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Chris’s Exam tips – Part 2 : During the exam

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Sunday, 8 May 2022, 14:41

This is the second in a series of two blog posts about revising and taking exams.  The last post was about exam revision tips.  This post is slightly different: it’s about how to tackle the exam on exam day.  Some of these might sound to be mind-bogglingly obvious, but sometimes it’s good to say stuff that is obvious.

1. Read the exam paper

This first tip is certainly one of those ‘school of the blindingly obvious’ tips, but it’s also one that is blindingly important, especially if you’re going to use some kind of strategy to work through the exam paper. 

A really important bit of any exam paper is the examination rubric; the instructions at the front of the exam that tells you which questions to answer.  Ideally, you should be in a situation where you know exactly what it is going to be (since you’ve already had a good look at a number of past exam papers).  The rubric shouldn’t change (it would be very surprising if it did), but it’s always a good idea to read it carefully to make sure you know what it is asking of you.

Reading the rules is really important: what you don’t want to do is to spend too much time answering questions that you don’t need to answer.

If you’re someone, like me, who hates exams, one thing to do is to spend a couple of minutes looking over some of the questions.  This way, you get a feel for what you have to do.  Also, when you see questions you can clearly answer, this will start to put you at ease (and you will know how to answer some questions, since you’ve been revising hard).

2. Pick an easy question to start with if you are stuck

Exams can be pretty stressful.  When we’re under stress, we can experience that feeling when our minds go blank, where we think that we can’t remember anything.  The reality is that we can remember everything that we’ve revised - we’ve just got to find a way to access it.

A really good way to ‘get going’ on an exam is to start with an easy question; a question that you know that you can answer.  As soon as you’ve started to write an answer, you usually start to remember things.

3. Think about and apply your strategy

Time is really important.  Three hours can pass in a flash.  One approach to exams is to try to gather up as many ‘easy marks’ as you can as possible.  This strategy can help you to free up more time to focus on the tougher questions that could take a whole lot longer. 

One good question to ask yourself is which questions you’re going to tackle in what order.  There is no reason why you can’t tackle questions in a different order to the sequence that they are presented in (unless there is a very good reason, of course!)

When I was an undergrad, someone told me that you could ‘break the exam rubric’, which means that there are these instance where you might want to answer more questions that are asked of you.  If there is an exam paper that says ‘answer two out of the five questions that are given’, there’s no reason why you can’t go ahead and answer three, for example. You might choose to ‘hedge your bets’ by perhaps choosing two of your strongest questions, followed by another question that you think you might do well at (providing you have the time, of course!)

If you ‘break the rubric’ what usually happens is that the examiner has to mark everything, and you get the marks for the questions that you do best at.  Don’t worry about making the examiner work.  Make them sweat.  It’s your exam, so you should feel free to answer as many questions as you can answer.  

4. Try to get into the mind of those who wrote the exam

Ask yourself the question: what is it that they’re trying to get at?  The module team will invariably looking for evidence that you understand a particular concept or idea, so try to communicate your knowledge and understandings as clearly as you can.  Write full sentences, use keywords, or leave bullet points.  If it helps, draw a diagram of make a table.  Underline some of the key concepts, for example.

If you’ve revised well, you should be able to see echoes of the module learning objectives within each exam paper.  Working through past exam papers helps you get into the dark and devious psyche of those who wrote the exam paper.  Look at the questions carefully: are they trying to assess your knowledge of a concept, or are they encouraging you to apply your knowledge in some way to solve a particular problem?

5. Write anything

This bit of advice sounds a bit crazy. If you find yourself in a situation where you are not sure how to answer a question, write down anything. What I mean is write down concepts, ideas, or keywords that you think might relate to the question that is being asked. The process of writing down ‘anything’ may trigger other thoughts and memories that may help you to connect with the question that you’re answering.  Plus, if you write down ‘anything that might be connected to the question’, there’s a chance that you might get some marks.  Writing ‘anything’ says to an examiner that you know ‘something’.

The reason why I think this bit of advice is important comes from my experience of being an examiner.  The role of an examiner is always to give you marks, not to take away marks from you.  There are these instances where I’ve seen exam papers that had big sections that were empty.  I always find it sad when I see blank spaces in an exam paper: a blank space or an empty question is a missed opportunity.

Even if you’re not sure what the question means, or what the exam team is looking for, put something down. If you put something down, there’s a chance you might get some marks. If you don’t put anything down, you certainly won’t get any marks. It’s always worth the risk.

6. Use all the time that you have available

The time that you have in the exam hall is your time, so do feel free to use all of it.  Call me weird, but I’ve always sat out an exam to the end.  In the time that you have, don’t miss sections out, take time to check through what you’ve written and ask the question ‘is there anything that I could add to this question to convince the examiner that I know my stuff?’  Sometimes you can discover that there is another way of answering a question, or it’s possible to add a further perspective.  Like I mentioned earlier: make the examiner work!

If you need another couple of answer booklets to present your knowledge and understanding, that’s fine: these should be available.  Put up your hand and ask the invigilator for some more paper.

7. Never cross out big sections

Sometimes you need to make some notes, do some rough working out for a maths or engineering problem, or write a short essay plan.  If need to make some ‘notes’ about anything, never cross them out.  Instead, leave a comment to tell the examiner how your notes are connected to a particular question.

If you put a line through a section of writing on your exam script, this tells the examiner that you don’t want a particular section to be considered as a part of your answer.  Let the examiner decide what is important and what is not: give them the opportunity to give you marks.

8. Go celebrate!

Do you remember that I mentioned ‘goal setting’ in the last blog?  Set a goal to do something after you’ve completed an exam.  Exams are stressful and take up a lot of time and energy.  When you’ve finished, go and do that something special that you promised yourself: you deserve it!

And finally…

These tips work for me.  Different people, of course, will have very different tips.  Why not ask other students what they do?  Also, there are some really good resources out there that you might find useful. 

One resource that I really recommend is The Good Study Guide by Andrew Northedge.  If you have access to this book, check out chapter 12, ‘preparing for examinations’.

Another set of really good resources is the Revising and Examination section of the Skills for Study website.  Do take a bit of time to go through these resources.  It contains some really good ideas.

Once again, good luck in your exams!

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Christopher Douce

Chris’s Exam tips – Part 1: Revision

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Sunday, 8 May 2022, 14:44

I hate exams, and I’m sure there are many people out there who have exactly the same view, but I’ve come to see them as a necessary evil.  The more exams I’ve taken in my life, the less I’m fazed by them.

This series of two blog posts represents a summary of all the bits of revision advice and exam related tips that I have used and discovered during my career as a student, both within the Open University and at other institutions. This first post is all about revising.  The second post offers some tips for when you take your exam.

If you’ve got an exam in the not so distant future, I hope these two blog posts are useful!  Also, feel free to print out, share, or do whatever you want with these tips.  If you find them useful, that’s great!  Do feel free to send me a message; it’ll be great to hear from you.

1. Get organised

The moment you know the date of an exam, put it in your diary so you know when it is.  The very act of recording it will help you to remember it.  This date is usually immutable; it cannot be moved.  Locate all your study material, and find a good place to study.  Also, have a think about the times and places when you can study.

2. Make notes of module materials

When you’ve sorted everything out, you might be a bit surprised with how much course materials there is.  Make notes of the key sections in a module.  The process of making notes will make things go into your head.  A really good technique is to paraphrase (or rephrase) concepts; putting things in your own words is an invaluable skill, and it’s exactly this kind of skill that you will need to use in an exam.

If you have a set of notes for a block, or section of a module, try to makes notes of your notes.  Try to make notes so you can represent the entire module on a single A4 sheet of paper.  When you’ve done this, all the other details will be in your head (so you won’t need any more materials).

If you’re doing that commute, considering writing some of the key ideas on cards.  Create notes in whatever form works for you.

3. Little and often

I remember being told this tip when I was preparing from my GCSE exams: don’t try to cram, instead, try to revise in ‘chunks’.  This is great advice.  Cramming, or trying to desperately to learn everything the night before can just leave you worried and tired.  If you’re tired from reading course materials at 3am in the morning, the likelihood is that you’re not going to give your best exam performance.

Instead, try to revise when you can.  Figure out what ‘dead time’ you have in your day, and try to use the time that you find. 

When I was revising, I always set myself an overly ambitious goal of, say, revising for an hour.  If I’m being honest, I never really managed to do an entire hour: my mind would start to drift away from the subject I was studying; I would start to look out the window, think about my shopping and wonder whether I ought to do my hoovering.   It’s at that point you need to get away from the books because your brain is telling you something: you need a break.  A good break, where you do something different, will help you to remember more stuff.

4. Find the best time (and place) that works for you

Some people are early birds, other people are night owls.  Which are you?

Knowing what time of the day works best for you can really help you to get on top of everything.  If you find that you work best in the morning, one thought is to make sure that you’re ready to ‘hit the books’ in the morning when you wake up.

Finding a good revision space is really important; find somewhere that is quiet and free from distractions.  Let your friends and family know what you’re doing so they know not to disturb you (except for the times when they pop in to deliver a supportive cup of tea or coffee).

5. Think about creating a revision timetable (or habit)

This really is one of those ‘take it or leave it’ tips.  My own view is that life is too short to make a timetable, but what is important is the creation of a revision habit.  I used to try to revise at exactly the same time every day, between 10 and 11 in the morning.  I didn’t do this because I was obsessive or weird (although some people might argue otherwise!), it was because I knew that that this was the time when I was more likely to remember and understand things.

The thing with creating a timetable or creating a habit is that when you have either of these, not doing what you said that you would be doing has the potential to make you feel guilty (and guilt, of course, can be a motivator to prevent you from doing the same bad things again).  Another idea is to tell other people that you’re doing revision at a particular time, so they can then ask you the inevitable question of, ‘shouldn’t you be doing the revision that you told me about?’ when your housemate or partner catches you watching some game show on the television.

6. Find as many exam papers as you can stomach

Can you get access to past exam papers?  If so, try to get hold of a good number of them.  Don’t go too mad and download loads.  If you get hold of too many, there’s a good chance you might lose the will to live and start to judge your own sanity. Instead, go back between 3 to 5 years, depending on the module.  If you go back any further there’s a possibility that your module or course might have changed, and you wouldn’t want to waste your time looking at exam papers that are not going to be useful.

When you’ve got a past exam paper, give it a read through; get a feel for its structure and how it’s laid out.  The last thing you want is for the exam paper to surprise you on the day of your exam – this could happen if you don’t take the time to prepare.

When you’re looking at the papers, ask the question, ‘what learning do you think the examiners are trying to look for?’  If your module has published any learning outcomes, try to relate or connect these to the outcomes.

Work through a number of past exam papers from beginning to end, but hold one back (you could use one exam paper as a ‘timed exam’, which you could time yourself).  When you’re working through the exam paper, refer to the module or course materials – try to write the best answer you can.  If there’s something that you don’t quite understand, try to take this opportunity to learn what it is the exam questions are asking about.

If you get stuck, ask your tutor for help and guidance.  They don’t mind answering questions.  In fact, they’re paid to answer your questions, so feel free to use them as a resource.

7. Figure out your personal exam strategy

Now that you’ve got a whole bunch of exam papers, ask yourself what bits of the exam are you most comfortable with.  What does the rubric at the front of the paper say?  (The text at the start of a paper that tells you what questions you should answer).  Do you have to answer every question, or do you have a choice?  If you have a choice about what to answer, this might suggest what aspects of revision to concentrate on.

If there’s a part of an exam paper that you find either confusing or boring, think about whether there are other parts that might be a bit more interesting.  Think about what questions motivate you.  The more motivated you are, the better your revision will go.

Time in the exam hall is limited.  This means that you might also want to think about which questions you might be able to answer more quickly than others.  If you think about your ‘exam answering strategy’ before you see the real exam paper, you’ll feel a whole lot more comfortable on the day.

8. Seek out examination preparation tutorials or events

I’ve got a confession to make: it takes me ages to read things, and when I do, I don’t always take in what is written down.  I find that I can learn a whole lot better if I listen to either audio recordings or, better still, go to lectures.

If your module has got any examination preparation or revision tutorial events scheduled, then do what you can to go to them.  They are invaluable.  Also, the fact that you choose to sit down in a room with a bunch of other people for a few hours means that you can’t easily escape: you have no choice but to concentrate on what is happening within the tutorial or day school.

Another benefit of going to revision preparation sessions is that you can often be motivated by other students who are in a similar situation as you. 

Use your tutor; ask him or her as many questions as you need to.  Tutorial revision sessions can be invaluable.  Even if you have to travel quite a long way to get to one of them, do your best to get to one.

9. Invent your own exam questions

Each module is divided into a number of different blocks.   Each block usually contains a set of learning objectives.  These objectives are really useful since they are connected to both the assignments that you complete, and your end of module exam.

If you’ve worked through all your past exam papers and you’re starting to become thoroughly bored, why not look at the learning objectives and try to invent your own exam questions?  This is a really great thing to do; you stretch not just your creativity but also your knowledge of the concepts that are presented within your module.

10. Set a personal goal

When you’re revising, set a goal.  When you’ve achieve a goal, reward yourself with a treat.  The treat could be just about anything, but make sure that it is personal to you and your life.  Your treat might range from a walk to your local park, or perhaps as something as simple as a cup of tea and a biscuit after you’ve waded through a whole chapter on Java programming, for instance.

The bigger the piece of revision, the bigger the treat could be.  If you’ve finished going through an entire block from beginning to end, then choose something that makes you feel happy.  Revision is work, and it’s hard work, right?  If you have something to look forward to, it might become slightly easier.

11. Make time for yourself

I think this tip is really important: be good to yourself.  Taking exams is a tough business, and you’re the only one who is going to get through them; it’s really important to take care of yourself.   Don’t forget to have fun.  You’re not going to be able to revise to the best of your abilities if you’re always stressed or worried.

I remember this time when I was a second year undergraduate student.  The second year results are, of course, really important when it comes to your overall degree classification.  I had been revising hard, and if I’m honest, I was pretty sick of it.  There was some parts of my studying that wasn’t going very well, and I was getting a bit frustrated and taking it out on other people who were around me.

In the middle of the revision period, I decided to go out to the student union to have a bit of fun.  It wasn’t as busy as it usually was (because everyone was revising), but it turned out to be a brilliant night.  The next day, I felt a whole lot more relaxed: I needed a bit of time out.

I guess what I’m trying to say is remember to find time to relax; try to forget about all your revision for a bit.  Do whatever it is that you need to do so that you can relax.  We all do different things, so find that thing that works for you.  It helps you gain a bit of perspective.

12. Prepare for the day

Taking a bit of time to look into the practical issues that surround your exam is going to take a lot of stress away when it comes to the day.  A big question to ask really early on is: where is your exam going to be taking place?  Follow up questions are: how can I get there, and how long is it going to take me.  Since I hate being late for things, I usually plan to get a train or a bus that is a before the one that I should catch if I wanted to arrive on time.  Usually, it means that I get to places ridiculously early!

There are a couple of advantages about being ridiculously early: you, of course, add a bit of contingency into your journey if things go wrong (if the train is delayed), plus, it gives you time to check out the exam centre and become familiar with the place.  Being early (but not too early!) can give you some precious relaxation time.

If you’re someone who needs to do some last minute reading before the exam, it’s okay to do this, but do constrain yourself to your notes, rather than huge text books (which are just going to stress you out).

Also, make sure that you’ve got everything you need: make sure that you’ve got all the pens, pencils and erasers that you might need.  A really good tip that I was told once was: ‘always take a spare pen with you; the last thing that you want is to start panicking if your pen stops working when you’re in the exam hall’.  Make sure that you have a bottle of water and maybe even something to each.  One of my guilty secrets is that I’ve taken a chocolate bar into some exam halls so I can get an energy boost.  One word of advice is: don’t take crisps into exam halls.  Invigilators get very unhappy about crisps!

And finally…

These are my tips, and other people will say different things and give different advice.  Also, some people will, no doubt, disagree with some of these thoughts – but, that is okay: we’re all different, and we all study in different ways.

I’ll leave with a question: what is your favourite revision tip?  If someone asked you for the single biggest tip that you would give someone, what would it be?

Good luck with your revision!

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