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Exam technique

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The first thing to do if you have exams coming up is to demystify the process. Exams are commonly considered a mammoth test of memory and stamina under highly pressurized conditions, where, having revised until you drop, you answer impossible questions for cloven-footed examiners.

In fact, these are all myths:

  • Exams are more a test of how you can apply knowledge, and organize your ideas, than just of what you know.
  • Exams offer you the opportunity to show what you have learnt on the course in a definite amount of time, during which, if you can assume the right mental attitude, you will be performing at your peak efficiency.
  • Examiners are not looking for the opportunity to catch you out – they will mostly just skim through your answers and spend no more than a few moments on each.

In this article, we shall look at techniques that will help you do your best on the day. Revision is obviously important to exams (provided it is done in a planned, rather than last minute and rushed fashion), and so please look at the revision guide in conjunction with this one.

For the purposes of this article, we shall be concentrating on exams with essay-type questions.

Before the exam

You need to revise, certainly, but it’s also important to ensure that you are in peak form mentally and physically on the day of the exam. An athlete doing a marathon does not spend the last few days running as often as he can: he prepares mind and body in other ways, and that’s what you should do.

In the weeks before the exam

Make sure that you know the practical details of the exam(s): how many, when, where?

Get as much practice as you can – are there mock exams? What can your tutor tell you about the exam? Where can you get hold of past exam papers?

Find out (either from past exam papers or from your tutor) about the format of the exam, including how many questions you are expected to answer, whether they carry equal weight etc.

Practice writing under exam conditions, perhaps with friends, then you can compare your answers.

In the days before the exam

This is the time when you will need to build up to your peak performance!

  • Make sure that you get plenty of rest and exercise.
  • Eat healthily and drink plenty of water.
  • Try and stay positive – avoid people who are negative or who panic.
  • Make practical plans – your route to the exam, any cover arrangements you need to make for home or work.

According to Northedge (2005, p. 341) the mind under pressure is better at focusing on concrete matters than on abstract thinking. For this reason, it is best to do the broad planning about how you are going to tackle the exam and revision well in advance, and devote what time you have in the last few days to practical preparation. Any revision should be ‘overlearning’ or reading through ‘summary notes’ if you have created these – see revision.

The last 24 hours

The night before, make sure that you re read the details about the exam (where it’s being held, time etc.) and that you have all the equipment necessary (pens, also any tools, such as calculator).

Try and get plenty of rest – if you can’t sleep, don’t worry too much as tiredness may be compensated for by nervous energy.

On the day of the exam, eat well – slow releasing carbohydrates are good for giving you energy. Allow plenty of time for the journey. And make sure you have your exam ID!

In the exam

The first few minutes

When the invigilator utters the magic words, ‘You may now turn over the page’, avoid the temptation to rush in and adopt a calm, methodological approach.

  1. Read the instructions, and make sure that you understand them (e.g. how many questions from how many parts, how many questions in total, do the questions attract the same proportion of the marks?).
  2. Write out your personal details.
  3. Read the whole paper, checking both sides of the page, so that you don’t miss anything.
  4. Put ticks beside the questions you think you can answer.

Selecting questions

Look for questions that relate to those parts of the course that you have revised. Read the questions carefully before you attempt to answer - what exactly is it asking? Does the question have more than one part? Make sure that you underline key words. Having done all this is the question about what you think it is and do you still want to answer it?

Writing essay type questions in exam conditions

Answering essay type questions in an exam is as much about organizing your ideas as it is about reproducing knowledge.

The easiest way to look at writing exam answers is to see them as cut-down versions of course essays. You need to adopt the same approach as for an essay but you will not need to write as much, as the time scale is obviously much shorter. Thus:

  • You need to have a structure, with a proper introduction and conclusion, and cover points in an organized way, BUT you can say less on each point and leave out some of the background.
  • You need to include critical analysis, and show that you understand different (and perhaps opposing) points of view. Read the question carefully – is a particular viewpoint hinted at?
  • You need to demonstrate RELEVANT knowledge – bring in terms, ideas and concepts from the course, as well as evidence and examples, BUT you will need fewer examples than for a course essay. AVOID bringing things in just for the sake of it – always ask yourself, is it relevant to the question?
  • Quote key thinkers in the field as part of your evidence, BUT you don’t need to include a bibliography and references.
  • Use proper sentences (not notes) and paragraphs BUT minor grammar and spelling errors are probably less important than in a course essay. You can adopt a concise style, but spell out words properly and AVOID using ‘texting’ abbreviations!

Above all, don’t fill your answer with names and facts just for the sake of it. Make sure that everything you include is relevant to the question. Padding is out!

The importance of planning

As with a course essay, you need to spend time planning in order to ensure that you have an organized framework and write a disciplined answer. Northedge (2005, p. 363) suggests spending between five and 10 minutes on planning each question (assuming a three-hour exam with four questions equally weighted). Jot down a series of headings with key points, including concepts, theories, names, examples. Then decide what to include and what to leave out.

The other reason why it’s important to plan is that under the stress of the exam, it’s easy for the mind to go blank in mid-question. If this happens, you will find it easier to bring your thoughts together again if you have a plan of what you are going to say.

Using time productively

Exams are highly time-pressured events, and it’s important to use the time productively and to avoid the common trap of having far too little time for the last question.

Plan your time strategically – look at the weighting of the marks, and allow proportionally more time to questions with a larger weighting. Assuming four questions of equal weighting, and time spent at the beginning reading the paper, allocate the same amount of time to each question. If you find yourself running out of time on a question, draw it to a close, and go on to the next question.

If you are likely to freeze up under pressure, it’s probably best to start writing fairly soon (although not before having done a proper plan). Attempt your ‘best’ question close to the beginning of the exam, when you are at your freshest.

Once you have done the first question, rough out the plans for your other questions, so that you will avoid having to plan close to the end of the exam, when you are feeling under pressure to finish.

It will be beneficial if you can finish early, and allow five minutes to read through your answers.

If you do run out of time, write part of your answer to the last question, and write notes, keywords or short sentences for the rest. Most examiners will give some credit for this.

Techniques to avoid going blank

Having a plan means you are less likely to go blank in the middle of a question, but should this still happen, go on to the next question and come back to the one you were tackling later.

Another way of avoiding these blank moments is to allow yourself to jot down notes whenever ideas come into your head, even though these concern another question (although obviously in a place separate from the question you are currently answering, perhaps on a separate piece of paper from the exam book).


Although there will be some tolerance for this, and no examiner will expect perfect handwriting, it’s important to be as neat as possible under the circumstances.

Start each question on a new page, and make sure that you number questions correctly. Write your plan in your exam book, but make sure that you cross out any notes so that they are not confused with your answer.


Northedge, A. (2005), The Good Study Guide, The Open University, Buckingham, UK