Exam tips: confessions of a professor

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Helen King offers some advice on how to survive exam season with your sanity intact…

‘So you must be really good at exams, yes?’ That’s what everyone assumes when you get an academic job. Well, yes – and no. I recently tweeted my personal three rules of exam success, which go as follows:

Answer the question.

Answer the question.

Answer the ****ing question.

A former student commented, ‘seriously I still find myself quoting this mantra. I remember in the Anc Med exam looking round & seeing people muttering this.’ But I can go further. I’ve picked up some techniques along the way and I’ll share some of those here. They worked for me, and maybe they’ll help you too.

1. Breathe. Don’t panic. I used to do my panicking a few weeks before the exam, so by the time I was sitting in that hideous gym or hall I was past all that. But even so the first five minutes were hideous, as those around me turned over the question paper and immediately started to write. Do you know what? These people are writing complete rubbish. They haven’t read the questions; they’ve just spotted a word and gone into overdrive. Don’t follow their example. Sit back. Read the questions. Circle or underline some words. If the questions aren’t what you hoped for, never mind – there will be something you can answer, and possibly you’ll produce a better argument simply because you are thinking rather than regurgitating. Look at the person next to you – wow, on to their second page now! – and feel sorry for them because they aren’t answering the question. After five minutes of thinking and breathing, start to write your plan.

2. Read the question carefully. Questions aren’t written to catch you out, but to help you think about the course material. No question will ever be ‘Tell me everything you know about…’ but some answers will be to that question, rather than to the one being asked. The more obvious questions aren’t always the ones to answer, because your words of wisdom are going to be compared with some very good answers as well as some rather iffy answers. But nor do you want to be the only one answering the question – an examiner is unlikely to give you a top mark without seeing from looking over the field that you really are the front runner. Ideally, you want to be one of a group of answers in which it’s clear that yours is the best. That may mean picking the question carefully. And, unless you read it, and think about it, and make a list of the main points to cover and the examples you could use in answering it, you’re not going to get that right.

3. Passing exams isn’t entirely about what you know, but how you present it. There’s a lot to be said for that boring old structure of an intro saying what you’re going to say, three or four paragraphs each focused on one example which contributes to answering the question, and then a conclusion which pulls the examples together to make that answer very clear. So that rough plan you wrote in the five minutes while those around you failed to address the question must address the key words in that question. By all means, leave some lines blank, then write the essay and go back to do your intro. But in many situations you can do the intro first, on the lines of ‘in order to answer this question I am going to do the following/examine these cases’.

4. Give the examiner something a little different. At university I made a conscious effort to include in each exam script at least one point from a course other than the one being examined. I reckoned this would liven things up for an examiner faced with their fifteenth – or fiftieth – answer to that question. It also showed I could make connections between subjects, and that has to be good. Avoid too much creativity here – a friend at university made up a whole tribe for an Anthropology exam – but a confident and accurate mention of something that wasn’t part of the syllabus looks good. If you have a really bad exam, don’t write a letter to the examiner apologising for your poor performance (yes, I’ve seen those). And don’t take a banknote out of your pocket and reproduce it on the answer book (yes, I’ve seen that, but only the once). There’s ‘different’, and there’s ‘no’.

5. Leave 10 minutes at the end to read through your answers. In exam conditions it’s very easy to write ‘Romans’ when you mean ‘Greeks’ or to miss out the word ‘not’. Reading through will also give you a chance to make your handwriting a bit clearer if you’ve been in a hurry. If you can’t read your own writing, the examiner hasn’t a chance.

6. Go home. There’s little point hanging around as people share what they wrote for each question. Thinking ‘Oh no, I totally misunderstood that one!’ or ‘Why did I forget that brilliant example?’ will only depress you. Onwards to the next exam, after a well-earned sleep!

Editor’s note: You can find Helen King on Twitter @fluff35

5 thoughts on “Exam tips: confessions of a professor

  1. Tony Keen

    This is helpful.

    My own four point mantra is:

    1. Don’t panic.
    2. Answer the question (and show that you are doing so).*
    3. Get on with it.
    4. If a question appears too difficult … answer another one.

    * I have come to feel that many students feel that they are answering the question, but don’t understand that what seems obvious to them isn’t obvious to anyone else reading their text.

  2. Silvia Logan

    That is very good advice to give, when writing your exams. If you panic while writing the exams, you are going to make more mistakes. Even if the questions are very complex, always read them carefully to try and understand what they are trying to say. Even if you had finished your exam early, check over your answers to see, if you had not made any silly mistakes. I wrote many exams before and I became nervous. I tried to calm down and read the questions carefully and wrote down what I knew. If they give me a choice what questions to choose in exams, I tend to choose questions that I know the answers. I always tend to finish early, but I check my answers several times to see, if I did not make any mistakes. I actually prefer multiple choice, true or false, short answer, and matching, because it is just one right answer and there is not much time to waste.

  3. Helen King

    Glad you found that helpful, Silvia and Trevor. Tony, that’s a great point about making it clear that you are answering the question. Referring back to key words in that question can help, as can writing a bit about what you take those key words to mean. Basically, do anything you can to show that you realise what the question is! Remember the marker is going to ask herself ‘Just why is this student telling me all this stuff?’ A bit of ‘this is an important point because…’ can be helpful here!

  4. Bethany Hughes

    Excellent tips! I’d add just one more – you always know more than you think.

    A couple of years ago (sitting A397 – Continuing Classical Latin), I panicked. Despite a successful exam the year before, sticking to a reasonable revision plan, several nights of decent sleep and excellent TMA scores, I opened the paper and suddenly couldn’t remember any Latin words. None at all. The paper was incomprehensible.

    I struggled through, thanked all the gods that the essay question was in English and left utterly convinced that I’d failed. Not in a secretly-thinking-I’d-actually-passed way, but an honest-to-goodness-I-have-totally-failed way that I hadn’t experienced since my outstanding 35% result for RE at school back in 1989.

    My result was a solid Grade 2. Not what I’d hoped for, but way beyond a fail and testament to the powers of the subconscious! Sure enough, the breakdown showed my highest result was in the essay question, but I’d learned enough over the year through doing the TMAs for my hand to write stuff down that my brain was too busy flapping to process properly.

    So have faith. If you’ve put the work in through the year, it will always come out in the exam!

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