How to Study for a Philosophy Exam

Be active rather than passive

Woman studying on computer
mihailomilovanovic / Getty Images

Perhaps you've heard this story: Thirty students are waiting to write a final exam for a philosophy course on the Theory of Knowledge. The professor enters the room, hands out blue books, picks up a chair, places it on top of a table, and says, "You are to write just one essay on this exam. Prove to me that this chair exists. You have two hours." A minute later one student gets up, turns in her answer book and leaves.

The rest of the class slave away for two hours, explaining foundationalism, pragmatism, materialism, idealism, and every other ism they think is relevant.  But when the exams are returned, only one essay receives an A—the one turned in early.  The classmates of the student who got the A naturally demand to see her essay.  She shows it them. It consists of two words: "What chair?"

If you have a philosophy final coming up, and you're feeling witty, you could try a strategy like that. But I wouldn't recommend it. There's a 99.9% probability that in the real world, the two-word essay would have received a big fat F.

In the real world, the most important thing to remember is to study for the exam in an active rather than passive way. What does that mean? Passive studying is where you look over your class notes, notes taken from books, old essays. Research has shown that this is not very effective.

This may be especially true in philosophy because the abstractness of the material can often make recall difficult.

So how can you make your studying active?  Here are four ways:

  • Write practice essays, preferable timed. This is probably the single most valuable exercise you can do. Writing under exam conditions—time limits and no notes--forces you to organize what you know, strengthens your ability to recall details (definitions, arguments, objections, etc.), and often prompts original thoughts of your own that you might end up including if you write on the same topic in the exam. Most teachers should be able and willing to give you sample questions that you can use for this purpose.
  • Read with a view to writing practice essays. Before writing a practice essay, you'll naturally need to prepare by studying the relevant material. But doing this sort of focused, purposeful studying is much better than just scanning many pages of notes and texts and hoping that some of it sticks.
  • Spend time thinking up your own examples to illustrate abstract points. For instance, if you're writing about how utilitarians might be willing to sacrifice individual rights in order to promote the greatest happiness of the greatest number, you might think about a group of peeping toms who are all spying on someone in the shower. It's much easier to remember concrete examples than abstract principles; but once you do, you'll probably find it easy to recall the theoretical point the examples are making. Whoever is reading the essay may also give you credit if you use original illustrative examples: it shows you really understand what you are talking about and not just mindlessly repeating what someone else has said.
  • Practice making outlines. After you've written a practice essay and you have the material fully in mind, draft an outline for the essay you've just written, perhaps with some improvements. Again, this will help to organize your thinking and should help improve your ability to recall the material during the exam.   

    The mechanical basics of preparing for any final are pretty much the same for all subjects: get a good night's sleep; eat a good breakfast (or lunch) so your brain is fueled; make sure you have a spare pen. Some people also think it helps to sleep with the textbook under your pillow. Experts are skeptical about this strategy, but to date it's ineffectiveness has never been conclusively proved.


    Further online references

    Scientifically: the best way to prepare for final exams

    How to study for a test, quiz or exam

    How to study for a final exam in college

    mla apa chicago
    Your Citation
    Westacott, Emrys. "How to Study for a Philosophy Exam." ThoughtCo, Feb. 28, 2017, Westacott, Emrys. (2017, February 28). How to Study for a Philosophy Exam. Retrieved from Westacott, Emrys. "How to Study for a Philosophy Exam." ThoughtCo. (accessed September 26, 2017).