Exam technique

Information and guidance on how to prepare for your exam.

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On

The challenges of exams

Dealing with stress

Exams are a unique kind of challenge. After university, it's rare for people to sit another exam.

But that doesn't mean you won't find yourself in a pressurised situation where you must produce or recall a lot of information and explain your understanding.

Pressurised situations can bring out the best in us: they focus attention, force us to prioritise our work and make sure we properly rank our knowledge in terms of relevance. But their intensity can lead to stress, which can have a negative effect on your performance.

Feeling a degree of stress about your exams is completely normal and is a positive marker that you are invested in your learning. However, it's important to make sure that your stress levels feel manageable and don't impact negatively on your wellbeing.

The more informed and better prepared you are, the more able you'll be to cope with the stress of exams. See the SSiD Exam Worries pages for tips on how to stay on top of things in the run-up to your exams. 

Exam environment

Like any form of assessment, exams are designed to test your knowledge about a module's content. Exams are a special case, however. The testing takes place in a relatively artificial and controlled environment that involves other people, whose ways of working might be distracting.

Each exam has specific regulations about location, duration, access to resources and question format, amongst other things. You can find out more about your exam locations and requirements at the SSiD Exam Information pages.

If your exams are taking place online, you can find out more about taking online exams here


How do you use your time in an exam?

What do you do first when the clock starts in an exam? Start scribbling furiously? Or take some time to breath, check the exam paper and prepare yourself for what is ahead? It may feel as though those around you are already busy writing, but it can be helpful to have a good plan in place for your exam and not rush straight into it. 

Things you may want to consider including in your plan are:

At the beginning of an exam

  • Read the instructions at least twice, even if you are familiar with the style and format of the exam. There may be some unexpected differences that you will need to be aware of
  • Read the entire paper carefully at least once, noting how many questions you need to complete and the length of the exam
  • After reading the full paper, decide what questions you will answer and the order in which you will do them. It is not always sensible to choose comfort zone topics; instead carefully read the question being asked and select the most appropriate subject
  • Next, consider how long you will spend on each question, ensuring that the time allocated to a particular question is in keeping with the number of marks available

Before You Start Writing

  • Re-read each individual question and break it down into its component parts.
  • Look for action verbs, such as analyse, argue, compare and contrast, criticise, discuss or evaluate. Think about the implications on your answer.
  • Consider any limitations or restrictions that are presented within the question and highlight key words or phrases.
  • Spend some time planning your answer and ensure you stay focused on the question being asked.

Examiners don't want you to write everything you know. Instead, they want to see that you have critically engaged with the set question. You might want to use the Essay-Based Exam Planner (pdf. 422kb) to think about how to organise your exam answers. 

As You Write Your Answer

  • Keep an eye on the time and move on if you run over or get stuck on a particular question.
  • If you're running out of time concentrate on the first sections of questions, which usually offer easy marks,
  • If you are really running out of time, write with bullet points rather than full sentences, and come to a conclusion. You probably won't get all of the available marks for your answer, but you may get some!

And finally: NEVER LEAVE AN EXAM EARLY!

  • Try to allocate some time to proofreading and checking. Time spent checking and re-checking is always well spent and it never does any harm to double and triple-check your work. 

301 Recommends: Exam Technique Study Skills Hacks Video

Watch this short Study Skills Hacks video for tips and strategies on how to get the most out of yourself in an exam.


Essay-Based Exams

University exams will often involve writing a short essay on a topic. This tests not only your recall of facts and information, but also your ability to understand and explore concepts and ideas.

Writing an essay under the time pressure of an exam can be challenging. It requires careful planning and organisation in order to set out your thoughts clearly.

Have a look at the information below for some tips on how to get the most out of yourself in an essay-based exam.

Understand the Question

Exam questions usually involve a prompt word that dictates the structure and approach required in the essay. Pay attention to the prompt word and it will make the job of planning and structuring your essay much easier.

The following is by no means a comprehensive list, but covers the most commonly used essay prompt words:

Analyse

Identify and examine closely the component parts of a… (e.g. situation, model, theory)

Argue

Present a case for and/or against acknowledging the strengths and weaknesses of both sides

Compare

Examine qualities, or characteristics, emphasising similarities, although differences may be mentioned

Contrast

Stress dissimilarities, differences, or unlikeness of things, qualities, events, or problems

Criticise

Make a judgement about the value of… and support it with evidence (may be positive or negative)

Discuss

Examine an argument, give reasons for and against; consider its wider implicationstent

Evaluate

Present an authoritative and, to a lesser extent, personal appraisal of the advantages and limitations

Explain

Focus on the "how" or "why", emphasising the conditions that give rise to whatever you are examining

Justify

Prove or show grounds for decisions. In such an answer, evidence should be presented in convincing form

Outline

Give an organised description, presenting the information in a systematic way

Review

Analyse and comment briefly in organised sequence upon the major points of the problem

Summarise

Give the main points or facts in condensed form, omitting details, illustrations and elaboration

Plan Your Exam Answer

Spending time planning the content and structure of your exam answer will be an investment that will pay off when you start writing.

Having a skeleton structure planned out will make it much easier to organise the detail and make sure you stay on topic and answer the question.

To make a quick and easy plan for an exam answer, try using this exam answer planning template (pdf. 422kb). This is a process that you can easily replicate in exam conditions.

  • First, mind dump all your ideas on a topic - there is no need to think about structure at this stage
  • Next prioritise your ideas to get a sense of which points will be most important to include. Remember, there is no need to put everything into an exam answer. Be attentive to the marks on offer for the question and put in the key points only
  • Finally, create a basic structure for your answer. If it an essay-based exam, you will be assessed on your ability to communicate as well as the content, so a clear structure will help the marker to follow your ideas

Try using this planning technique in your revision to practise organising your thoughts around the topics and sub-topics of a module.


Multiple-Choice Exams

Check the format of your exam

Some subjects will involve multiple-choice question (MCQ) exams. These can take different formats, so make sure you know which one your exam will follow.

Find out if it involves negative marking, which is sometimes known as the guessing correction. If this is the case, make sure you understand when it's worth making an informed guess.

As with any other exam, read the instructions carefully before you begin and identify how long you can spend on each question or section.

Strategies

System of rounds

This strategy will help you to get the most out of yourself in an exam with time pressure. It will allow you to target the quickest and easiest marks first, so you know how much time you have left to tackle the harder questions later on.

Follow the below steps:

  • Round one: Answer the easy, or easier, questions.
  • Round two: Answer the harder questions.
  • Round three: Answer the remaining (hardest) questions.

Take care not to miss any questions out and never leave an exam early!

Five steps

This strategy helps you to avoid being confused or distracted by incorrect options and to make positive and confident choices:

  • Step 1: Cover up the answers and read the stem. It might help to underline negatives or absolutes, eg never, none, unless or not.
  • Step 2: Anticipate or make a ballpark guess at the correct answer, if you can.
  • Step 3: Uncover all the answers. Do any of them correspond to your anticipated answer?
  • Step 4: Read all the answers carefully, even if your first choice seems obvious.
  • Step 5: Choose your answer.

 First Impressions

Your first impression is often your best friend for a few important reasons:

  • Your guesstimate will help you to eliminate obviously incorrect answers.
  • Examiners are not trying to trick you – if it seems right, it probably is!
  • If you are well prepared and have read the question and possible answers carefully, your first impression is probably right.
  • As a general rule of thumb, only go back to change an answer if you have a very good reason to do so.

Watch out for: answers that are worded similarly but with different meanings. This can be extremely common in MCQ exams, so make sure you read the question carefully and select the correct answer.

301 Recommends: Multiple-Choice Exams Study Skills Hacks Video

Watch this short Study Skills Hacks video on multiple-choice exams for tips and strategies to help make the most of your time in a multiple-choice exam.


Top Tips and resources

  • Arrive early to avoid any last-minute stress
  • Bring spare pens, pencils, etc.
  • Avoid discussing the exam with classmates right before you start the exam as this can add to nerves
  • Take water with you to the exam and sip throughout
  • Read the questions carefully at least twice
  • Take your time to plan your time
  • Stay positive - you are probably better prepared than you think!

Useful resources

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