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

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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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