Small Chunking and Why I Hate Choosing 25 Mark Questions4 min read

Many of you struggle with time management issues or not knowing what to write. The best advice I can give you is

  1. Avoid 25 mark questions.
  2. Just start.

These two pieces of advice go hand-in-hand.

The number of decisions you have to make even before you start writing is considerably larger for 25 mark questions than 10-15 ones. The nature of a 10-15 mark question is such that the first part is generally a lower order question.

For example, in the 2014 paper, these were the part (a)s:

Explain how benefits to the economy can arise from specialisation and exchange. [10]

Explain why markets might fail in the case of public goods and where information is imperfect. [10]

Economies consist of several key sectors such as households, firms, government and the rest of the world. Explain the relative importance of these key sectors of the circular flow of income in determining national income in Singapore. [10]

Explain the key determinants of actual and potential growth. [10]

Briefly, the framework that I would suggest for such questions is:

  • Definitions of key concepts, highlighting key assumptions.
  • Implications of key concepts -> MUST link to the question.
  • Diagram + Explanation revolving around diagram.
  • (Preferably contemporary) Real world examples weaved into explanation.

An aside: I really love diagrams because they tap on our visual and spatial memory, which I think are much more powerful than verbal memory. Moreover they can serve as general scaffolding for remembering key concepts.

So let’s take a step back. When you get the paper, what is the first thing you should do?

Focus your attention on the 10-15 mark questions. Read them carefully. Your first impression of part a should be that it is do-able. Leave it at that. Focus on part b. Make sure you understand what part b is asking. If you completely don’t know what it is talking about, avoid! But as long as you know roughly what it is asking, and you can come up with say at least one point off the top of your head, then go ahead and pick that question.

Just one point? Yes. Don’t worry about trying to come up with the whole essay structure right at the start. It is all part of the plan. You are supposed to NOT be able to do so. I had gotten an ’A’ for every single essay I wrote from Promos all the way to the A Levels and never once had I come up with the points or had had the structure of the essay in my head before I started writing. IT IS NEARLY IMPOSSIBLE to do so and still expect to score well given the time constraint. So drop the idea of having to be “ready” before you can start writing. Forget the ready-aim-fire approach. Just start.

Now the framework I have come up with to tackle the 10 mark question is designed to help you feel ready when you reach part b. You need to treat doing the essay question like fighting a war or playing a computer game or accomplishing a huge performance task. Even with only 45 minutes, I cannot over-emphasise the importance of small-chunking and momentum building.

Notice that I start with definitions. Is it because definitions are really really that important? No. But I start with them anyway because doing so primes my brain for the question. It’s called small-chunking. It tells my brain to get serious and start thinking. That I am no longer dilly-dallying over whether to do this question or not. I have started. Once you write the definition of the key concepts in the question, the natural next step is to explore the implications of the key concepts and link them back to the question. It’s really not that hard. Use diagrams and contemporary real world examples to spice up your explanations. Answer the question. ANSWER THE QUESTION.

Try to finish part a in 18 minutes. Scratch that. YOU MUST finish part a in 18 minutes. There is no try.

Once that’s done, take the momentum that you’ve built up and start thinking for part b. At this point, a few more points should appear. If none appears, then just start by defining and explaining the first point you’ve come up with right at the start. Usually once you start with that, more points will pop out. You will start seeing ways to evaluate and discuss the question. Well this is provided that you are relatively well-prepared for the paper and you have done many prelim questions for practice. This is why going through practice questions help a lot because they are peppering your brain with creative arguments and points that you can use in these situations when you need them.

I suppose the key idea in this post is: Don’t think too much; just start writing and let momentum do its job. Trust yourself to come up with the points as you go along. Trust that your preparation and study will pay off.

Anyway, this is how I approach the essay paper. I suggest to most of my students to do the same. It has worked for me and many others. But it’s definitely not the only way to score well.

Good luck for the exams.

Till next time, dream economics.

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