the ‘right’ answer, only a reasonable, evidence-based one. I may completely disagree with you, but if you have supported your argument, and have not unreasonably omitted important counter-evidence, you will succeed. It does not matter if your script is two pages or ten pages long. It only matters that your prove your point.

Image courtesy of JuditK

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