Next: About this document
University of Stirling
Department of Computing Science and Mathematics
Some hints on exam technique
Simon B. Jones
EXPERIENCE has shown that not all students are good at exams.
Some don't take advantage of the opportunity to gain credit for what they
know or can do. Thus, some simple advice on ``how to play the game'' seems
appropriate. Apologies to anyone who needs no advice.
Disclaimer: Although the advice that follows is, in general,
valid, it may not apply to all University examinations.
- Exam philosophy: Our aim in marking exams is to find out
what you know, what you can express, what you understand and what
you can do. We can only give credit if we have evidence of your
abilities. Thus your aim is to present us with evidence in this earnest
enquiry - a skeleton answer might get some credit for a correct
conclusion, or the right jargon, but it does not constitute evidence
that you actually know what you are doing!
- If a question asks you to ``explain'', ``describe'', etc something,
then write in proper English sentences - don't just jot down
buzz-words. Usually notes do not provide convincing evidence,
because they are indistinguishable from vaguely remembered phrases.
- If you are asked to work something out, or ``to show that ...'',
then include your working out (neatly) as part of your answer - then we
may be able to give you some credit for your method, even if you make
a mistake or get the wrong answer. (You are entitled to use rough paper in
exams, but I recommend that you use it only for really rough scribbles.)
- Read the exam paper carefully: The ``rubric'' at the
start provides important information: e.g. make sure that you know
how long the exam is, how many questions you have to do,
and check whether there are special directions given.
You may wish to read the whole paper thoroughly before selecting the
questions that you wish to answer, but, even if you don't, do
read carefully each of the questions that you do answer.
In particular, read the whole of a question before attempting to
answer it: we try to design questions to be informative and direct,
but sometimes it is not possible and the tail end of question (or part
thereof) may contain a qualification, hint or additional instruction
that must be taken into account.
Candidates sometimes forget to answer parts of questions, for no
apparent reason, and lose credit that otherwise would have easily
been gained. Make sure that you have dealt with everything that has been
- Read the instructions on the cover of the exam answer
booklets: In particular the statement about writing clearly -
again, if we cannot read what you write then how can we give credit
- Keep to a rigid timetable: Usually each question on the
exam paper is worth the same amount (check this). Divide the time
available equally among the questions that you have to do (you might even
consider dividing the time up between the individual parts of a question).
It is usually
not worth struggling on with a question that is proving too difficult:
if you have reached the end of the question's time slot then you should
definitely go on to a fresh question (the early parts of the next
question are almost certainly more easily won credit than the struggle
you are currently having); if the time slot is not up, then either
attempt other parts of the current question if there are any, or go on
to a fresh question and come back to the current one if you have time
left at the end (and you should have if you stick to the timetable!).
If you have attempted to answer less than the required
number of questions, and you had the patience to stay in the exam room to
the end of the exam, then you ignored the timetabling advice, and I can
virtually guarantee that you have lost easily gained marks.
- Count the questions that you do carefully: On the one hand
make sure that you do enough - if you are required to do four, and you
only attempt three, then your maximum possible total mark is reduced by
25%! On the other hand make sure that you don't do too many (unless the
rubric makes it clear that you simply have to as much as you can). If we ask
you to do four questions and you do five, then we will simply not count one
of your answers: so you might as well have spent the time checking and
polishing just four answers (it may sound ridiculous, but students actually
do make this mistake every year).
- About crossing out: As examiners we have no time to read
any more than we have to. Therefore anything which is crossed out we
will simply ignore (whatever stupidities it may contain). So feel
free to put jottings in your exam book and then cross them out.
Equally, if you have done something wrong then simply cross it out and
carry on. This applies to a reasonable amount of correction within written
text - but if there are too many crossings out and rearrangements
then it is probably better to put a line through the whole paragraph
and re-write it. Here are some criteria to apply: neat and fast. One
or two diagonal lines through a paragraph are enough to remove it from
our view - no need to frantically scrub the paper with your pen
(that takes a long time too!). You should be very wary of using
Snowpake or Tipp-Ex to make corrections: they take ssso
lllonnnggg to use for little or no benefit over a simply horizontal
or diagonal stroke of the pen! (It distresses me immensely to see
students carefully Tipp-Exing out whole paragraphs - they might as
well take a coffee break for all the good it will do them.) Admittedly,
there are occasions on which Tipp-Ex is probably useful (for example, to
correct mistakes in diagrams), so I will just caution care.
- Long questions vs short questions: Questions which
occupy a lot of space on the exam paper look intimidating, but this may be
an illusion. Often, long questions consist of many small, well defined parts
which can be answered independently: so you can probably gain
straightforward marks from any part that you answer. In contrast, questions
which appear to be short often consist of just a few parts, each of which
requires sustained creative and compositional effort - and, although the
marks are certainly available, it can be far from obvious how to guarantee
that you win them!
sbj Wed Nov 6 11:25:00 GMT 1996
Next: About this document