Advice On Taking Written Exams

Written exams are often the source of trepidation for students. Having spent a year or more studying a subject, school pupils and university students are expected to demonstrate their understanding and ability in the space of only an hour or two. This understandably causes some concern as students face the daunting prospect of remembering a large amount of information and the pressure of presenting it in a concise and informed manner in the exam.

Whilst exam nerves are in some sense inevitable, part of the fear associated with them arises from the absence of a careful strategy for exam preparation. Having taken exams at GCSE, A-Level, as an undergraduate, and then as a graduate student in Oxford, I have learnt a few simple yet effective methods of exam preparation which combine learning and knowledge retention with a detailed focus on exam technique. Keeping things simple and straightforward helps students enter exams well prepared and with a clear mind as to the task at hand.



Much of the concern around exams centres on the quantity of information that students believe they are expected to retain. Whilst the breadth of syllabi often presents a challenge for students, it is not the case that they need to learn everything on the syllabus. There is a limit to how much a student is able to write down within the timeframe of the exam, and revision needs to focus only on what could realistically be reproduced by the student in the exam.

It is on this basis that students can proceed to developing their own revision technique. My own preference is for the creation of ‘study sheets’ of 1-2 sides, occasionally longer for the more complex topics, in which the entirely of the material on the topic is summarised. This includes the main literature on the topic, the arguments and disputes in the field (including the names of authors and their main works) and a list of previous exam questions. The form that these study sheets take differs according to each student and their individual learning preferences. So, for example, some students might wish to use bullet points, whilst more visual learners may prefer to draw out their topic or use index cards from which to revise. What is important is that the compilation of the study sheet itself constitutes revision as it encourages students to review what they know about a topic and to present it to themselves in a digestible and memorable form. Revising the syllabus in this way allows students to enter the exam with a clear picture of the material in their mind.


Exam Technique: Practice and more Practice!

In addition to learning the material, students need to pay attention to the technique of taking exams. Here the most important lesson is practice, for it allows the process of taking an exam; reading the question, understanding what is being sought and answering the question, to become second nature. Students do not want to enter an exam and start thinking up the form for answering questions, but rather, to have a clear form in their mind beforehand. One simple model answer consists of: an introduction which explains the students understanding of the question and how they will answer it; three points in favour of their position (including objections to their position and how those objections can be overcome); and, finally; a conclusion which reiterates the central argument and explains the implication of the exam for the subject at large.

When approaching a question, students are often taught to imagine their exam answers as combining the approach of two characters. One, the man down the pub, wants to give his opinion but without the requisite supporting evidence or academic rigour. The second, the isolated academic, summarises the arguments of others but without presenting his own views. This second approach produces a lacklustre exam question with the student’s own voice being absent. Students should seek to combine the best of these two characters by clearly presenting their own arguments whilst weighting them against the views and evidence of the academic field. This produces an answer that both responds directly to the question as well as demonstrates to examiners that the student is on top of the material.

Finally, and most importantly, is the question of exam practice. Repeatedly taking practice exams, reading the questions, thinking creatively about how to respond, writing draft answers and having an experienced tutor provide feedback can help identify both gaps in understanding as well as shortcomings in exam technique. When students are well drilled in taking exams it increases their confidence considerably as they know that to expect when they walk into the exam hall. For myself, practice exams also helped me reacquaint myself with writing lengthy texts with a pen and paper, to which I had grown unaccustomed. At one point I even took practice exams in full Oxford University exam attire simply to put me in the right state of mind. It is often these small details, and the confidence and familiarity that students get from such practice, that make the difference when exam time comes round.

Additional resources:

Improve the Way you Write
PEEL Writing Technique
3 Tips for Better Essay Writing

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