To Memorise Or Not To Memorise?
Answering the age old question in HSC English
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The debate between memorisation and improvisation for the HSC is a moot point among students, tutors and teachers, with exponents on both sides fiercely advocating for their respective method. In this article, I will tabulate the benefits and disadvantages of each technique, and clarify questions that are frequently asked by students!
Did you memorise or improvise your essays?
English was the only subject where I memorised essays. I found this method less stressful and easier for me to prepare for the final exam, as I only had to adjust my thesis statements, introduction and topic sentences to fit the question.
However, if you are studying a suite of poems or speeches, I would recommend that you memorise two body paragraphs for each poem/speech. This may seem like a lot of work, but you will be more prepared if the paper specifies a particular poem or speech.
For example, I studied TS Eliot for Module B, and I wrote two paragraphs on each of the poems just in case a certain poem was specified. When last year’s TS Eliot question stipulated an analysis of ‘The Hollow Men’ and another poem of my own choosing, I was a lot more prepared than some of my other classmates!
Should I memorise creative responses?
I ended up also memorising my creative, but in hindsight, I personally would advise against it. Creative writing questions (for Section III of Discovery and for English Extension 1) can have extremely specific stipulations. The worst scenario is when you enter the exam room, with a great creative already memorised, and you open the paper to find that none of the stimuli could possibly fit your story (I’m looking at you, 2016 Extension 1 paper!).
Formulating a brand new narrative on the spot can be very difficult under exam conditions. You should instead have a bank of ‘mini-scenarios’, epigraphs, and characters that can easily be adapted to any stimuli given in Paper 1.
What are some tips for memorising responses?
I wrote my quotes and their corresponding techniques for each module everyday in my English study book. I would also read my essays and creative every morning and afternoon, and every week, I would practice adapting my responses to past HSC and trial questions. I also found that reading aloud to yourself and to others also helps!
How do I improvise for Section 1 of Paper 1
This section is purely based on an analysis of ‘unseen’ texts — you need to be able to identify linguistic and visual devices and be able to relate them to the discovery rubric.
The only way to prepare for this section is to complete as many past papers as possible, (one paper a week is a great idea!) and revise your techniques. This process should be a constant, sustained effort throughout the year. Additionally, the rubric is your best friend! Exam questions are directly taken from the rubric, so if you are having difficulty analysing the text, incorporate some elements of the rubric into your response.
How do I memorise content for the different modules? What about Extension 1 English?
For Module A, memorising contextual information and values should be the number one priority. Some Module A questions in the past (2009 and 2013) have stipulated that you must talk about a specific preoccupation within the text.
It is much better to memorise textual references, values, and information about context for this module! Module B is quite similar, as you can be expected to compose an essay based on certain themes within the prescribed text. However in Module C, prepared responses are usually quite adaptable, as the questions are quite broad in scope (most of the time!).
For Extension 1 English, I memorised my essay as there is so much content! You are analysing TWO prescribed texts and TWO related texts, and you are also expected to demonstrate your understanding of critical theory within the response. It is much easier to memorise and adapt a prepared response for Extension!
Advantages of memorisation
- You can refine your response over time, and get it marked by a teacher. Going into the exam room with a solid essay will definitely mitigate any pressure you are feeling!
- Time management may not be an issue — you know what you are going to write, and how long it will take you to do so
- You may find that the question is easy to adapt, or similar to what you have already written. In this case, you simply need to incorporate the key terms of the question in your response
- You will already have an extensive range of textual references and techniques memorised.
- If you are not achieving a Band 6 level in English, it can be easier to memorise an essay rather than improvise it in the exam room and have a mediocre response
Disadvantages of memorisation
- Ensuring that you get all of your response on the exam paper may mean that you fail to critically engage with the question. You may write a perfect essay, but it will not escape the Band 4–5 range if it does not answer the question!
- What if the question specifies a theme or character that you have not adequately covered in your prepared response? In this case, memorisation is very restrictive.
- HSC markers can deduce whether an essay is memorised or not, based on how well it answers the question
- In the early 2000s, Section III of Paper 1 specified that a feature article (2002) or speech (2003) needed to be written. What happens if you memorise a perfect essay on The Tempest, but cannot write a speech about it?
- Memorising essays for both Paper 1 and Paper 2 can be extremely time-consuming and laborious, and cannot be done efficiently a week before exams
Advantages of improvisation
- Improvisation is less time-consuming than memorising essays, and can be done in a shorter period of time
- You will be more prepared to answer a question that specifies something non-conventional (such as a speech or feature article)
- You are more focused on answering the question in front of you, than you are writing a response verbatim
- You are not falling into the trap of rote learning — where you simply learn by recalling facts, rather than applying these facts and stimuli to different situations
- If you find memorising large slabs of text difficult, improvisation is much easier
Disadvantages of improvisation
- Valuable reading time will be taken up by lots of planning!
- Students who improvise need to formulate an essay plan and structure, leaving minimal time for the deconstruction of the question
- Students who improvise their answers may find that they are writing the same argument over and over
- Your response may not be as extensive and sophisticated as a memorised one may be
- In the exam room, time management can be even more difficult if you improvise your essays
- Improvisation can be a very difficult method, particularly if you are currently achieving C and D grades at the HSC Advanced level