Exam Technique

ExamExams 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 has a negative effect on the work done. The more informed and prepared you are, the better you'll be able to cope with the stress of exams.

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’ environment that involves other people, whose ways of working might be distracting. Each exam also has regulations about location, duration, access to resources and question format, amongst other things.

Because of these factors, you should aim to understand how best to respond to the exam environment you face. There are techniques for approaching exams effectively, from general strategies, like developing an in-depth understanding of what the exam is designed to test and revising effectively, to specific tactics to organise your time in the exam and minimise and cope with stress. The resources found below will help with all of these.

Visit the SSiD Exam webpages and watch their Dos and Don'ts video for more information. Explore the tabs blow for strategies on using your time in an exam, essay-based exams and multiple choice exams:

Using Your Time in an Exam

How do you use your time in an exam?

Have a look at this example timeline for a two-hour exam. Does it look familiar? Are there other important tasks that you would include in your exam time?

Exam timeline

At the beginning of an exam, it is important to read the entire paper carefully, 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. Remember to leave some time for checking and proofreading.

Before you start writing, re-read each individual question and break it down into its component parts:

  • Firstly, look for action verbs (such as analyse, argue, compare and contrast, criticise, discuss or evaluate) and think about the implications on your answer.
  • Secondly, consider any limitations or restrictions that are presented within the question and highlight key words or phrases.
  • Thirdly, 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 question set. You might want to use the Essay-Based Exam Planner so far.

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), write with bullet points rather than full sentences, and come to a conclusion. 

And finally: NEVER LEAVE AN EXAM EARLY! Time spent rechecking is always well spent and it never does any harm to double- and triple-check your work. 

Study Skills Hacks: Exam Technique

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

Further information:

Top Tips

Top Tips

  • Arrive early
  • Bring spare pens, pencils, etc.
  • Avoid discussing the exam with classmates
  • Stay positive
  • Take water with you to the exam and sip throughout
  • Read the questions carefully
  • Take your time to plan your time
Links and Resources

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Essay-Based Exams

Essay-Based Exams

University exams will often involve writing a short essay on a topic to test 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 and 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. For more information, visit Study Guides and Strategies here. 

Prompt word Definition
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 implications
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 which 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 in condensed form the main points or facts 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 template.

  • 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.

Further information:

Top Tips

Top Tips

  • Don’t necessarily go for ‘comfort zone’ topics - you will get credit for demonstrating your higher level analytical skills
  • Re-read each question carefully before starting
  • Make time for planning but remember to keep your plan clearly separate from your answer
  • Think about the order in which you will do the questions
  • Move on if you get stuck – leave room to return and add information later
  • Have a snappy introduction and conclusion – something that will help your exam answer to stand out
  • Practice your handwriting and make sure it is readable!
Links and Resources

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Multiple-Choice Exams

Multiple-Choice Exams

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 and find out if it involves negative marking (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. It is often a useful strategy to think of the answer before looking at the options, but be sure to read all the choices before making a decision. Sometimes there may be two answers that are worded similarly but with different meaning, so be sure to select the correct answer.

The three strategies below might help you in your approach to multiple choice exams:

1. System of Rounds

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 that you know how much time you have left to tackle the harder questions later on.

  • Round 1: answer the 'easy' or easier questions
  • Round 2: answer the harder questions
  • Round 3: answer the remaining (hardest) questions

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

2. Five StepsFive 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 (e.g. never, none, unless, not)
  • Step 2: can you anticipate or make a ball-park guess at the correct answer?
  • Step 3: uncover 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.

3. First ImpressionsFirst 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 then it probably is!
  • IF you are well prepared AND have read the question and possible answers carefully then 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!

Study Skills Hacks: Multiple Choice Exams

Watch this short video for tips and strategies to help make the most of your time in a multiple choice exam:

Further Information:

Top Tips

Top Tips

  • Look over the whole paper to get an overview of where the marks are allocated
    Don’t get too bogged down on one question – remember to keep an eye on the clock
  • Answer the easy (or easier) questions first
  • Understand the ‘guessing correction’ and act accordingly
  • Take care not to miss any questions out – every mark counts!
Links and Resources

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