Guidance for examinations

To be successful in examinations you need just two things:

  • knowledge
  • Good exam technique

What’s the best way to study for exams?

Students sometimes ask: ‘What’s the best way to study for the exams?’ That’s a difficult question to answer as there isn’t really any one ‘best way’ to study.

The right way to study is the way that works best for you. But what if your old way of studying isn’t working for you?

This guide offers advice on effective strategies for the day of your exams. It includes:

Different ways to study

Once you know what sort of questions to expect, try to predict possible questions

  • Read through all the course/learning materials and mark possible questions.
  • Read the information on the course page – are there any pointers there?
  • Work through old exam papers if available to see what sorts of questions were asked in the past. But – remember to check if the course has been revised or the format of the exam has changed before relying too much on old exams papers.
  • Make a list of all the possible questions that you have identified

Work out model answers to your questions

  • Start with brainstorming (perhaps use a mind map for this).
  • Sort out/order your ideas.
  • Decide on an outline and write it down.
  • Then fill in the gaps.

Practise writing your answers

  • As most of us don’t spend a huge amount of time writing any more, sitting down and writing non-stop for a few hours (as you have to during an exam), can be very tiring.
  • To prepare, simulate exam conditions and practise writing as fast as you can.
  • Time yourself. Are you writing fast enough to finish the exam in the allocated time?
  • Remember, not all pens are equal. Try out a number of different pens and spend some time writing fast with them. You’ll find some pens are far more comfortable to hold than others.
  • Once you’ve found one or two types of pen that are right for you, buy a few so you don’t run out at a crucial time. If you find your hand gets very tired and sore, try swapping pens – this might help.

Summarise, using key words

Summarising reduces the amount of material you have to remember while helping you to learn

  • Once you’ve studied a section, reduce the main ideas to key words that can be memorised.
  • Start by deciding on the main (most important) idea in each paragraph.
  • Rewrite the main idea in your own words; then reduce it so you’re left with a short sentence.
  • Then write a few key words (the supporting details) under each main idea.
  • You can also use this technique to help you remember your model answers.

Reciting aloud

Read key sections aloud – listen to yourself

  • Read each section three or four times and listen carefully. Pay attention to what you’re saying.
  • Hide the page from view.
  • Recite the main points from memory.
  • Check to see if your recall was accurate.
  • Repeat these steps until you can recall the information easily and accurately.
  • Try recording what you say and play it back, perhaps in the car while you’re driving to work

In the exam room/ writing the exam

Read the instructions carefully – Before looking at the actual questions, read the instructions.

Exam format:
  • Ten (10) compulsory questions covering the syllabus
  • Answer all question

Work out the timing – Divide your time according to the number of questions to be answered.

An example might be: ten short questions each attracting 10% of the total marks in a three -hour exam = 18 minutes per question = 2 minutes planning, 16 minutes writing. Allow checking time for reading over.

Read the questions carefully. Read through the paper once and then re-read each question. You might think a topic you’ve revised hasn’t come up, when it is there but the wording is unusual. Alternatively you have revised the topic, but the question is obtuse and you do not fully understand it.

Choose your best questions – Mark any questions you might answer, and then check that you fully understand it. Do you have some relevant knowledge, ideas and evidence for the ones you choose to answer? Do not answer a question that you do not understand.

Maximising your marks

Think about what the question is actually asking.

  • What are you expected to include in your answer?
  • What material will be relevant?

Short answer questions

Short answer questions usually require a briefer and more descriptive answer than essay questions, which ask you to discuss and expand on a topic.

  • If your questions all ask for short answers with an equal number of marks for each, divide your time up equally for the total number of questions. Otherwise allocate your time according to the proportion of marks each question attracts.
  • The questions. Scan them for ones you feel more confident with. Maybe jot down a few initial thoughts to help you make the final decision on which ones to answer. Don’t just focus on the main topic.
  • Analyse the questions carefully. You must answer the actual question set. It’s a very common mistake to zoom in on the general topic and start writing everything you know about it or to start answering another related question which may have been included in a past paper. Spend time looking very closely at the question:
  • what’s the instruction? (discuss? evaluate? compare? outline?)
  • what aspects of the topic are you being asked to consider? (dates? places? people? other key words?)
  • how many sections are there in the question? A ‘question’ may often in fact be two or three questions. If so, the ‘discussion/analysis’ parts will be more important than the ‘description’ parts, so make sure you spend more time on these.
  • If you have questions which are a mix of short and essay answers, check the instruction carefully so you don’t miss answering part of the question.
  • Each part of the question should show the maximum marks you can get for answering it. Don’t waste a lot of time worrying about a part of the question that only attracts a very few marks.
  • Use parts of questions that ask for definitions or explanations to inform the longer, more discursive part of your answer. Don’t repeat the information you give in one part of the question in the other.
  • If a question asks you to “briefly comment”, treat it as a mini-essay – have a sentence or two to introduce your topic; select a few points to discuss with a sentence or two about each; add a concluding sentence that sums up your overall view.
  • If you have trouble working out how to start answering a question that asks you to “explain”, imagine you are telling a friend about the topic.

Decide on question order. Some people like to start with the topic they know best to give them a good start. Others prefer to do their best question second, because with one question completed, they can relax and expand on their best ideas and gain extra marks.

List of key words in questions:

  • Classify
  • Describe
  • Draw
  • Complain
  • Explain
  • Why
  • How can you tell
  • Give
  • List
  • Identify
  • State
  • Write down
  • Predict

Essay-type questions (long answers)

These are questions that require an essay-type answer (i.e. structured in the same way as an essay or a report). Essay-type questions can be anything from a few paragraphs to a few pages. You don’t have to include a reference list but you should acknowledge the source(s) of your information. The mark allocation will often give an indication of the length required. An essay overall structure is simple consist of the following format:

  • An introduction
  • Four or Five paragraphs
  • Each containing one main point
  • Finally a conclusion

When studying for essay questions:

  • Try to predict a number of possible questions from each topic you revise.
  • Use past exam papers if available, corrected assignments and/or revision-type questions in textbook(s) to help you identify possible questions
  • Work out model answers.
  • The points need to flow in order to make sense and use appropriate connectives to link each paragraph to the previous ones. It’s important for each paragraph to have its own structure, the following format could be use P-E-E:
  • Point you are making
  • Evidence – an example of why you are right (such as a quotation or an observation from a specific point in the text)
  • Explanation – what the quotation or observation means, why it explains your point
  • Practise by writing a number of essays under ‘exam conditions’: plan an essay and write it out in full; time yourself.

Tips for answering essay questions in the exam

  • Read the questions carefully and then analyse each question so that you’re sure you understand what they mean.
  • Write down some key words: e.g. your answer might have five main points, so jot them down, with a few key words under each point.
  • Start your answer by briefly rephrasing the question – use your own words.
  • Use a new paragraph for each main idea/topic and back up each topic with supporting detail (e.g. examples, reasons and results.)
  • It’s wise to leave few lines open between paragraphs – you may want to add additional information later.
  • Leave wide margins for the marker.
  • Stick to your time allocation and try to write neatly and proofread as you go.
  • If you run out of time, jot down your main ideas and key words so that the examiner knows where you were going with the essay – you may get a few additional marks in this way.

Plan the timing

Work out exactly what time you should finish each answer and write the times down.

For example, for a three hour essay-style paper starting at 2 p.m, the following plan will allow you 45 minutes for writing each essay:

  • 2.00 Read paper and choose questions (10 minutes)
  • 2.10 Plan all three essays (30 minutes)
  • 2.40 Start Essay 1, finish at 3.25
  • 3.25 Start Essay 2, finish at 4.10
  • 4.10 Start Essay 3, finish at 4.55
  • 4.55 Check paper [5 minutes]
  • 5.00 Finish exam

Finishing the essay and aiming for high marks

To get the highest marks make a further development, linking your point to further evidence that backs up your point, or ending with a link to the next point. Your conclusion is very important even if it’s only a couple of sentences, now summarise the main points from your essay and avoid saying anything new at this point. Finally, finish with a sentence which answers the question which was asked, having a strong conclusion will leave the examiner with a positive impression of your work.

MCQs (multiple choice questions)

Multiple Choice Question tests should be approached differently to exams that ask for essay-type or short answers. MCQs consist of a question or the first half of a sentence and provide a number of possible responses (usually between 3 and 5). You have to choose one answer – the most correct – from those provided. The answers required are usually more concerned with terms and definitions.

When studying for multiple-choice questions, concentrate on:

  • Terminology
  • Names
  • Facts
  • Concepts and theories, and examples underpinning them
  • Similarities and differences.

Tips for answering multiple-choice questions

  • Read the directions very carefully before you start.
  • Quickly read through all the questions and the options before you start writing.
  • When looking at the questions, always try to work out what the answer is before you look at the possibilities.
  • Answer the questions you know first, mark the ones you are fairly sure of and go back to them – leave the difficult ones till last. Start by eliminating the obviously wrong answers (i.e. draw a line through them).
  • Watch out for negatives (e.g. Which of these is not…?).
  • Remember that with MCQ exams you could get 100% – pretty much impossible in an essay-type exam! So don’t dwell on a question – move on and come back to it if you have time.
  • If you finish before the time is up, go back over your questions and answers to check for reading errors.

Answer all the questions even if you have to guess – if you don’t answer a question, you definitely won’t get a mark; if you fill in something, you may just be right. However, marks are sometimes deducted for wrong answers; this making scheme is known as “negative marking”. If this is the case and you’re not sure of an answer, leave it out. (Remember to find out before the exam if marks are going to be deducted for wrong answers and read the instructions very carefully.)

Remember DON’T change your first answer unless you’re really sure – your first, instinctive, choice is usually right.

What an examiner will look for in your answer:

  • The fact that you have answered the question
  • Evidence that you have applied what you have learnt during the module
  • You have answered all the questions
  • A well-structured, coherent piece of writing, not in note-form
  • Legible handwriting. If your handwriting is really terrible, get some help and practice

Oral Exams

Studying at the Academy you’re unlikely to encounter an oral examination. However, an oral exam tests your knowledge as well as your presentation skills. The exam could follow a list of questions in a prepared format, or it could be a more informal and open discussion.

Before preparing for an oral exam you need to be clear about the format it will take and whether you will need to submit any supporting written work at the same time. It’s likely that there will be more than one examiner present in the room, and your performance may well be recorded. Practise answering questions with your classmates and practice in a similar setting to the exam room.

  • Act confident even if you aren’t and make eye contact during the exam. Ask questions as well as responding to them. Thank the examiner when you leave.
  • Breathe deeply and regularly to calm nerves. Take a bottle of water in case your mouth is dry – slightly warm is better than ice-cold.
  • Take your time! Don’t rush into giving an answer before you’ve thought about what you want to say – you will get confused and make mistakes. Take a breath and think before you speak.
  • Listen to the whole question carefully before you start constructing your answer. It’s tempting to hang on to one word that you recognise and start thinking of your answer, but don’t- you may miss an important part of the question.
  • Know how to say “Could you repeat that please?”, if you missed part of a question or didn’t understand it; ask for it to be repeated.

Some people deal with public speaking best by putting on a ‘disguise’ – dressing more smartly than usual or wearing glasses if you usually wear contact lenses, for instance. Others feel better if they are more casual and can pretend it’s an ordinary situation. Think about how you would deal with this best.

After the exams

Beware the post-mortem – it’s natural to want to discuss how it went with your friends, but keep it in perspective. Exams are dramatic events, and the temptation is to describe them dramatically – “The easiest/hardest/fastest exam I’ve ever done!” No two exam experiences will be the same – that doesn’t mean you are wrong and they are right, or vice versa.

Between exams, you might find it helpful to practise writing exam answers using past papers. However, it may be more beneficial for some students to relax and rest between exams, than cramming in last minute revision for the next one.

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