Exam Techniques

ExamAfter 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.

See the SSiD Exam webpages and watch their Dos and Don'ts video below for more information:

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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?

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. 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 bullet points, and come to a conclusion.

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, use your priority list to 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.

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. 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 know how long you can spend on each question. 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.

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
  • Plan your time
  • Don’t panic
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