Exam advice

Part of my job is to give advice to my undergraduate students about exam technique and preparing for exams. I was always quite nervous about exams “back in the day”, and I put a lot of effort into revising and planning. In retrospect, I think I enjoyed these times: I have many happy memories of long days and evenings studying with my friends (whose presence and encouragement made it a lot more palatable).

This year, I decided to serialise my advice and put it online in case it can be of any help or inspiration to others either taking exams, or giving exam advice. I’m sure I can think of more advice, so I made it a GitHub “gist” so I can revise it whenever more advice pops into my head.

(by Dominic Orchard, School of Computing, University of Kent, 2018)

Disclaimer: this advice is non exhaustive, and every piece of advice might not suit you. At least, I hope it helps you to think about how you can develop your own strategy for exam preparation.

My top tip is to see exams as formative rather than purely about assessment. This is an opportunity to force yourself to learn a topic deeply, which will then benefit you in the future, rather than a box ticking exercise to get a fancy piece of paper at the end. This will orient your attitude to maximising your potential.

Exams are hard. They occupy a short space of time in your whole life but they can have a big impact on the rest of it, so make the most of them. Study well and study wisely.

Exam preparation

  • Make a schedule ahead of time, planning backwards from your exams; revisit and edit this plan often (e.g., once or twice a week).

  • For every module, make a list of things you don’t understand and a list of things you aren’t fully comfortable with.
    As you go along you will likely need to add to these lists, but then you will know exactly what
    to focus on. You also get the satisfaction of moving items from the first list to the second, and eventually crossing
    them out. The aim is to understand what you don’t understand: to know what you don’t know.
    Then you can make a plan for fixing that.

  • Find a system that works for you in terms of study length, number and duration of breaks, where to study,
    who to study with. Mix different forms of revision: reading, writing, talking, drawing, coding, listening, watching.
    If lecture videos are available, this can be a very useful resource.

  • Group study can be great: you can teach each other, and having to teach something helps you to learn it better.
    But sometimes you need time alone as well to consolidate. You might plan revision sessions with friends where you each take it in turns to teach a particular topic.

  • Past papers are worth doing, but don’t obsess over them: it’s hard to draw conclusions about future exam questions from them. However, they do usually provide a good guide on the format of the exam, which you can use to calculate how many minutes you should be spending per mark (for example).

  • Get your hands on as many relevant example problems as possible (e.g., from the lectures, class work, textbooks) and work through them all, noting down any tough spots you find particularly difficult.

  • Get lots of sleep, exercise, and eat well. Consider dropping/reducing caffeine and alcohol.

In the exam

  • Read through the paper first and briefly plan your time. Consider how many minutes on average you should spend per question or per mark.

  • Some exams will have a choice between questions: consider carefully which one you think you will perform best at (this might involve sketching some ideas of the answers in a rough book).

  • Read and re-read questions carefully.

  • If something is unclear to you about the question, state any assumptions you make in your answer.

  • Consider the mark awarded for a question and whether your answer provides enough detail to match the marks (e.g., an answer for a 5 marks question will need a lot of more justification and detail than a 1 mark question).

  • Where possible, check and verify your work. Think about how you can do this in the case of formal/mathematical/technical questions.

  • If you need to use the toilet and its becoming distracting, ask the invigilator if you can go. Its better to spend 3 minutes on a bathroom break than to loose concentration due to being distracted.

  • Use all the time you have. If you find you have extra time, go back and check and recheck your answers. Consider adding more detail to some answers. Make sure you have adhered to the exam requirements such as numbering and location of your answers.

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