With every passing year the question returns to the fore, and parents and students are equally guilty of dappling in these dangerous areas: is it worth memorising an essay word-for-word, ready to be perfectly regurgitated in an exam? The answer: No.
It is like saying, is it worth borrowing more than I can afford to repay? If the GFC has taught us anything, it is that high risk portfolios don’t necessarily lead to immediate demise – but one day, it will.
However, I must admit, I made prolific use of the ‘regurgitation’ technique in my final year at school – and in fact, to great success. One particular essay I wrote exactly the same 3 times throughout the year and received full marks each time. But on the fateful day of my HSC English exam, the strategy unravelled. Utterly.
The question was directed from such an angle that my pre-digested 1040 words was rendered largely useless. I was forced, all of a sudden to actually participate in what the exam was designed to test – my ability to construct a well argued, sophisticated analysis of a text. All I was able to do was jumble together random components of my rote-learnt answer – the strategy failed me. Dramatically.
Let me contribute to answering this question by first praising the premise behind the dilemma. There are smart ways to play the game called school. I had a friend who studied for 8 hours a day for 3 weeks and performed worse than they did when all they did was play soccer. The key to performing well in an exam is not the amount of work you do, it is how well you are prepared to perform the task on the day, in the way it is asked. That is why memorising an essay is so appealing – if you get the question you are hoping for, it is a failsafe way to maximise your marks, simply because most people don’t write better under exam conditions than when they have crafted their wording and flow for months (and often with help from others).
So first things first – there is nothing wrong with seeking successful strategies; clever strategies that will maximise performance. The problem with this particular strategy is that it simply exposes you to too much risk. You cannot predict every essay question you will be asked and prepare a memorised response to each – you must have the capacity to adapt.
Therefore, let me suggest an alternate strategy – one I believe accesses all the same benefits as memorising a whole essay, but with almost none of the risk.
Instead of memorising an entire essay, memorise “cards”, and take more ‘cards’ than you need into every essay-based exam. What’s a ‘card’? A card is the structure (and even the full-text) of a body paragraph. By memorising your body paragraphs you allow your introduction and your conclusion to be framed by the question. Then, depending on the question, you decide to play your best ‘hand’ of cards. That allows you to order and relate your key arguments in a way that responds to the question, however, preserving your well-crafted phrasing. It similarly exposes you to far less risk since your introduction is the critical section of your essay that determines the entire framing and course for your argument. In essence, you get the best of both worlds: adaptability with prepared quality. Good luck!