Showing posts with label exams. Show all posts
Showing posts with label exams. Show all posts

Thursday, 18 September 2014

The Eight Openings and the Blank Page Trauma

Are you familiar with the terror of the blank page in the exam room?
Do you experience a sense of writer's block in this situation?
Are you just unsure about your technique in starting an essay?

In fact, there are many tried and tested openings that will get your writing off to a confident and winning start. Although there are infinite possible ways of leading into an essay, blog, or news article, there are some common opening gambits that writers rely on (as in a game of chess). After a strong opening you will be ready for a winning middle game.

Before outlining the Eight Openings, here are some points to think about:

Is your aim to engage the reader by being relevant, creative, and original?
Are you trying to arouse curiosity or to meet expectations?
Are you explaining what’s on offer (like a menu), or offering a taster session?
In a promotional sense you want to encourage the reader to come through the door: to enter your mental world. Some readers are reluctant, suspicious people who need to be coaxed into your space.

Remember that your aim is a happy relationship between writer and reader; not a divorce.

Sometime it is helpful to signal or summarize what your topic is, and how you will be approaching it (methodology). In academic essays there is often a well-crafted thesis statement that encapsulates the main argument in one sentence.

1. The Quoted Opening

"As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect." Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis (1916). My transformation happened over three lazy weeks, but it was not any less wonderful... Begin with an impressive quotation from someone who will be recognised by your reader. A well chosen quotation can also have the advantage that it provides an unusual angle on your content. Also, it may hint at the tone and approach you are taking to your topic. In academic essays marks may also be gained for evidence of research. Disadvantages: quotations can be over used (clich├ęs); you are relying on someone else’s work at the outset.

2. The Story Opening

"I write this sitting in the kitchen sink."  Dodie Smith, I Capture the Castle (1948). A story has a universal appeal and everyone wants to know what happens next if there is an element of intrigue. This opening plays on the art of the unexplained: look where I am; how did I arrive at this point. This approach also involves the art of delayed resolution (ending) that we find in jokes or anecdotes. A story that is relevant to the reader also plays on empathy.

3. The Headline Opening
The Times Of India: “We saw the sea coming, we all ran. But God saves little”

This approach keeps coming back to the essay title or the newspaper heading, but offers more detail or clarity. Again the emphasis is on focus and relevance. This technique works well where the eye-catching headline is not a ready-made statement, or the solution to an issue. 

4. The Shocking Opening

Shock tactics may fit well with an eye-catching sensational opening. Often the trick is to reverse normal expectations, turning the world upside down. The element of surprise can be very effective, but it may be difficult to sustain after the initial impact.  Build your special effects using rhetorical drama (pattern, pace, rhythm, alliteration) and memorable literary devices (such as simile or metaphor).

5. The Interrogatory Opening

This opening relies on asking questions that engage the reader. This may involve empathy (Don’t you just hate daytime marketing calls? Why do we want to laugh in a moment of crisis?); or it may interrogate the title/heading in a curious or surprising way (Why do most disasters happen on Thursday mornings?). But too many questions leave the reader frustrated or perhaps impatient to hear the answers. Avoid this problem by asking unusual, thought-provoking questions.

6. The Summary Opening

This opening offers a preview of the remainder of the essay. It’s rather like a menu that explains what to expect and offers an insight into your approach (how the steak will be cooked; is the food spicy). The risk is that you give away all the surprises at the outset. So try to avoid going into too much detail at this stage. Better to give a sense of the general scope of your project, rather than trying to tick every box.

7. The Strange, but True, Opening

This is also known as the newsworthy or factual opening. ‘In Great Britain in 2012 it is reported that 3,678 babies swallowed an iPhone. All but one survived. This is his story...’ Common features of this approach deploy data, or statistics, but also develop a human angle on the arithmetic. Again, eye-catching news reverses expectations: the "Man Bites Dog" Rule.

8. The Connoisseur Opening

This opening does not fit any of the above categories, or it is a hybrid strategy that deploys several styles of opening. Sometimes it is a low-key opening that marks the innovator. In 1913, Marcel Proust began his epic novel sequence, "For a long time, I went to bed early." Swann's Way. (tr. Lydia Davis).

Tips to Develop Your Style:
Use a notebook, or simply cut and paste opening sentences and paragraphs which in your view are engaging and appealing. Also note down why you think they are effective. It’s also useful to make a list of your own categories of opening. For instance, what are the differences between factual items and literary fiction? What else is required in an essay for school or college? Why are some openings longer than others?
It is worthwhile examining existing models of great writing, but with practice you will craft engaging openings that bear your personal stamp of creative genius.

Dr Ian McCormick is the author of
also available on Kindle, or to download.

Sunday, 3 February 2013

63 Tips for More Effective Memory and Recall of Quotations, Texts and Speeches

As a tutor I am often asked to help students who are having trouble with their recall of texts and quotations.

But before I outline my 63 memory-recall tips, it is worth observing that many public speakers avoid trying to memorize speeches with word-perfect duplication of the original.

Spontaneity and improvisation in speech making is far more natural and attractive than stressing-out over perfect recall.

Momentary silences focus attention and create a sense of and sincerity, which may draw more applause than a speech that sounds arrogant and excessively confident. We want pathos not parrots.

In fact, some audiences will be turned off by an artificially memorised speech that sounds like a robot in replay mode.


But if you are learning a classic text, such as a speech from Shakespeare, you will need to aim for highly accurate recall, as the audience will spot errors, and mistakes may also upset the delightful rhythm of the poetry.

Effective memory and recall involves far more that repeated re-readings of the words on the page:

Rote learning is dull; creative memory is fun.

Effective Memory Skills depend on factors such as the use of structure, selection, visualisation, comprehension, cue association, emotional impact, repetition, speaking and listening, sequence, context, and unstressed learning and recall.

Here are my Top Tips for Success ...


1. Start by rewiring your brain to this script “I AM ENJOYING MYSELF”,




2. Everyone finds memory work difficult. It is a complex process and it requires patience.

3. Gaps between learning episodes are gradually increased as the memorized items shift from being short term to finding an anchor in the long term memory (LTM)

4. Success needs to be paced in small steps, not giant leaps.

5. You will need to take short rests in-between your 20 minute learning sessions.

6. Also ensure that you take longer breaks after 2 hours of work.

7. Avoid distractions that would affect your concentration

8. Actively remove any temptations away from your work


9. Generally, 6-8 hours of work over a 16 hour period is more than enough. You need to be realistic about work input and recall outputs

10. Sleep is essential for memories to become rooted in the LTM.

11. If you are tired, learning will be very slow

12. If you are very hungry, or bloated with excess food, the effectiveness of your learning will be reduced.

13. Also avoid alcohol and excessive stimulants such as caffeine.

14. General physical and mental fitness also support learning.


15. Design a reward system as you complete different success stages in your memory-recall work. This builds motivation.


16. Divide your speech into 3-7 short sections or paragraphs

17. Design a structured workplan for learning based on this document and tailored realistically to your needs and character.

18. At this stage some people like to use a flowchart or diagram for the speech as whole.

19. Choose an appropriate colour scheme for each section

20. Select a key word for each section, and memorize the main sequence.

21. Choose a memorable image that links with the key word. Ideally this will be quite vivid or even humorous in order to create a strong link.


22. Select a key word from each sentence.

23. Choose a memorable image that links with the key word

24. These are the foundation building blocks for memory


25. Your speech text should be well-spaced with LARGE capitals for the most significant words.

26. Use colour highlights

27. Use single and double underlining if necessary.

28. But don’t make your system of visual cues too complicated


29. The words on the page must become a core part of your emotional and intellectual being.

30. This means that the words must make sense and feel right to you. Identification is essential. Become what you want to recall.

31. It’s very hard to remember what we don’t understand or relate to.


32. Some memory techniques employ the notion that your key words should be linked, logically, absurdly, or by mnemonic devices.

33. Kinetic memory: this is rather like encountering Word Objects in the course of an imaginary journey/ walk.


34. Learn one section or sequence at a time. This approach avoids the sense of overload, panic and helplessness.


35. Some people try to learn each section in a different part of the house, garden, or in the car, or the garage.

36. Or try learning a section in an odd space, such as underneath a table, in the bath, or by candlelight, or looking into a cracked mirror!

37. Sometimes it helps to have a specific odour associated with each section. Try lavender or mint, or perfume, or aftershave.

38. These contextual clues support vivid encodement and quick recall. The sense of smell activates the oldest parts of the brain, and it’s a highly underestimated technique.


39. Gradually repeat your chosen sentence with longer gaps between reading/speaking and the act of attempted recall.

40. Initially try intervals such as 1 minutes, 3 minutes, 5 minutes, 10 minutes, 15 minutes, 30 minutes, 60 minutes, and 120 minutes, 3 hours, 6 hours, 12 hours, 24 hours.

41. Sleep also helps to fix memories in the brain. That’s why staying up all night before an exam is counter-productive.


42. If you get stuck try to use your intellectual and emotional understanding of the words in order to finish the sentence.

43. Unless you are memorizing a classic text you do not need to be word perfect every time.


44. If you get stuck during the performance, improvise. This is the mark of a great artist: spontaneous creativity!


45. Act out your speech as you learn it.

46. At first use melodrama and exaggerated gestures in order to make the experience more vivid

47. Method acting: think and feel your way into your character


48. Try associating music or other sound cues with your sections, sequences, sentences or words

49. Speaking the words is often far more effective than simply reading them silently.

50. Try recording and playback of your voice, or someone else’s

51. Experiment with serious or funny voices

52. Imagine your favourite actor reciting the speech

53. Experiment with very slow and fast pace in your recitation

54. Listen to the natural rhythm, rhyme, metre, and punctuation

55. Pay attention to assonance and alliteration as sound clues


56. Work with friends or family to support your learning

57. Establish a small study group

58. Quiz and test each other


59. Stress is natural in some degree on the day of your performance.

60. But stress may block effective recall when it turns to anxiety and panic.

61. Practise breathing exercises and meditation in order to reduce anxiety.

62. On the day, again, rewire your brain POSITIVE ACTION MODE to






63. Rote learning is dull; creative memory is fun.

Dr Ian McCormick is the author of The Art of Connection: the Social Life of Sentences
(Quibble Academic, 2013)
Further Reading

For and Against Memorizing Poetry  Here.

"Many people in Great Britain and the United States can recall elderly relatives who remembered long stretches of verse learned at school decades earlier, yet most of us were never required to recite in class. Heart Beats is the first book to examine how poetry recitation came to assume a central place in past curricular programs, and to investigate when and why the once-mandatory exercise declined. Telling the story of a lost pedagogical practice and its wide-ranging effects on two sides of the Atlantic, Catherine Robson explores how recitation altered the ordinary people who committed poems to heart, and changed the worlds in which they lived. Heart Beats begins by investigating recitation's progress within British and American public educational systems over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and weighs the factors that influenced which poems were most frequently assigned. Robson then scrutinizes the recitational fortunes of three short works that were once classroom classics: Felicia Hemans's "Casabianca," Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard," and Charles Wolfe's "Burial of Sir John Moore after Corunna." To conclude, the book considers W. E. Henley's "Invictus" and Rudyard Kipling's "If--," asking why the idea of the memorized poem arouses such different responses in the United States and Great Britain today. Focusing on vital connections between poems, individuals, and their communities, Heart Beats is an important study of the history and power of memorized poetry." See Heart Beats: Everyday Life and the Memorized Poem by Catherine Robson (Princeton University Press 2012)

"What has happened to the lost art of memorising poetry? Why do we no longer feel that it is necessary to know the most enduring, beautiful poems in the English language 'by heart'? In his introduction Ted Hughes explains how we can overcome the problem by using a memory system that becomes easier the more frequently it is practised. The collected 101 poems are both personal favourites and particularly well-suited to the method Hughes demonstrates. Spanning four centuries, ranging from Shakespeare and Keats through to Auden and Heaney, By Heart offers the reader a 'mental gymnasium' in which the memory can be exercised and trained in the most pleasurable way. Some poems will be more of a challenge than others, but all will be treasured once they have become part of the memory bank." By Heart, By Ted Hughes (Faber 2012)

"The ancient Greeks, to whom a trained memory was of vital importance - as it was to everyone before the invention of printing - created an elaborate memory system, based on a technique of impressing 'places' and 'images' on the mind. Inherited and recorded by the Romans, this art of memory passed into the European tradition, to be revived, in occult form, at the Renaissance, and particularly by the strange and remarkable genius, Giordano Bruno. Such is the main theme of Frances Yates's unique and brilliant book, in the course of which she sheds light on such diverse subjects as Dante's Divine Comedy, the form of the Shakespearian theatre and the history of ancient architecture. Aside from its intrinsic fascination, The Art of Memory is an invaluable contribution to aesthetics and psychology, and to the history of philosophy, of science and of literature." The Art Of Memory, by Frances A Yates (Pimlico, 1992)

"Mary Carruthers's classic study of the training and uses of memory for a variety of purposes in European cultures during the Middle Ages has fundamentally changed the way scholars understand medieval culture. This fully revised and updated second edition considers afresh all the material and conclusions of the first. While responding to new directions in research inspired by the original, this new edition devotes much more attention to the role of trained memory in composition, whether of literature, music, architecture, or manuscript books. The new edition will reignite the debate on memory in medieval studies and, like the first, will be essential reading for scholars of history, music, the arts and literature, as well as those interested in issues of orality and literacy (anthropology), in the working and design of memory (both neuropsychology and artificial memory), and in the disciplines of meditation (religion)."  The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture (Cambridge Studies in Medieval Literature) by Mary Carruthers

Dr Ian McCormick is the author of The Art of Connection: the Social Life of Sentences
(Quibble Academic, 2013)

Sunday, 12 August 2012

SMART Revision Planning for Exams - 16 Tips

You have probably come across the SMARTER model as a way of organising a project. 

It works like this

S          Specific
            Significant, Stretching, Simple
M         Measurable
            Meaningful, Motivational, Manageable
A         Attainable
Appropriate, Achievable, Agreed, Assignable, Actionable, Ambitious, Aligned, Aspirational, Acceptable, Action-focused
R          Relevant          
Result-Based, Results-oriented, Resourced, Resonant, Realistic
T          Timely
Time-oriented, -framed, -based, -bound, -Specific, -tabled, -limited,
Trackable, Tangible
E          Evaluate, Ethical, Excitable, Enjoyable, Engaging, Ecological

R          Reevaluate, Rewarded, Reassess, Revisit, Recordable, Rewarding

In order to apply these practical strategies to your revision work for exams, I would also recommend:
  1. Short blocks of time for work
  2. A balanced workload between all subjects means variety 
  3. Days off work for leisure
  4. Writing down a list of reasons to be motivated
  5. Rewarding yourself for doing the hours planned
  6. Not starting to revise too late
  7. Summarising your notes
  8. Creating Mindmaps or other visualizations
  9.  Devising your own mnemonics or memory games
  10. Reading past exam papers
  11. Ensuring that you know what the examiners are looking for
  12. Doing timed answers and exercises
  13. Trying out model opening and closing paragraphs for essays
  14. Learning about 50 impressive words to use in discussions, arguments, or concepts
  15. Working with your teachers to explain what's not clear
  16.  Working with friends collaboratively in teams
  17. Good luck!
Further Information

Dr Ian McCormick is the author of The Art of Connection: the Social Life of Sentences
(2013) Also available on Kindle, or to download.

Also worth a look: The PhD Roadmap: A Guide to Successful Submission of your Dissertation / Thesis.

Dr Ian McCormick's other recent publications include chapters on Romanticism and Gothic Literature inThe English Literature Companion, edited by Julian Wolfreys  (London and New York: Palgrave Student Companions 2011).

His chapter on 'Teaching and Learning Strategies' was published as an Appendix to The Eighteenth-Century Literature Handbook, edited by Gary Day and Bridget Keegan (London and New York: Continuum, 2009). It is is available for free online (download the pdf) but you will need to complete a very straightforward and short registration.