Fishbowl or Rabbit Hole? (How to Study for an Essay Exam)

I tend to dive deep down the rabbit hole while studying. A “quick search” for a definitive definition of llicorella once led me along a path leading from slate to metamorphic rock to sedimentary rock to clay to volcanic ask to foliated rocks and—finally, at the bottom of the tunnel—to quartz and (phew!) my desired definition of llicorella.

Jumping down the rabbit hole—studying a series of interrelated topics in minute detail—is all well and good, and I have benefited from my in-depth understanding of llicorella.

However, it is my opinion that if you have an essay test in your future, you should also include another form of study in your routine. I call this the “fishbowl” routine. Think of it this way: to the fish, the water in the bowl is the whole world. An observer knows that it is a tiny part of the world, but to the fish, it’s everything. When studying for an essay test, my advice is to look at a singular topic—whether it is white wines of Tuscany, Chardonnay across the world, or sugarcane juice-based rum—and study the whole topic. Don’t’ be distracted by anything else (anything outside of the fishbowl); but try to cover the length and breadth of the fishbowl topic.

Keep in mind that essays test you on the big picture. In addition to specific details, you will need to demonstrate your grasp of themes, relationships, and major concepts. You might be called on to use critical thinking, offer up an opinion, make a prediction, provide an analysis, or compare-and-contrast.

Here are some specific study techniques to use while studying for an essay test.

Study with the purpose of teaching. Strive to get to the point where you can comfortably speak about the topic—without looking at your notes—anticipating any questions that future students might ask. (Creating teaching materials, whether you will ever use them or not, is a great study technique for any type of test).

Review the material frequently to maintain a good grasp of the content—used spaced repetition.

Create an outline for an entire chapter or section in a book. Using the CSW Study Guide, the CSS Study Guide—or your reference material of choice—outline an entire chapter (Italy, Spain, Franc, Rum) or section (Tuscany, Rioja, Alsace, Rhum Agricole). Focus on the entirety of the material to envision the “big picture.”

Review your notes for recurring themes. Long time readers of this blog might recall that I like to approach the study of any wine or wine region along the following lines: location > terroir > grapes > style > terminology (in that order, as there could be causation/effect). Or, you can use “viti, vini, style” (viticulture, vinification, style) for wines; for spirits I use base ingredient > production techniques > style.

Make-your-own charts to represent differences/similarities. For instance, a good wine student knows that there are three main white grapes in the Loire Valley (Chenin Blanc, Melon, and Sauvignon Blanc). Make a chart with the three grape names across the top; list the wines/appellations known for each in the columns underneath. Here are a few other ideas: brands of whiskey (Bourbon vs. Tennessee Whiskey; Scotch distilleries by geographical indication), sparkling wines across the world, Muscat-based wines across the world, leading orange liqueurs, gravel soil across the wine-making world.

Visual mapping/concept maps: Make some free-form graphs or doodles to visually represent the relationships between themes or ideas and patterns that recur on a regular basis. You could create a concept map with Chardonnay in the center, surrounded by the concepts you believe to be important. These might include Old World Chard, New World Chard, varietal Chard, Chard in blends, Chard in sparkling wine, Chard in dessert wine, low-intervention Chard, high-intervention Chard, reductive Chard, oxidative Chard, cool climate Chard, warm climate Chard…and so on (and on and on and on).

Practice your critical thinking and analytical skills as you go. This is so much easier that it sounds. All you need to do is ask yourself why? Why is New Zealand Sauvignon blanc so zingy? Why is Burgundy Grand Cru expensive? Why is fino Sherry an acquired taste? Why is Cabernet Sauvignon the most widely planted vinifera grape in the world? Why is Caribbean rum distinctive?

Create summary notes: If you have used more than one reference (CSW Study Guide, Oxford Companion, World Atlas, Guild Somm, Wine Bible), grab your various stacks of notes and compile them all into one outline.

These suggested study techniques will help you prepare for any type of exam, whether it be verbal, short-answer, multiple choice or the dreaded essay exam—and can also prepare you to use your new-found knowledge in real life (which is the ultimate, end-game goal).

Always remember to enjoy your studies!  Click here to see more of our tips and tricks for the study of wine and spirits.

The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas… missjane@prodigy.net

About bubblyprof
Wine Writer and Educator...a 20-year journey from Bristol Hotels to Le Cordon Bleu Schools and the Society of Wine Educators

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