Writing answers to ID questions is easier for students as well, since defining a term is mostly a matter of recalling and writing down facts. But ID questions can be challenging even for students who are well-prepared if they don't know how they work.
The Common Parts of Good Answers to ID Questions
Terms that you may need to know for a literature exam can vary widely. But all will have been covered in some depth in your textbook and/or lectures, relate to (or be) an example in the course material, and have significance to the broader themes of the course. As a result, any good response will have these three parts, which answer the following questions:
- Definition: What is the term? Is it a character, title, artistic movement, event, or quotation? Where does it come from?
- Example: What is an example of this term from the course materials? If it is a specific thing, what is it an example of?
- Significance: Why is this term important with respect to the course? How does it relate to other terms, ideas, works, etc.?
If you know that an upcoming test will ask you to identify terms, the first step to success is to study effectively. That means more than just memorizing the facts – you should also be able to anticipate what kinds of terms are likely to appear.
For literature exams, you may have to identify a character, term of literary criticism, artistic period, or important quotation. Go through these in your notes, and if they have the three parts listed above, they are fair game.
You may also find that good possible terms come in pairs or groups. For instance, an exam on Shakespeare might have you define either iambic pentameter or blank verse, but a good definition of one will naturally mention the other. Terms that are interrelated are easier to remember and study for, in addition to being more likely to end up on a test.
Once you're sitting down to write the exam, there are still ways to maximize the effectiveness of your answers. If you have a choice, go over the list and select the terms with which you are most comfortable, as they will be easiest to write about. If you've studied well, you should be able to write about most, if not all, the terms you are given.
Students are not given very much time to answer ID questions on exams because they are relatively straightforward to write. Five to ten minutes per question is typical.
So to best use your time, brainstorm a few points for each term on a piece of scrap paper. Then write your definition for each term starting with those you know the most about, and keeping track of how much time you're spending on each one. Be sure to write in complete sentences, but don't let your answer get too long. Three to five substantive sentences is usually enough.
A Sample Literary Exam Identification Question
Taking all this into account, suppose you were asked to define the term "ekphrasis" on an ancient literature exam. Here is what a good answer might look like:
- ekphrasis: This is a term coming from the Greek word for “writing/telling-out”. Ekphrasis is the description of one work of art within another, usually a description of a visual artwork within a literary one. Ekphrasis occurs in the Aeneid when Virgil describes Aeneas gazing at the depictions of the Trojan War on the walls of the temple at Carthage in Book I. This is an allusion to a scene in the Odyssey: Homer describes how Odysseus hears his own deeds described at the Phaiakian court, itself similar to an ekphrasis.
Once you know what makes up a good definition, you can practice identifying and defining terms as part of your preparation. With effective study, and some discipline during the test itself, doing well on literature exams' ID questions will be much easier – putting you one step closer to graduation.