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Exam Techniques



Here, then, are a few collected tips and tricks.
You might find some of them useful.


Part A Preparing for an Exam

1) Revision Planners& Timetables

2) Active Revision Techniques

3) Do past papers – as many as you can lay your hands on.

  • The school (at least) has the last three year's papers. 
    • Work through them. 
    • If you can't do a question, check that it is still in the syllabus (the modules change every year, and it's always worth checking what is new). 

With a good revision plan you should be doing nothing in the last week before the exams except working through exam papers and examples sheets making sure you can do them.

I can’t emphasise the importance of this enough.  Anyone who doesn’t work through past papers has very little chance of doing well in an exam.

Oh - and do the past papers, and the examples sheets, against the clock.  Time is short in an exam, you need to get used to thinking, and writing quickly.  Get your hand trained up so it can write fast (but legibly, please).

4) Question-spotting.

This can be risky, but if you're playing the percentages it's worth a try.  Look for any topic that was in the exam two and three years ago, but not last year.  If you can get hold of papers from further back, try and spot patterns: does any topic come up every other year, for example?

5) If you can’t do the past papers – ask someone for help.

  • Work with friends, provided you don’t think this will mean other people are doing your studying for you. 
    • They can’t – that doesn’t work. 
    • You have to go and study a subject, or attempt an exam paper by yourselves first, then meet together to discuss your answers. 
  • Don’t work through the past papers in the group –
    • the temptation to let other people do the work is too strong. 
    • You need to learn to do it yourself. 
    • Always remember, exams are not a team exercise.

Failing that, ask your teacher.  Teachers are perfectly happy to answer questions of the form “this is how far I’ve got, but I can’t see how to do the next bit – is this right?”  However, anyone turning up and asking for the worked solutions to an exam question having made no apparent effort to try themselves first is not doing themselves justice.  if we just tell you how to do a problem, you won’t remember it very well.  If you really struggle to get through it yourself, and then with some help finally succeed, you may remember it for the rest of your life.  The more effort you put into it, the better it will stick in your memory.

6) If you just can’t understand something, learn it parrot-fashion.

This really is a last-ditch solution.  But it gives you at least something to do with the questions on subjects you really don’t understand.  Even questions on these subjects usually start off by giving you a few marks for “describing XXX”.  Even if you don’t understand it, you can get a few marks by writing down the description straight from the notes.

Part B) The Last 24 Hours

7) Don’t be tired.

  • If you have to stay up all night to do last minute revision, you’ve already failed. 
  • It doesn’t work – you end up so tired in the exam you can’t work anything out. 
  • It might work for the first one or two exams in a year, but you won’t be able to keep it up throughout a whole series of exams.

8) Eat protein before long exams – not carbohydrates.

  • An exam is just as much a physical exercise as a race. 
  • Well, OK, perhaps not quite as much, but you can’t ignore your body if you want your brain to work at its best. 
  • Stuffing it full of sugar, or some Red-Bull type drink just before will work fine for the first hour or so, but by the end of a three-hour exam you’ll have completely run out of energy. 
  • You need some food that will slowly release energy.  Try pasta, fish or eggs

9) Get the important facts into short-term memory.

  • In the last 24 hours it's too late to try and understand anything new. 
  • What you can do is cram some facts into short-term memory. 
    • This is the time to go through the notes looking at those "key points" sections. 
    • If you haven't already done it as part of your revision (and you should have done it), write out a sheet with just the key facts.  See how many you can remember.
    • Then write out another sheet with just the ones you forgot.  See how many you remember now. 
    • Continue until you've either remembered it all, or run out of time.

Also, read through your worked solutions for the last three year's papers. 

Then, get a good night's sleep, or go for a walk and get some fresh air into your lungs.

10) Exercise - get the blood pumping round.

  • In the last couple of hours, go for a run, or work out in the gym.  Seriously.  
  • Studies have shown that the most creative periods come after a period of exercise, and that the benefits of taking exercise can last for up to two hours.  
  • Exams aren't just about memory, you'll need your brain to be in top working condition.

Part C) The Exam Itself

11) Planning your campaign

  • The first thing to do is read over, carefully, the entire exam paper. 
    Spend a good ten minutes reading before you write anything. 
  • In this time;
    • work out which questions you are going to answer
    • which order you are going to answer them in
  • plan your time in the exam:
    • how much time you are going to spend answering each question. 
    • Take careful note of the marking scheme (see later) when making this plan. 
    • Write down the plan on the back sheet of your answer book - you can always score it out later. 
  • It helps you feel in control, and that helps keep you calm.

    Don't be tempted to do a question on subject X just because it's the subject you know the most about.  It might be a real stinker of a question.  Are you sure you can do it?  Which parts can you do?  How many marks do you think you could get on the parts of the question you can do?  You might find there is another, much easier question on subject Y, which you might not have chosen because you found subject Y is harder, or because one part of the question looks really difficult.  Work it out for each part of each question: which question is likely to get you the most marks?  Do that one.

    Reading the whole question is also important because many questions lead you through a problem - the answer to part a) is used in part b), etc.  There might be clues in later parts of the question about what the examiner is expecting.  Make sure you spot them.

    When working out timescales, try and balance the time spend on a part of the question against the marks you will achieve.  If it's a 90 minute exam, and it's marked out of 60, then on average you've got 1.5 minutes to get each mark.  Plan time accordingly.  Remember: exam questions are not about writing down everything you know about a topic - if you do this you'll almost certainly run out of time.  You're trying to get the best mark you can on the whole paper, not just on the question you happen to be doing at the time.

    Obviously, the plan (with timescales) is not a rigid one, and going a few minutes over on one question is OK – but try and catch it up if this happens.

12) Do the easiest questions first

  • There is absolutely no reason to do the questions in the order they are printed in the exam. 
    I would recommend doing the easiest one(s) first.

    There are two reasons for this. 
  • Firstly, getting one question safely under your belt at the start of an exam is a wonderful boost to confidence, and can help reduce any feelings of panic that might arise when looking at the harder questions.
  • The second reason is that the easiest question is likely to take less time than the average.  That means you’ll be ahead of schedule from the start – another good confidence boost. 
    It also means that when you get round to the most difficult question, you are free to spend all the time you have left on it, without having to drop it half-way through and come back to it later, if time permits – not a good idea if it can be avoided.

13) Look at the marking schemes – there’s lots of useful material there.

  • We have strict marking schemes these days – it’s part of the drive to be seen to be fair. 
  • So, if there are four marks available for the description of XXX, then the marking scheme will probably have four key points. 
    Mention them all, and you get the marks. 
  • One thing you can be (reasonably) certain of: if you haven’t made four key points, you’ve missed something.

    Don’t spend half-an-hour writing a long essay for two marks.  People still do this.  It’s a waste of time – better spent on other parts of the question.

 

14) Don’t get stuck.  Move on.

  • Avoid writer's block, you haven't got time for it. 
  • If you get stuck on a question, move on.  Start doing another one. 
  • Staring at a question you don’t know how to answer is a waste of time, and you’d be amazed how often, when coming back to a question after half-an-hour, it suddenly becomes clear.

15) Take a bottle of water in with you.  Sip it slowly throughout.

It’s a good way of remaining calm.  Also, you can get through a lot of nervous sweat during a hard exam. 
Your body will work better if you replace it.

16) Use common sense.

If the answer to “how high is the radio tower” is 217 miles, or to “what is the free electron density in the semiconductor” is 0.003 electrons per cubic meter, then you’re probably wrong.  Even if you don’t have time to go back and find the mistake, at least write something to indicate that you know it’s wrong.  You might get some credit for that.

17) Write clearly.

  • Insure your writing is legible
  • Your numbers & formula can be clearly understood

18) If you're running out of time.

Suppose you've got time left to do one question, but two questions left to do.  Which one do you choose? 

  • The way to maximise your marks is to do the first half of both of them. 
    You gain marks faster at the start of a question than at the end.
  • If you don't have time to write sentences, but you do know what to do, then just write bullet points. 
    If you don't have time to do the calculations, write and explain what calculations you would do. 
    You can get marks for method.

19) Never leave an exam early.

  • There is always something you can do to improve your paper.
  • Check, and check again. 
  • When you’ve finished, start back at the beginning, and try to do the questions in different ways, and check they agree. 
  • Add more explanations.

 

Further school Exam information

 

 

Last Updated: Thursday, 14-Jan-2016