Secrets of Successfully Sitting Exams, by A K Whitehead.
Many people work hard studying various subjects to sit for
examinations in them. Fine. Hard work is usually a necessary
condition for passing exams. Unfortunately it does not follow
that it is a sufficient condition! Exam technique can be almost
equally as important. It can make all the difference between
success and failure or between poor grades and good grades.
As students, we often complain about the examination system.
That is usually because we feel the pressure of an uncertain
outcome. But like all systems we need to understand its
mechanics in order to make it work for us.
What follows is largely concerned with exams needing written
answers, rather than mathematically-based subjects.
Frustrating Examiners.This section applies as much to
writing course work as to examination answers
When you consider writing essays, also consider the person who
will have to read them. He/she has a psychology. Make it work
for you, not against you. Most examiners do their job well and
Exam assessors usually have a mountain of scripts to wade
through. They like to get through them faster rather than
slower, with relative ease rather than difficulty. When they
find a script which facilitates the two former objects, they are
delighted and their disposition towards the writer soars.
A great frustration is caused by having to dig into the
essay to discover whether or not the student has given a correct
or acceptable answer. Sometimes this job is very difficult. The
examiner has to read and reread the essay to discover what is
actually being said. Sometimes an actual decision has to be made
by the examiner as to whether a correct answer has, in fact,
been given, because the composition is so obtuse.
Some method is needed which will avoid this situation and which
will improve the examiner's disposition towards the writer.
Writing Effectively.Writing effectively in exams is
really not that difficult. There is a simple technique which can
be used and adopted to virtually every type of question.
The technique is to divide your essay into three (unequal)
parts: 1. An introduction, 2. An expansion of 1, and 3. A conclusion.
Numbers 1 and 3 are quite short and basically say the same thing
except in rather different ways.
1. The introduction is critical and is a short version of the answer. This lets
the examiner know immediately that you know what you are talking
about. It require slight differences of emphases depending on
the actual wording of the question.
For example, a question which asks something like "What are the
factors which influence..." needs an introductory answer which
starts something like: "The factors which influence so-and-so
are... " And you mention them in descending order of importance.
A question of the type: "Discuss such-and-such..." needs an
answer which starts something like: "When discussing
such-and-such one needs to take account of..." and then mention
the major points which you consider to be important and which
you are going to discuss.
There may be other variations in the phrasing of the question,
but the approach you adopt needs to be always the same: present
the examiner with what is effectively a concise answer to the
question. It usually takes no more than a few lines, maybe a
dozen at most. He/she will jump up and down in excitement at
having found someone who not only knows the answer but who can
also actually make it explicit.
2. The expansion of the essay is simply a development to show
that whatever you said at 1. is correct or relevant. This takes
up most of the essay. Use a new paragraph for every new point.
Don't be afraid to be pedantic. End each of these paragraphs by
relating what you have said directly back to the question. e.g.
"Hence it can be seen that..." and so forth.
If, during the course of writing your answer, you suddenly
remember a really major point which really should have come
earlier, just "knit" it in as if this is where you always
intended it to go. Thus: "Of course, a further point which needs
to be given especially emphasis at this juncture is..." Try and
make it seem the most natural place to put it. The examiner may
think it better put elsewhere, but he will not usually penalise
you for that.
3. The conclusion will be little more than a restatement of the
introduction - but you do need a conclusion. During the writing
of the essay you may have thought of some other points not
mentioned in the introduction. If so, be sure to mention them in
Read Before You Write.Always spend at least six/seven
minutes out of a three hours exam reading the question paper.
Read it three times. The first to get a general impression. The
second to mark any question which you can reasonably attempt.
The third to check that your second reading decisions were
accurate - sometimes, in the face of nervous tension, they are
not. This is time well spent. As an invigilator, one often
groans within at seeing student grabbing their pens and
beginning to write before the clock has stopped chiming the hour
Dividing Time.Unless some questions have unequal shares
in the total marks possible, always divide your time equally
between the questions. There are severe diminishing returns to
each extra minute spent on the present question - more could be
added to the overall total by going onto the next.
Conclusions.As already said, don't throw away your hard
work during the year through bad or non-existent exam
technique. With good technique it is, in fact, possible to do
rather well with skimpy knowledge (although one does not
advocate the practice!), whereas it is commonplace for students
to underachieve by neglecting their technique.
About the author: A K Whitehead B.A., M.Phil., Cambridge
University Certificate in Religious Studies (+ many other exam
successes on the way) He has also set and marked and invigilated
Web Site: www.christianword.co.uk
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