Examination advice
(written timed essays)

Before even going an exam, relax and do nothing for at least twenty minutes. Be there in plenty of time. Try and put out of the mind anxieties and worry about the exam. Do not fall into the trap of telling one another before going in what to put - this should be in the mind and not disturbed. In fact I would not talk to anyone in those crucial minutes before the door is opened. Even if it is artificial, go in deliberately happy and confident. It's like smiling on the telephone when the smile is heard at the other end; confidence comes out in the writing.

Exams are not just about memorising facts, although memory helps. They are about making an argument in a set period of time. The problem with memorising is that this can lead to a "piled in" answer which lacks coherence and argument. It is better to know a few good facts and plenty of argument, so that a demonstration is made that the subject is understood. It is important to give examples in the answers that illustrate a wider point. What counts is how a question is answered, not how much. It is the quality that counts, not the width. However, if in large doubt, go for width.

Exams are demonstrations of knowing the subject area according to the question set, and cramming in facts at speed is the least effective demonstration. Inevitably facts crammed in go off the point. Demonstrating connections and arguments, giving the overall view, showing by example are better approaches and do reap higher marks.

The question given is always the one to answer. Don't be like the politician who answers another question, as in the one that was rehearsed beforehand. This could be as bad as not answering at all. After all, why should the person marking the paper have to "look for" possible overlaps with the question? There needs to be a revision that gives command of the subject so a question can be answered.

Some courses reveal their exam questions beforehand, but even then in the exam room it still helps to additionally revise around the subject to support the flexibility inevitably needed when writing alone with no resources to hand.

Most answers do not need volumes of writing. It is probably a requirement to produce written sentences and prose. Bullet points may well be inappropriate and inadequate (even not accepted). Nevertheless, exams need economically written, precise, well targeted arguments. This gains marks, not quantities of added waffle. An exam that allows one hour to do an answer assumes that the writing for it can be done in forty to forty five minutes. The rest is in reading, thinking, and doing a brief essay plan.

A level exams are marked on a ticks basis, but the ticks are for knowledge and for analysis/ evaluation. Knowledge comes from basic facts and examples; evaluation comes from argument like advantages and disadvantages. Write with an evaluative intent as these marks are sometimes the hardest to get. This means a critical approach (not simply "criticising") rather than being descriptive and producing a fact-fest.

If an answer is worth returning to later on, it might be an idea to leave a brief conclusion until later - otherwise close the answer with a conclusion before moving on and keep disciplined regarding time.

A vital point is always to answer the number of questions that are supposed to be answered.

Think about it. Most answers of any substance range between getting a 30% mark and a 70% mark. Take an exam of three questions. To do two answers well and one hard question not at all is mathematically foolish. Suppose a good answer is possible by giving it more time. It is likely, however, that a good answer has already been written. An extra 10% is highly unlikely. Even supposing this is true, and supposing this could be repeated for two answers. It would still have made more sense to have shown in essay form that the exam question was understood in the third answer! 30% for it outweighs any benefit elsewhere.

It is also foolish to write more and more on a good answer and inadequately on a hard answer. Basically the first few good arguments that show a question is understood rakes in proportionately more marks than yet more and more added to an already good answer. Economists call this diminishing marginal returns. More and more gains less increase at each margin, and in fact to carry on and on may lose marks (and will if an answer, good at first, loses focus because of the way it goes on and on). The way to solve this is stick to the clock.

So it is important to work out start and finish times for each answer before commencing.

Write to that time scale. Check when there is ten minutes to go and five minutes to go each time. Whilst it may be best to tackle the best questions first, it is important to STOP and move on.



Adrian Worsfold

Pluralist - Liberal and Thoughtful



Last updated on April 15, 2006