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Ten simple rules for passing an examination

I was a university lecturer for ten years; I've been a student of some sort all my life. I've sat dozens of exams, set hundreds, and marked thousands. So I guess I'm about as familiar as anyone with what goes on in university examinations. When I was marking exams, I was disheartened by the number of candidates who let themselves down in ways that could easily have been avoided. There is, of course, no substitute when it comes to passing exams for a commanding grasp of the subject. However, since few of us have the good fortune to be able to devote all our time to study, or the innate talent that would allow mastery of the subject without study, we have to get by with a modest grasp of the subject, and whatever other skills we can bring to bear on exam day.

This article is not intended to be a cynical guide to manipulating the university assessment process in your favour — you'll find those elsewhere. Its more modest objective is to suggest ways in which students can optimize their exam performance, taking account of their limited time, resources, and — let's face it — subject knowledge. It is based on insider knowledge of the exam system, but nothing I write here is secret or arcane (so far as I know).

For the record, I have bachelor's degrees in engineering and law, and a PhD in medical sciences. My own teaching and examination experience is mostly in mathematics, computing, business, and pre-clinical medicine (yes, I know it's an odd mix). Consequently, what follows is somewhat biased towards these subject areas. I don't know much about the arts, languages, humanities, or classics, for example, and for all I know the exam process might be different in these areas. I should also point out that I am only familiar with what goes on in UK institutions.

Know your enemy

Let's start with a bit of background information on the typical university examination process. Please be aware that this does differ a bit from one institution to another, but the basic principles should be universal.

Most university examinations are set by the person or people who teach the subject. Very likely, where a particular course or subject is taught by a group of academics, one of the group will set the exam. Sometimes each member of the group will set a question or two. The important point here is that it is quite unusual for exams to be set by people outside the immediate institution. Most likely you would at least recognize the examiner if you met him or her in the street. This arrangement is totally different from that for school-level examinations, which are usually set and marked nationally: the examiner and examinees are unlikely ever to meet. As a university student, you must never lose sight of the fact that the examiner wants you to pass, and with a little encouragement will fall over himself or herself to make sure that you get every mark that can be found on your answer paper. Even the most cynical and debauched academic — the rare kind of person who takes pleasure in showing contempt for the inadequacies of his students — knows that every student he fails is one he has to mark a re-sit paper for.

In many institutions examinations are set before the course starts. There are both didactic (educational) reasons and practical reasons for this. The didactic reasons include that it should be possible to say at the outset what skills and knowledge a particular course is supposed to provide the student, and setting the examination is a good way to focus on what these skills and knowledge are. The practical reasons include the fact that setting and moderating exams is time-consuming, and if the examiners don't start early enough they won't have time to do it properly. The larger a particular course is, the more likely it is that examinations will be set in advance.

After writing and collating the questions, the proposed paper is usually moderated, both by other academics in the same institution, and by people from outside the institution. The first, internal, stage of moderation is intended largely to eliminate obvious mistakes from the examination; the second stage is intended to ensure that examination standards for a given subject are approximately consistent between institutions. However, it is sadly not uncommon for mistakes to remain in the paper right up to examination day.

The exam paper will then usually go to an editor and a typesetter to be made ready for distribution. Editors and typesetters do sometimes introduce their own mistakes into papers, particularly in those subjects that use jargon and symbols. So the person setting the exam is supposed to check the proof copy for accuracy before printing; sometimes this happens, and sometimes it doesn't.

University examinations themselves are not usually directed by academics. That is, the examination hall itself will be in the charge of invigilators. These people are carefully chosen for their incorruptibility and general hardness of heart. They won't usually know anything about the subject, so they can't be drawn into giving hints to students during the exam. In many institutions the examiners are expected to be present in the exam, at least at the start, to deal with any mistakes in the paper that have survivied the moderation and scrutiny process. However, the continued presence of academics in the exam room is discouraged, because examiners generally have an all-too-human desire to see their students do well.

The other human failing which the exam process must guard against is bias. University education is a process that is carried on between consenting adults, and lecturers will respond to their students in the same way as they would to other adults. Sometimes there is good rapport between lecturer and student; other times there can be fierce antagonism, even utter loathing between them. I have to confess that, as a lecturer, I did occasionally have to deal with students whom I thoroughly despised. I'm not proud of my lack of equanimity, but I am at least prepared to acknowledge my weaknesses. It would clearly be tragic if the examiners' personal feelings were allowed to influence the outcome of examinations. The problem is compounded by the fact that bias often exerts its effects subconsciously.

In any case, most institutions now implement, or at least try to implement, anonymous marking. The exam candidate does not provide any identification on the answer paper except for a candidate number, so (in theory) the marker will be unaware of the candidate's identity until all the marking is complete. In practice, these schemes are rarely foolproof, particularly in institutions where examiners, and not administrators, are responsible for collating the marks after the event.

Consequently, it pays to be nice to the person who will be marking your exam. You might not be able to manage that — after all, many university lecturers have the social skills of a hatstand — in which case you should at least be civil. Engaging your examiner in social interaction is OK, but you should probably stop short of actual flirtation (unless you're very subtle about it.) Academics, for all their faults, are rarely stupid, and know when they're being manipulated. By flirting with your examiner, you are effectively saying: ''You are the sort of loser who is desperate and unsophisticated enough to respond to my crude manipulative advances'', which isn't a message that will appeal to anybody, even computer science lecturers whose sex-lives generally don't involve another person. Rapport with professional detachment is the key — you probably can't (and shouldn't) influence the marking of the exam, but you'll want the examiner on your side if things go wrong.

Similarly, you won't get the examiner on your side if you constantly act like a smartarse in classes. It's OK to engage your tutors on their level — unless they are very immature or insecure — but repeatedly challenging their knowledge and competence won't make you any friends. There's a world of difference between being asked searching questions and being made to look a fool in public.

Most institutions now operate at least a modicum of mark moderation. That is, at least some papers will be looked at by more than one marker, to ensure that the marking is fair, or at least consistent. It is exceptionally difficult to do rigourous moderation of exams in large classes; the people who are likely to be competent moderators will have their hands full marking their own papers, and won't want to spend too much time moderating other people's. What this means in practice is that your mark will most likely be derived mostly from the scrutiny of your paper by a single individual, for better or worse. Even those institutions that claim to do true 'double marking' rarely do blind double marking, in which one examiner is totally unaware of the marks awarded by another. Most institutions that claim to double-mark really have a single marking followed by a cursory check.

After all the marks have been collated, there will usually be a meeting to finalize or ratify all the marks. This is the stage at which the examiners will consider such matters as whether to make allowances for students' personal circumstances (illness, for example). In order to save you a bit of time, I should point out that your personal circumstances will have to be absolutely catastrophic to have any influence on your marks. This is because, in a large group of students, there will inevitably be a number who really are severely disadvantaged. I can remember dealing with students who had lost their entire families in wars, or were so ill that they didn't know whether they would survive until graduation day, so your complaint of 'flu or hay fever will cut you no slack at all. Examiners are sympathetic to students who find it difficult to study because, for example, they have to work outside of classes to make ends meet; but they won't make allowances for this in marking because nearly all students are now in the same situation.

Institutions differ in the extent to which they will offer explanations for students' marks. Some will say nothing at all; some do at least allow students to look at their papers after the exam. Looking at your paper is likely to be uninstructive because, at institutions that allow this, the examiners will have been coached to avoid making any comments on the papers they are marking. British universities live in a perpetual terror of any student's being able to bring a complaint about the examination process that will be upheld by a court. It is generally believed that as soon as one student succeeds in getting a judge to interve in the exam process, the floodgates will be opened and every disappointed student will seek redress by litigation. Consequently, universities strive to give as little information as they possibly can to students about their exam performance.

So, that's the background. Now let's move on to what you need to do to optimize your success.

1. Get a curriculum

You've only got a certain amount of time to study, so make sure you're studying the right topics. This is not cynicism — you've got your whole life to develop a broad and deep knowledge of your discipline — in the few months of a typical university course, you should be developing the knowledge you need for the exam. It is now extremely unlikely that any university-level course will not have a formal curriculum. It's also extremely unlike that any question will be set that requires the canditate to range far beyond the formal curriculum. Sometimes you'll find that the curriculum is defined by a set textbook, in which case you need to buy, borrow, or steal that textbook. There can be radical differences between the exam curriculum for a particular subject as defined by different institutions, even where the broad content of the course is set by some governing body (Law Society, General Medical Council, Institution of Mechanical Engineers, or whatever). Don't assume that, if a particular textbook is recommended for a course, every topic in the textbook is fair game for the exam. For example, many lecturers in criminal law recommend Smith and Hogan's textbook on the subject, but this contains a large section on motoring offences, which is hardly even examined at undergraduate level (but don't take my word for this — check it yourself). At the same time, don't assume that because a particular topic is not covered by your textbook, it isn't important. Get a curriculum, and make sure you know exactly which topics you need to master.

2. Get past papers

Unless your subject is an entirely new one in your institution, past papers are by far the best guide to the content of next year's exam. Institutions constantly warn students about relying too heavily on 'question spotting', but in practice the same sorts of question do repeat year after year. Remember that academics hate setting exams, and usually do the minimum necessary to satisfy institutional standards. The easiest way to create a credible exam paper is to take last year's paper and modify the wording a bit.

Some university lecturers provide this stuff as part of the course materials (I always did); if yours don't, ask whether they might like to start doing so now. It's very likely that the university will require its examiners to produced worked solutions as part of the moderation process, so it's probably not a huge amount of work for them to give last year's solutions to this year's students. Some institutions are so large and/or popular that they publish worked answers to their past exam papers in book form and, if they do, you should certainly try to get sight of a copy. Having got all this stuff, you should then read it! The first week of a course is not too early to read past papers, even if you find them frightening at first. At least you will know what the standard you should be aspiring to, even if that standard seems unattainable at first.

3. Prepare early

It's never too early to start preparing for the exam. In the first week of a course you should be in possession of a curriculum, as many past exam papers as you can set hands on, examiner's reports if you can find them, and at least one set of worked answers to typical questions. You should, even this early in the course, already have an idea about which subject areas are both (i) good examination material and (ii) to your taste. This will give you an idea how much emphasis to place on studying the various course areas as they are presented. By selecting examination subjects early, you are in a better position to benefit from classes. You can focus your attention, and your tutors', more on those areas that will help you to succeed. As you study, or attend classes, or whatever, keeping asking yourself How does this fit into my examination strategy? If, for example, you attend a lecture where the speaker wanders off into a long digression about some subject that he or she happens to find interesting, but does not appear to be something that will help you succeed in the examination, consider how meticulous you need to be in following it up. If a subject appears to be regularly examined, but is treated only superficially in classes, consider why that might be. If necessary, press your tutors to explain the subject in more depth.

A word of warning — don't follow this strategy too rigorously. Some examiners do change the content of examinations regularly and radically. And, of course, there is more to life, even university life, than exams. Classes are, or should be, more than just a part of your exam preparation. If you don't enjoy attending classes, you've probably picked the wrong subject to study.

4. Accept that revision for examinations cannot possibly be enjoyable

Good-quality revision hurts. However fascinated you are by the subject, you won't enjoy the rigours of exam revision. If you do, you're not doing it properly. In my experience, there are three main ways in which students let themselves down by trying to minimize the pain of revision.

First, students tend to revise those subject areas they know well, and neglect areas which they find difficult. This is a terrible waste of time, because the more you know about something, the harder it is to improve your knowledge and understanding. This principle is where the ghastly term 'learning curve' comes from. When you know little or nothing about a subject, each day you spend studying it yields an approximately equal increase in your level of understanding. As your understanding builds, you can expect to learn a bit less on each successive day you spend studying. Eventually, a point will come when it takes many days to improve your knowledge and understanding even a small amount.

This wouldn't matter if you had unlimited time to prepare for the exam; but you don't, and to make good use of your limited time you have to be working in the 'linear region' of the learning curve. That is, you need to be working at the stage where each day you spend studying gives approximately the same increase in your knowledge. If you already feel reasonably confident in a particular subject, you are probably outside the linear region of the learning curve already. You should probably be concentrating on those subjects in which you don't have this level of confidence.

Second, students often revise in unproductive ways, even if they are spending the right proportion of time on each subject. Of course, what is productive will vary from one person to another; but you have to accept that productive revision is likely to hurt, whoever you are. Gentle reading of textbooks and lecture notes is very unlikely to be productive for anybody, but students do it because it is painless. I've lost count of the number of times I've seen students sitting with a textbook, painstakingly underlining what are though to be important words with a marker pen. For my part, I know that I can easily spend a whole day reading a textbook and learn absolutely nothing. In my experience, students who do best are those who revise by working through past exam papers, in as near exam conditions as practicable. For myself, I find this form of revision very uncomfortable; I suspect most other people do too, but that's no reason not to do it if it works. You only have to do it for a few weeks, and you have the rest of your life to reap the rewards.

Third, it is very easy to slip into displacement activities when revising. An extreme example of this kind of behaviour is to spend so much time meticulously constructing a 'revision timetable', that you don't have any time left for real revision. Fans of Red Dwarf may remember that this is why Arnold Rimmer failed his engineering exam eleven times. Displacement activities, in short, are ways to avoid doing something, in a doing-it kind of way. There are many more subtle examples than Rimmer's exam timetable. For example, to do well in an examination on English constitutional law you must have a good grasp of current political issues. You might find that reading (some) newspapers is a good way to obtain such knowledge. However, reading the newspaper is much easier and less painful that studying exam questions, so it's easy to find yourself spending a whole day reading newspapers. You'll feel that you've been working hard, but all but the first half and hour will have been wasted. The only way to avoid displacement activities or, at least, the only way I have found, is to schedule a fixed time for revision, in a place which is free from all distractions. It is a sad fact that many exam candidates work extremely hard at their displacement activities. I have heard students complain about how tired they are after a hard day's revision — maybe they've been busy for twelve hours or more without a break — but when questioned it is clear that little benefit has been achieved. Revision is difficult and unpleasant enough that you ought to ensure that what you do offers maximum long-term benefit, and not minimal short-term unpleasantness. It's better to schedule a short period of productive revision, than to waste a much longer time in displacement.

You might think that these various strategic failings are exclusively encountered in the less competent students, but you'd be wrong. I've seen smart, capable people fall into all the same traps.

5. Make sure you know the exam drill

Find out well before the exam what format it will take, if possible. That is, find out how many questions you have to answer, in how much time. Found out whether the questions carry equal marks, or whether some will have a higher weighting. If the questions are divided into sections, find out whether you can expect each section to carry equal marks, or not. Find out whether you are permitted to read the paper before the official start time. Most importantly, find out how much choice you will be allowed in selecting the questions to attempt. If you expect to have a wide choice, you should concentrate on learning a relatively small part of curriculum really well. If all the questions are compulsory, you may have to sacrifice depth for breadth to make best use of the time you have to prepare.

Many institutions impose exam format standards on its examiners, so even if a particular examiner won't tell you, you may be able to find out from the university administration. Don't assume that the format will be the same as last year's exam — find out for certain. Finding this stuff out in advance of the exam doesn't mean that you don't need to check the instructions on the front of the paper, but it does mean that in your preparation you can practise answering the right sort of questions in the right amount of time. It also helps to reduce nervousness on exam day.

6. Know the type of question you are good at

Most examinations will present questions of different types: you may be asked to write essays, solve problems, calculate things, design things, or whatever is appropriate to the subject. In most disciplines it's quite unusual to find that all the exam questions are of the same type. If your subject traditionally poses different types of question in its examinations, and you expect to have a choice in the questions you attempt, then you should be realistic about the type of question you do well at. For example, I have found that I am relatively good at problem-solving questions, and relatively bad at writing essays. I'm not sure why this should be, as I've been writing professionally for over a decade (in fact, perhaps that's the reason). In any case, if you have found in the past that you do better in one sort of question than another, then you may need to make a tactical decision to answer a question on a subject you know less well, but which is in a format you prefer.

7. Practice writing in general

Remember that your examiner is human, and will favour a paper that is easy to mark. The examiner may be marking several hundred papers to mark in a few days, so anything that makes this task easier will help your cause. My heart always sank when I opened a paper and found it full of illegible scrawl, spelling mistakes, bizarre grammar, or slang. Of course these things shouldn't matter in an examination on, say, quantum theory. But they do, believe me. It is just no fun marking an illegible exam script. It is particularly important in these days of word processors that examination candidates practise writing with a pen — if your examination is the only time in a whole year when you've had to wield a pen, you're unlikely to write very clearly. Remember also that your examiner is probably from a different sub-stratum of society from you. Unless you are a perpetual student like me, the examiner will most likely be older than you, perhaps two generations older. He or she will very likely be of a different ethnic group or different social background. What all this means is that your writing style should be as neutral as possible. That way what you write is unlikely to give offence, or be incomprehensible, even if it isn't very exciting.

8. Read all the questions before you start writing any answers

Unless your exam is very short, you can almost certainly afford to spend ten minutes reading the paper all the way through, in detail. Not only will this allow you to rank the questions in terms of how competently you think you can answer them, but it will help to ensure that you have understood what each question is asking. In most subjects, you won't get more than one question on a particular curriculum area or topic, because setting even a single decent question on a particular topic is difficult enough, and setting more than one is purgatory. So if your scrutiny of the paper reveals two or more questions that appear to cover the same ground, consider whether you've understood the questions properly. It is best to figure out that you don't know what a question is asking before you get half an hour into answering it.

9. Pace yourself

This is probably the most important piece of advice anyone can offer about examinations. Work out the time you have available to answer questions (after taking off the initial time spent reading all the questions), and divide it by the number of questions you have to answer. Then make sure that you spend no more than that time on any question. In general, if you have 30 minutes to answer a question, you'll get most of the marks you're likely to get in 10-15 minutes. If you spend an hour on a thirty minute question, you probably won't get many more marks than you would get in twenty minutes, and you'll have wasted 30 minutes.

It is extremely difficult to follow this rule in practice. If you feel you're doing well at answering a question, and you get to your time limit, it is very difficult to stop and move onto the next question. But you have to: it's essential. If you have time left at the end of the paper, you can always come back to the question and finish it. If you don't have time, you will be trading the easy marks you can get on another question for the difficult ones remaining on a question you have already done your best with.

10. Don't waste any time during the exam

Over my years of marking exams, I noticed a number of common practises that can only have served to waste the candidate's time and throw marks away. For example, many students liked to start answering a question by restating the question itself. In some cases the question would be repeated verbatim. Other times students summarised the question. Why? It's just a waste of precious time, and gives the marker the impression that you don't know what you're doing. Similarly, many students had a tendency to over-introduce their answers; I'd find sentences beginning, for example, ''In order to answer the question [whatever] I will begin by [blah, blah]...'' This verbiage takes time to write, and adds no useful content. In examinations where students were permitted to refer to textbooks or reference materials, I often found students copying huge swathes of text out of the books. Why? Did they think that I didn't know they had these books with them? In most 'open book' examinations, you should plan not to have to open the book. If you have to refer in detail to a reference book in the exam, you will be wasting time you should be spending writing your answer.

If you're allowed textbooks or reference books during the exam, pick books that you've used for study and know intimately. Ideally you want a book that will fall open at the right page when you pick it up — time spend poring over the index is time you can't use for writing the answer.

Finally — and I know this is going to make me sound like your mum — make sure you visit the lavatory before starting the exam. Most invigilators will assist on candidates being escorted to the lavatory and back if they have to answer a call of nature during the exam. This is not only undignified, it considerably extends the time required to fulfil the purpose of the visit.

And another thing...

Some of the points discussed above may seem so blindingly obvious that they hardly need stating; but they're not so obvious that students always take note of them. There are a few other things that I hesitate to mention, because they seem self-evident to me; but experience has shown me that they aren't self-evident to everyone.

Take whatever equipment and materials to the examination that you think will be useful. If you don't know whether you'll be allowed to use, say, a calculator, take one anyway if you think it will help. The worst that can happen is that you won't be allowed to use it. If you don't take one, the worse that can happen is that your exam performance will be judged alongside the performance of students who had the good sense to bring their calculators. This sounds mad, but when I used to set examinations I always told students that they would need calculators. Then I would visit the exam room with a pocketfull of spare calculators that I had rounded up from my colleagues. Invariably I wouldn't have enough calculators to go round. In every exam I marked I would read answers that concluded ''I think the answer is about 3.2, but I forgot to bring my calcuator''.

If you need to take medication, and your examination is a long one, bring whatever medication you need. The last thing you need in a difficult examination is an added dose of clinical discomfort. If you hardly ever suffer from headaches, trust Sod's Law to give you a headache on exam day. When I invigilated exams, I always made packet of paracetamol tablets available to candidates with headaches, and often the packet wasn't large enough.

If you do badly in an exam, try to find out why — don't just assume that the fault is all yours. Marks do get counted wrongly, pages fall out of answer scripts or get stuck together, markers often overlook bits of answers tucked away at the end of a script, and so on. It is very unlikely that you will be able to engage the examiner in a discussion about why your take on the subject is better informed than the examiner's. Why? Because if an academic becomes known as the kind of person who will negotiate about marks after the exam, he will never get any peace for the rest of his career. However, most people are decent enough to look over the answer paper to see if any pages have fallen out, or bits of answers overlooked. It is at this point that the professional rapport you have established with your examiners becomes important.

Closing remarks

University examinations are difficult, and unless you're studying for fun a lot depends on the outcome. The most important thing to remember when studying and preparing for exams is this: you have to play by the rules, but you don't have to play fair. Of course you shouldn't cheat, or do anything dishonourable, but you should use all the resources of planning, intelligence, and strategy, that you can bring to bear. In university examinations, everyone can get a First — indeed, most insitutions would be overjoyed if this happened. It isn't necessary that other people do badly so that you can do well, and you aren't weakening other people's chances by strengthening your own.

Some people — usually other academics — tell me that the advice I give to students is 'unfair'. But why should students play the game the way we academics want them to? The dice are loaded against them from the start: we make them pour out six months of accumulated knowledge in a mere three hours or so, in conditions unlike any they will ever experience again, then we judge the results against standards which cannot possibly be objective and which we cannot explain. We give them little or no redress if they do badly because of our mistakes, even to the extent of concealing the details of our marking processes so that they cannot be challenged. Against that sort of odds, why on Earth should students play fair? No — any tactic that you wouldn't be embarassed to explain to your mother (or your children) is fair game in this business. Of course this doesn't mean that I am condoning cheating, or extortion, or bribery — of course not. I merely advocate a sensible, considered use of all the information at your disposal, deployed to its best effect.

Copyright © 1994-2010 Kevin Boone. Updated May 13 2010