Midterm Exam Study Tips
My exams are intended to reinforce your memory and understanding of the texts we've been discussing these past seven weeks. I am not going to try to trick you or to find ways to make this literature less familiar. However, I will expect that you'll have a lot to say about the passages you can identify and about the issues in the short essay section. Don't just dash off a few quick words and consider it done. You can abbreviate your identifications and use incomplete sentences to flesh out the passages' significance, but there had better be a fair amount of "meat" in those abbreviations and fragments. When you see connections to other passages on the exam, or to things I haven't asked about, let me know you see them! Ideally, your memory of this exam will stay with you until you no longer remember the exam itself, but just the memory structures you created to take it. Then some important portion of English literature will live in you. That is my ultimate goal. Click here to see a set of sample short passages for identification and a sample short essay topic.
Here are some specific tips that have worked for other students before you:
1) Go through the syllabus and group authors/works by chronological period in your own short list. Note what makes them similar (language, issues, genres, style, etc.) and then take careful note of what makes them different from authors/works that are similar to them. Mistakes on the identification section often occur because these important differences are not noticed. This grouping exercise also will help you see connections among authors/works for the short essay at the end.
2) To help you develop further your sense of similarities and differences in authors and works, take the first, chronological list, and use it to make a set of shorter lists that group authors/works by type. Which ones could you thematically group because they discuss love, political power, spirituality, etc.? Which ones could be grouped by genre because they are working in prose and which in poetry? Of the poets (the more numerous), which are working in Old English, which in Middle English, and which in Early Modern English (post-1500, roughly)? Which are we reading in translations, from what languages were they translated? For those translated texts, what peculiarities are attributable to effects created in their original language (More's punning title, Bede's attempt to give us Caedmon's song)?
3) For authors which wrote many short works (e.g., the sonneteers), what are their characteristic ways of using language, including rhyme schemes and stanza structures, that could help you tell one of their sonnets from those of the others? Pick at least one lyric from each of them to study very carefully and (if you can) to memorize, either in part or whole. That will serve as your "anchor" memory to which you can bring the identification passages for testing. If you pick a sonnet that was presented on or read-aloud by me in class, the odds are very good that you will see it among the passages for identification. We have been constructing that list of passages, class by class.
4) If you've not paid attention before to identifying poetic feet, counting meter, and figuring out rhyme scheme and stanza structure, do it now. Pick a few short works and figure out how they're put together. Say the rhyme words out loud with a little British accent to help your ear. Count the meter's stressed and unstressed syllables, and remember you are counting feet (combinations of syllables) not isolated syllables, themselves. (It's 10 points on the exam, so you'll never get an "A" if you can't do it, but it won't kill you if you cannot.)
5) What historical and personal events affected the authors' creation of these works? Did any of them react differently from other poets at the same time, and if so, why? We're not yet in an era where "race" matters to the English, but class and gender certainly can be a factor here. What changes were taking place before, during or after the authors lives which may affect our understanding of their works? That will help you add context to your essay.
6) Re-read out loud parts of the passages presented by your colleagues, and passages I spent a while discussing. Let your ear help you remember what your eye cannot. Use both sides of that brain of yours. As you read, go back to your notes and to your study lists to get ideas about how to explain what makes the passages important to the study of English literature. That will help you with the "explain the significance" part of the passage identifications, and with the essay at the end, which might build on those passage explanations!
7) Spend some time talking with other students in the class, asking each other questions you think might be similar to those I might ask you to write about in the short essay portion. Listen carefully and try to correct each others' errors and misunderstandings. If everybody in the room is confused, call for reinforcements. If the reinforcements are confused, call or email me.
Click here for a sample template you can use to hold information about literature in an order that will help you answer analytical questions about it. (Note: this sheet is designed for the final, so naturally at the midterm you will find many of the genre and issue categories unfilled!)
Click here for some practical advice about how to write this kind of exam.