October 19, 2016

Tips on Successfully Taking Exams in Sociology

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

Nobody really likes exams—professors don’t particularly like grading them, and obviously given the choice most students would opt out of taking them. But they are typically a requirement of educational social institutions that want to remain accredited institutions of higher learning.

Instructors create different types of exams, so there really aren’t one-size-fits all instructions on how to take them. Keep your instructor’s suggestions in mind as you prepare for exams in each class. But the following tips will likely apply more often than not.

  1. Know how concepts are related

If you are taking an introductory course and will be given multiple-choice questions, you might be tempted to just memorize a bunch of words. You might take the extra step of using flash cards.

But this won’t really help you learn concepts; it will just help you learn words and definitions (and only temporarily at that). For instance, in an intro class you might learn about norms, roles, role conflict, role strain, and social institutions. How are these concepts related?

Many of our roles come from social institutions (it takes the institution of education to create the roles of students, instructors, and administrators, for instance). Social institutions are also important in shaping norms; your school probably has unspoken rules about how to interact with fellow classmates that are different from the way in which you interact with professors.

Understanding people’s roles in varying social institutions may help you learn the difference between role strain (when your professor not only teaches your class but must conduct research, serve on committees, and of course teach other classes).

Role conflict might take place when your professor is also a parent and has to pick up a sick child from school but is also scheduled to give your exam, or when you cannot attend class one day because your job required you to work a double shift when you are supposed to take an exam. Here we have two distinct roles (professor/parent, student/employee) creating conflict. We also have two distinct social institutions (education/family, education/workplace) where these roles reside.

If you understand how these and other concepts work together you will have a much easier time applying them, and that’s more important than just memorizing them.

  1. Think analysis and application, not opinion

Unless an exam question explicitly asks you for your opinion, you needn't offer one. Concepts in sociology are very relatable, so we often form opinions about them based on our personal experience (even sociologists do this, as I discussed in a recent post).

But there is a difference between one’s opinion and empirically gathered data. For instance, you may have opinions about the causes of population growth, but chances are good your professor will want you to apply the specific ideas that you have learned in the class (such as migration patterns, high birth rate or low death rate).

Likewise, you might have an opinion of why people live in poverty. Maybe you even lived in poverty at one point and want to share what your experience was like. But unless specifically asked about your opinion, you will need to discuss the specific explanations that you learned in class—most likely the structural nature of poverty and how globalization and deindustrialization have reduced the number of manufacturing jobs in the U.S. which have typically been replaced by low-wage service jobs.

Or maybe you know of several people that have gotten into trouble with the law and you think that crime must be worse than ever now compared with the past. Did your class discuss long-term crime trends, which indicate that most forms of crime are significantly lower now than 20 years ago? This is another good example of how our observations might be based on facts but still not enable us to draw the conclusions we think we can.

  1. Identify your sources

Sociology is a data-driven discipline, and it is always important to state where your information comes from. If you are basing conclusions on data, you need to identify where the data come from.

Depending on your exam, you might simply note the source in the text. “Durkheim talked about the importance of social cohesion” is a simple example of how to attribute ideas to the author. This is better than stating “sticking together makes societies work better,” even though the sentiment is very similar.

If you are writing a paper and including statistics to support your thesis, be sure to be very specific about what the numbers mean, when the data were gathered, and by whom. I sometimes see papers with numbers in them without citations. In some cases this is an accidental omission, but sometimes the sources are not reliable or they are just plain made up.

The more specific you are, the better, but be sure to quote and cite an author if the majority of your words come from another source. This will not just make your work stronger, but it will help you avoid accidental plagiarism.

Context, analysis, application and empirical support are central not just to succeeding on a sociology exam but to mastering sociological concepts.

Sociology instructors: what other tips can you offer?


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