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We don't spend much time in school or college discussing how to write exam essays. Here's my shot at trying to help. 

Every question asks you to demonstrate your proficiency in one or more of several areas of thinking. Bloom's Taxonomy, which is currently out of favor (really out of favor) among education types (they're the people who are more concerned with self-esteem than with learning), categorizes thinking into six areas-knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. You can use Bloom's Taxonomy to structure responses to essay questions. 

Bloom's Taxonomy*
Benjamin Bloom created this taxonomy for categorizing the level of abstraction of common academic questions. The taxonomy provides a useful structure for categorizing test questions, since professors will characteristically ask questions within particular levels, and if you can determine the levels of questions that will appear on your exams, you will be able to study using appropriate strategies. 
Competence Skills Demonstrated
Knowledge observation and recall of information 
knowledge of dates, events, places 
knowledge of major ideas 
mastery of subject matter 
Question Cues:
list, define, tell, describe, identify, show, label, collect, examine, tabulate, quote, name, who, when, where, etc.
Comprehension understanding information 
grasp meaning 
translate knowledge into new context 
interpret facts, compare, contrast 
order, group, infer causes 
predict consequences 
Question Cues: 
summarize, describe, interpret, contrast, predict, associate, distinguish, estimate, differentiate, discuss, extend
Application  use information 
use methods, concepts, theories in new situations 
solve problems using required skills or knowledge 
Questions Cues: 
apply, demonstrate, calculate, complete, illustrate, show, solve, examine, modify, relate, change, classify, experiment, discover
Analysis seeing patterns 
organization of parts 
recognition of hidden meanings 
identification of components 
Question Cues:
analyze, separate, order, explain, connect, classify, arrange, divide, compare, select, explain, infer
Synthesis use old ideas to create new ones 
generalize from given facts 
relate knowledge from several areas 
predict, draw conclusions 
Question Cues:
combine, integrate, modify, rearrange, substitute, plan, create, design, invent, what if?, compose, formulate, prepare, generalize, rewrite 
Evaluation  compare and discriminate between ideas 
assess value of theories, presentations 
make choices based on reasoned argument 
verify value of evidence 
recognize subjectivity 
Question Cues
assess, decide, rank, grade, test, measure, recommend, convince, select, judge, explain, discriminate, support, conclude, compare, summarize
* Adapted from: Bloom, B.S. (Ed.) (1956) Taxonomy of educational objectives: The classification of educational goals: Handbook I, cognitive domain. New York ; Toronto: Longmans, Green. 

When you begin to respond to an essay question, you want to consider what the question asks you to do. Most of the time, a question suggests its own answer by demanding the completion of a number of tasks. The first thing that I do is to break the question into identifiable tasks. Let's consider some questions from a Humanities exam.

    In response to one of the following questions, write a well-organized, readable, coherent essay that is supported by specific references (quotations, summaries, or paraphrases) to the works that you treat. Treat at least two and no more than three works. Keep in mind that you would benefit from defining terms that you use, even those suggested by the question. Circle the question to which you will respond. Write on the back of the exam sheets and fill up at least one full page. Show off your ideas! (40 points)
      1. Of all of the explicit or implicit ethical systems (that is, systems defining what human behavior ought to be) that we have read about in this section on the ancient world, which would best balance the competing interests of self, other, and community without imposing unreasonable expectations on human nature? 

      2. Does Odysseus embody any view of human perfection other than the Homeric view? Consider at least two other ancient views of perfection or ideal human behavior that we have read about in this section and evaluate (judge) Odysseus in terms of those standards of perfection. Also consider what your evaluative analysis or judgment of Odysseus tells you about the values of the world outside of Homeric Greece. 

      3. Identify in the readings for the semester two extreme and conflicting positions on valuing family. Describe them, illustrate them, identify their underlying values, and evaluate them in terms of each other using some single evaluative standard of your own choosing (that is, determine which one is better, judging according to practicality, morality, socially good, or any other standard you find most useful). Be certain to describe your standard briefly.

If I were to answer question number three, I would begin by incorporating some of the language of the question into an introductory paragraph: "The Bhagavad Gita and Confucius's Analects offer conflicting views of how to value the family." Identifying also involves what Bloom calls naming, a form of knowledge: "We might call those two views dutiful and respectful. The dutiful view of the family is advocated in the Bhagavad Gita, whereas the respectful view is advocated in the Analects." Another form of knowledge, recalling, would be appropriate at this point. I would probably offer a brief summary of the sections of the two texts that relate to ideas about how the family ought to be valued. 

At some point early in the essay, I ought to shift to another level of thinking-comprehension. I can do this by describing the two views, which involves explaining the significance of the names that I have given to the views: "By the dutiful view of family, I mean to say that the individual ought, according to Krishna, perform his or her own duty and expect that family members will perform theirs. Of course, duty does not mean duty toward each other. Rather, it means fulfilling one's station in life, the tasks that relate to one's caste." At this point, an exercise of application would be appropriate, perhaps through illustrating the idea by reference to a passage from the Gita: "Krishna tells Arjuna that the warrior ought to kill (that's what warriors do), even if those whom his station calls him to kill are members of his own family. He says, 'Better one's own duty poorly met than the duty of another done well.'" A return to explanation would be fine here, but notice that I try to go up one level, to analysis, by distinguishing this view of duty from other possible views: "Duty, then, is attached to caste, a person's place in the universe, without regard to any sense of duty that one might feel toward one's own family." 

Distinguishing and contrasting continues in the next part of the response, which nevertheless goes through the same steps as the discussion of the Gita. First, describing and explaining: "Confucius offers a view of the family that I call respectful. By respectful, I mean to say that the individual ought, according to Confucius, obey and honor the wishes, both expressed and implied, of one's elder family members." Application would be appropriate at this point-here, in the form of an illustration quotation or paraphrase: "In this regard, Confucius says that one ought always to obey one's parents. That would be obedience of elder family members' expressed wishes. However, Confucius also says that one must honor or respect their implied wishes, too. He says that a man can be judged by his behavior after the death of his father. A man ought to manage the affairs of the land that he inherits from his father in the same way that the father managed them." An analytical statement would be appropriate here: "Respect for one's family, according to Confucius, involves a complete renunciation of one's self-interest, as one ought to manage affairs, out of respect, as one's family has done before." 

Finally, a higher order of thinking is necessary. That would involve synthesis or evaluation. In some way, both work together, but they require some sort of commonality. Evaluation, in particular, requires a single criterion. Mind that evaluation requires a judgment whether one thing is better or worse than another. I would probably use selflessness as my evaluative criterion, thereby drawing both views together onto the same ground to judge them: "The views are quite different. Which is better? Both views assume a certain amount of selflessness. Krishna urges Arjuna to forget his selfish concerns for love of family. Get on with your duty, he urges. Confucius also encourages people to ignore their self-interest, following instead the traditions of the family. I would argue, however, that selflessness ought not to be defined in terms of an abstract ideal, such as duty. Selflessness can only be measured in terms of sacrifice of one's one interest to another's interest. Sacrificing one's interest or desire to an abstraction that can never be apprehended or assessed is meaningless because it is intangible and incapable of being measured and proved against anything real. For this reason, I would argue that Confucius's view of valuing family, which requires a sacrifice of something that is known (individual desire) to something else that is known (the traditions and wishes of the family), is the better, more selfless view of family." 

I know that I've gone on, but I hope that you can see that it is possible to use Bloom's Taxonomy to structure an answer to an essay question.

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