Love them or hate them, it’s hard to get away from exams. All that preparation before the big day, a race against the clock as you sit at the desk, and the aftermath that sometimes feels as stressful as the exam itself.
Effective technique goes beyond the exam hall. You’ll never be stress-free from the examination process, but you can limit it greatly by following these tips:
Before the exam – Preparation
- Link relevant concepts together. You need to see the bigger picture, not isolated facts. Immersion in the subject itself is better than remembering individual facts.
- Don’t fuss about rewriting your notes again and again. Simply copying your notes out won’t help you revise effectively. Rewriting does help some people take in key concepts, so restrict it to writing the main point as an anchor rather than regurgitating everything.
- Use all your senses. Don’t just read; write out brief points that you want to solidify. Don’t just use your eyes; discuss key topics with other people on your course.
- Revise in different locations to vary your intake. It also helps you recall later, because you’ll store different information at the different places. In the exam, you could recall more by picturing the different places you were and remembering what you studied in each place.
- Use pictures and diagrams in places you’d usually rely on words alone. If nothing creative is forthcoming, at least try setting out your ideas in a mindmap of some sort.
- Don’t go to heavy on the memorising. Some detail does need to be in your head clearly and correctly, but much of what you study is about arguing and analysing a subject, as opposed to exact recall of specific points and quotations.
- Read (and attempt) past exam papers. This advice is often dished out, but many either don’t bother, or don’t take it seriously enough. When you do read through the papers, see how the questions are worded and try to grasp what is being asked of you. Look for any recurring themes across past papers so you have an idea of the kind of topics that crop up again and again.
- Time yourself at writing answers to essay topics. You may be confident that you’ve got the knowledge, but it’s no use when you know it’ll take four hours to write that knowledge in a two hour exam! Learn to gauge the time you have and get the important factors written out first.
- If you can’t access past papers, set your own questions or ask tutors if they’d suggest sample questions for you. If tutors are willing, don’t automatically expect these to be the questions you’re going to get! Tutors may have alternative ways of helping you revise, so hear them out.
- Refer back to past lectures to get an idea of what the lecturers wanted you to focus on.
- Understand the layout of the exam. Understand the logistics so you’re prepared on the day. I’m amazed at how infrequently this is done. I’ve known module handbooks handed out at the beginning of the year with the exam layout explained…yet some students haven’t bothered reading it. Guess what, they’re less prepared than everyone else!
- Focus on what you *don’t* know. You don’t need to waste time on what’s already firmly planted in your head. I’m sure you feel good going over that stuff, but it’s not actual revision!
- Practise writing basic notes on topics you think may crop up. This will help your initial preparation when in the exam. As soon as you start working on a question, you’ll have learned to list main points to cover. That way, forgetfulness won’t be an issue halfway through your. You can simply refer back to your brief list that took you a minute or two of your time. Yay!
- Pack the stuff you need to take in advance. Don’t leave it until the last minute.
- Make sure you know where you’re going. When I assisted in setting up exam halls, a surprising number of students came rushing along at the last minute and were clueless about where they needed to be. One or two were in the wrong place entirely and had to run to the other side of campus. Not a good way to ease into an exam!
- If you’re allowed to take textbooks, notes, specialist equipment, or calculator in to the exam, remember to bring them along!
On the day and during the exam
- Give plenty time for getting to the exam. Even if it’s just a one minute walk away, get there with time to spare.
- Don’t revise as you’re walking into the exam! If it’s not in now, it won’t go in with seconds to spare…
- Read the question properly. The difference between taking five seconds to read the question and half a minute is not that big. The difference in your answer will be huge…
- Wasting time on less important points is pointless when you’re against the clock. Stick with the big issues. Mention minor detail in passing and move on.
- Try to retain your focus on the bigger picture. C. A. Mace wrote about the psychology of study in 1932. Now it’s 2010 and the information is just as relevant:
“The failure to recall what is well known may be in large measure due to a type of over-concentration of attention and consequent restriction to the free play of the mind over the total field of relevant information.”
In short, try not to panic and close your mind off to the many possibilities. It’s similar to reading the same two or three words again and again as if you’re not taking them in. Let go and feel the flow!
- Spend the right amount of time on each question. If marks are equally weighted on questions, give them roughly the same amount of time. If one question is worth 10% and another is worth 90%, it’s pointless spending half the exam worrying solely about the 10%.
- Explain each point as clearly as possible. It’s no use burying the important stuff halfway through a paragraph. Markers are only human. If they don’t understand the point you’re making, or if they miss exactly how vital your point is, you’ll miss out on marks unnecessarily.
- Set aside time for notes before you tackle the question. Before you get writing, spend a few moments preparing your answer with brief notes and key features you want to mention.
- Read over the answers when you’re done. Give yourself a few minutes before the exam ends to make sure you’re happy with what you’ve written. Even if you don’t change anything, you’ll feel better having checked. And if you do change something, you’ll be happy you spotted it. Either way, you win.
- Present your work neatly. Don’t rush your writing so it can’t be read by the markers! And if you need to make additions or changes, make sure it’s clearly set out.
- If you have selection of questions to choose from, take them in carefully. Don’t rush into a choice. When you think you’ve made your choice, carefully read the question again to make sure you didn’t just pick up on a key word. Be absolutely sure you’re happy to answer that question.
- Answer the questions in the order you want to. It’s often best to start working on the question you’re most comfortable and confident with. Many exams don’t force you to answer in number order. For instance, question 2 before question 1 should be fine. If in doubt, ask!
- Don’t bash the point home too much. This isn’t a lengthy essay or dissertation effort. Make the point, justify and show working, then move on.
- Keep a basic sense of order, but don’t worry about a beautifully planned work of art. Timed essay answers still need to have some flow, but you’ll be forgiven the occasional stumble. You writing doesn’t need to be as tight as in your coursework.
- Don’t panic! If you can’t think straight, stop trying to concentrate for a few seconds. Take a few deep breaths and start again. If you’ve calmed down slightly, make some basic notes to help get back on track. If you still feel a mess and it’s getting worse, have a toilet break or ask to be escorted out the room for a breather. Walking away from the exam may sound like wasted time, but a massive panic is likely to waste even more time!
- When short on time, do a mind dump. Briefly list the points you would have made and give short examples if you can. Expand on is as you can until the exam’s over. You may not have produced a fully formed answer, but that list should gain you some extra credit.
After the exam – Letting go
- Give yourself a break. When it’s all over, some students act like they’re still in the exam and think up more points they could have made. It’s like they can’t switch off. But there’s not point in stressing further. You’re through it, so breathe a sigh of relief.
- Don’t beat yourself up. No matter how you did, it’s time to let go. You did what you could and you have to draw a line under it. Look to the future, not the past.
- Students around you will be comparing notes and how they fared. You don’t have to join in. What other students wrote in the exam is irrelevant and only serves to worry you and make you second guess your own effort.
- Keep your performance in isolation. If you have more exams to go, it doesn’t matter how well or badly you think you did in this exam. Each one is different.
- Take a break. Stop for a moment, even if you’ve got another exam that day. Always leave a gap. Due to crazy timetable issues, I’ve seen some people (fortunately not me!) who’ve had three exams in a day. Can anyone beat that!? Have a breather, even if it’s for a mere 5 or 10 minutes. Your brain deserves a rest!
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