Exams / Revision

How to pass an exam: effective technique before, during & after

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:

photo by the contented

photo by the contented

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!

photo by quinn.anya

photo by quinn.anya

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.

photo by Alex France

photo by Alex France

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!

Want more exam and revision tips? Here are more posts from TheUniversityBlog archives:

Be 7 times ready for exams
Exam Success: Top Tips from Brilliant Blogs
Making revision work: When less can be more
Open your mind while you revise

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WikipediaWictionaryChambers (UK)Google imagesGoogle defineThe Free DictionaryJoin exampleWordNetGoogleUrban DictionaryAnswers.comrhymezone.comMerriam-Webster

Exam Success: Top Tips from Brilliant Blogs

Exam Hall - photo by jackhynes

I heard from an A-Level student a few weeks ago and they wanted some help for revision and taking exams.

I want to do well but I don’t know how to do well in exams.  Coursework’s fine, but I always fail exams.  What am I doing wrong?

I compiled a list of links, with my favourite tips from each article.  My wife and I added some of our own words of advice for the student.  That help comes after the main list.

This advice is just as good for uni students, so here it is for you too.  Each post is worth reading in full if you have the time:


Students in England: Watching the English

I buy lots of books and then don’t read them for years.  One such book is ‘Watching the English’ by Kate Fox (Hodder & Stoughton, 2004).  I bought it when it first came out, but I’ve only just read it.

It’s a quick and amusing read.  Full of generalisations, but good fun nonetheless.

‘Watching the English’ has a lot of commentary on how to tell a person’s class.  You’re bound to enjoy working out what social class you seem to be.  It’s not necessarily accurate…I appear to be in the realms of the Upper Class.

Anyone who knows me would laugh if they heard that.  And they’d continue laughing.  And then laugh some more.

People can be so cruel.

Anyway, I gave so many procrastination links out yesterday, that I’ve decided to leave the EduLinks alone today.  We’ll see how it goes.  Hopefully I won’t end up simply providing double the number of EduLinks on Thursday…

Today, I thought I’d point out what Kate Fox has to say about English university students and exams.  See if you can pick up a copy of the book if you can.  It’s not a serious social examination or madly scientific commentary.  It’s just a good read.

Kate Fox is a co-director of the Social Issues Research Centre (SIRC) in Oxford.  According to the SIRC website, her next book is about Shopping.  I hope it details student shopping too.


“University effectively postpones true adulthood for an extra three years. As limbo states go, this is quite a pleasant one: students have almost all of the privileges of full adult members of society, but few of the responsibilities. English students moan and whine constantly to each other about their ‘impossible’ workload, and are always having what they call ‘an essay crisis’ (meaning they have to write an essay) – but the demands of most degree courses are not very onerous compared to those of an average full-time job.

“The ordeal of final exams provides an excuse for even more therapeutic moaning-rituals, with their own unwritten rules. The modesty rule is important: even if you are feeling reasonably calm and confident about an exam, it is not done to say so – you must pretend to be full of anxiety and self-doubt, convinced that you are going to fail, because it goes without saying (although you say it repeatedly) that you have not done anywhere near enough work. Only the most arrogant, pompous and socially insensitive students will ever admit to having done enough revision for their exams; such people are rare, and usually heartily disliked.

“If you have clearly swotted like mad, you can admit this only in a self-deprecatory context: ‘I’ve worked my butt off, but I’m still completely pants at genetics – I just know I’m going to screw up – and anyway there’s bound to be a question on the one thing I haven’t revised properly. Just Sod’s law, isn’t it?’ Any expression of confidence must be counterbalanced by an expression of insecurity: ‘I think I’m OK on the sociology paper, but statistics is just totally doing my head in…’

“The superstition element, or the risk of making a fool of oneself, may be an important factor before the exam, but the modest demeanour is maintained even after the desired result has been achieved. Those who do well must always appear surprised by their success, even if they secretly feel it was well deserved. Cries of ‘Oh my God! I don’t believe it!’ are the norm when such students receive their results, and while elation is expected, success should be attributed to good fortune (‘I was lucky – all the right questions came up’) rather than talent or hard work. An Oxford medical student who had got a First, and was being congratulated by friends and relatives at a celebratory lunch, kept ducking her head, shrugging and insisting that ‘It’s not really such a big deal in science subjects – you don’t have to be clever or anything, it’s all factual – you just memorize the stuff and give the right answers. It’s just parrot-learning’.”

Are we, as students in England, really like that?  Shocking! 🙂

What’s it’s like elsewhere in the world?

Making revision work: When less can be more

In my school years, I didn’t realise that you don’t need to do more and more revision in order to fare better in exams.  In fact, doing too much revision can lead to negative effects.

Over the years, I’ve learned how to make the most of my revision time so that a little time can go a long way.  Here are some of the things I found that helped:

Constant revision = bad news

travelougue 10 - photo by Tim Caynes

A good tip to start with. There are some people who don’t do much revision at all. There are others who revise instead of sleeping and who revise while they’re already revising(!). There are also a large number of people in between. What do you consider yourself to be?

We know it’s no good ignoring your revision.  But it’s just as dangerous to revise too much.  It can lead to stress and unhappiness; exactly the opposite of what you want to achieve.

It’s difficult to accept that less can be more when you have upcoming exams, but if your attitude is screwed up and you’re getting dizzy with work, no amount of revision is going to be particularly effective, is it?

Work with a timed goal in mind.  Set a time limit that you’ll work to and stick to it.  Once the time is up, stop working and find something else to do.

While there is no optimum amount of revision time, it’s bound to start tiring you greatly after 4 or 5 hours in a day.  I’ve seen some peeps getting restless after a few hours, but who were determined to continue doing another couple of hours of fruitless revision.

What’s the point?  After a couple of hours of in-depth work, it’s no surprise your mind starts wandering.  Let it wander, do something else, and come back to the revision when you’re fully refreshed.  Listen to your mind and body and they will love you for it.

Make the most of external factors

Other side of the wall - photo by cobalt123

I’ve always been a true believer of working in many different places and under different circumstances in order to get the most out of my mind. Not only can it open up different channels for the brain to work its magic, but it can also act as a memory jogger when you’re trying to recall information.

It’s great to associate different elements of your revision with different study areas. Your desk, your bed, the kitchen, the bathroom, outside, in the library, in the laundrette, on a wall, anywhere you like!

And how about focusing on who you’re with too? Maybe even go as far as using some of your social conversations at the time to jog you into remembering the work you were meant to be doing at the time… 😉

Like some memory masters, they use techniques when remembering something like a random deck of cards, by picturing a large room in their house and associating each card with an object in the room, or in a particular part of that room.

That’s why associating locations, faces, conversations, and so on, with your study can all help trigger memories for you.

Embrace the wonders of time

Every year - photo by monkeyc.net

For some students, revision is a reluctant last resort choice, completed only when spare time is available.  With no defined structure, you may be doing yourself an injustice.

Let’s say the only free time you seem to use is around mid-afternoon.

Who’s to say that your mind and body hate mid-afternoon more than any other part of the day? If it’s the only time you give yourself to revise, you’re fighting a losing battle from the outset.  No wonder you’re so reluctant to revise.

Time is more important than you might think. One person’s dream of a 6am start is another person’s worst nightmare.  To make sure you’re working at your most productive times, try getting 20-30 minutes of revision done at different points in the day and see where it takes you.  While it’s unfortunate if you find your best time to be the evening when you’d usually go out, it’s a sacrifice worth making for a few days.  A few days will not spoil three or four years of good fun, will it…?

I must admit that I’ve never had a natural ‘best’ time of the day, but many others swear by a few hours in which they’re most productive. For some, it’s very early in the morning. For others, it’s when most people are tucked up in bed. Even if you discover, like me, that you have no reliable pattern for time, at least you’ll have tried.

Find motivational anchors

Motivation Board - photo by Simon Clayson

Do you break out in a nervous sweat when it’s time to knuckle down? Do you look around and suddenly find lots of terribly important stuff that must be sorted before you could possible do any revision? Are your friends too much of a draw for you to bear to be without them for a couple of hours while you put in some quality reading?

If any of these ring true, you need to find some motivational anchors to keep you at the books.

Your motivation can come from:

  • Your head
  • Your heart

If your head motivates you more, tell yourself why the work is so important for your future. Note down the factors that make this the most sensible thing to be doing right now. Be strong in your belief that the more effort you put in now, the easier you’ll find the work and the quicker it will be finished.

If you’re happier to let your heart decide what motivates you, consider just how good it will be to have taken in the necessary information and what a boost it will be for you. Then think how bad things could be if you didn’t get the work done. Ask yourself if putting off your revision for some supposed short term gain is actually worthwhile in the long term.

You may feel you have more choice and flexibility, but imagine what it would be like in the world of employment…If your boss told you to do something, it would be unusual for you to do anything other than get on with the work. And if you want to be your own boss in the future, it’s even more reason to start getting the work done!

Enjoy yourself

Enjoy Life - Smile - photo by Springsun

A good tip to end with. While those around you are unlikely to be whooping (or w00ting) with joy at the prospect of sitting down and taking in mounds of information for impending exams, that doesn’t make it the end of the world either.

As a student, it’s just part of life.  The sooner you come to accept that, the more time you can spend getting on with it as positively as possible.  Yes, it’s a pain, but we all need to revise.  Just get the work out of the way and tick the work off your list with pride when you’re done.

Your life as a whole is far more important than your work in isolation.  The more you treat your study as part of that bigger picture, the more likely you are to deal with the work without worrying about it.  As soon as it takes over your life, you’ll start losing out.