Revising for and sitting exams
- This short guide is intended to help you prepare for the written examinations you will sit at the end of most of your courses. You will doubtless recognise much of what it contains as nothing more than simple common sense. This is not because the Department thinks its students are dim or wishes to insult their intelligence. Rather, it is because, under pressure of exams, even the brightest and best-prepared of students can lose sight of such simple things as the need to make certain that an exam essay really does answer the question it is supposed to address. Moreover, much of what is here may be new to students with little or no experience of written exams: revising for examinations will be far more difficult if you do not have both a clear idea what is expected in the exam and some guidance as to how to prepare for it.
- It is important to bear in mind that there is such a thing as 'exam technique' and that it is well worth developing-and not only for the purpose of sitting written exams successfully. Many of the elements of exam technique involve skills that are useful in a wide variety of settings: these include the ability to think and write rapidly but clearly under pressure, to analyse questions in such a way as to go straight to the heart of an issue, and to 'think on your feet'-to organise your thoughts and construct clear, focused arguments. Exam technique is not a substitute for substantive knowledge; rather, it is an indispensable complement to it. Poor exam technique can mean that a well-prepared student fails to perform as well as (s)he might, but perfect technique will not save a candidate who does not have a grip on the material being examined.
The purpose of exams
- All methods of assessment are imperfect, and written examinations are no different. Nevertheless, they remain one of the central methods used in this and most other university schools around the country. This is because they provide an opportunity to test students' grasp of a wide range of material within a reasonably short assessment procedure, they are easily controlled so as to ensure that it is a candidate's own work that is assessed, and they require students to think and write analytically 'on their feet'. Exams are not intended to test your ability to memorise names, dates and other facts, nor to catch you out and expose your weaknesses. Rather, they meant to require you to show a real understanding of the major themes and issues you have studied. The aim of the examination paper is to give you an opportunity to show what you do know, not to find out what you don't know.
Preparing for examinations
- Literally, 'revising' simply means 'seeing again'. This does not mean that you should simply look back over old material to see that it remains somehow familiar. Rather, you want to try to see the material you have covered again and again, from different angles and in different contexts, to relate different parts of the course to one another and to apply different sets of ideas to different problems and debates. Revision should be about deepening your understanding of what you have covered in a course, not simply ensuring that you have memorised it tolerably well.
When should you start revising?
- It is tempting to say 'before you come to Birkbeck'. It is really never too early to start revising. If the course is more or less cumulative, then a certain amount of continuous revision will be unavoidable: the new material you cover will reinforce your grip on what has gone before it. However, if the course is not cumulative, it may make sense to set aside some time-perhaps just an hour or so a week-to look back over past material, not only in order to see if it remains fairly familiar but also to think about how it relates to what you have done more recently. This will do more than just help you revise for the exam in due course; it will also enrich the course itself by helping you to see it as a whole-you will be revising to learn and not simply to perform well on an exam. That being said, studying reflectively and consistently throughout the course is by far the most important contribution you can make to your own exam success.
- It is probably best to begin revising in earnest during or soon after the spring vacation. Obviously, how early you need to start depends on your work schedule, family commitments, etc. The more difficult it will be to find time for revision, the earlier you should start to revise seriously.
Planning your revision
- Draw up a list of the topics you wish to revise and decide in what order you intend to tackle them. Bear in mind those topics that are unlikely to come up and those that you are unlikely to handle well and may reasonably expect to avoid. It is probably best to space out and schedule your revision in such a way that you revise more than one topic in a day (to ensure variety and interest) and also that you return to topics at regular intervals (to avoid cramming in such a fashion that by the end of your revision you have begun losing your grasp of the first things you revised). Plan to start early enough that your revision is not more intensive than is sensible. Last-minute cramming is not a skill possessed by every student.
Revising in groups
- Revising with colleagues is likely to be a good deal more enjoyable than working in solitude. It is also likely to improve your performance, since one of the best ways to get a handle on the material you are studying is to try to teach it to someone else. Try to arrange to meet with a few colleagues-even two or three is enough for a good revision 'syndicate'-and plan to meet regularly during the revision period. Early on, it is often a good idea to allocate different topics to different members of the group, who then summarise them and present them to the other members. As you begin to focus more on potential questions, it can be useful to have several colleagues drafting essay plans for the same questions and then comparing and critiquing their approaches. At the same time, it is important not to be intimidated by how well prepared others may seem: everyone has different strengths and weaknesses, and chances are that the members of the group will have chosen different topics to focus on for revision purposes. That is part of why it is useful to revise with others. But it can be very easy to take your own knowledge and strengths for granted, while being keenly aware of others'. This can be needlessly demoralising. Remember that you have mastered topics your colleagues probably have not.
Studying past papers
- If the exam has been given before, past exam papers are probably your best source of intelligence about the paper you will sit. Don't neglect them. To be sure, care is taken to avoid repeating questions from year to year, and you are unlikely to encounter the same questions in the exam as you have seen in old papers. However, past papers will give you a clear sense of both what those teaching your course see as the most important issues and what kind of questions they set.
- Passive recognition of ideas and arguments is not enough in an exam, so simply going over old notes and readings to see that they are still familiar is insufficient. You will need to be able to recall the material without the aid of notes or other prompts, and you will need to be able to deploy it intelligently-that is, you will need to be able to stake out your own positions in response to the questions and to construct cogent arguments in support of those positions. Keep this in mind when revising. In the earliest stages, one useful exercise may be to re-write your old notes, trying always to compress them, leaving out inessential detail and reproducing only the points that really matter. It is may also help to write summaries of major articles and books you have read; here again, aim for brevity and try to note down only the most important points. Try to focus on those key words, phrases and ideas that will help you call the whole lot to mind. Later on, you will need to practice outlining essay plans and, at some stage, writing mock answers under exam conditions.
Having a life, even during exam season
- It will do you no good to come to the exam physically and emotionally drained and intellectually 'burnt out'. Plan your revision in such a way as to ensure that you still have time not only for adequate sleep in the run-up to the exam (always a key consideration) but also for a bit of rest and recreation. This is likely to aid your exam performance, and your family, friends and co-workers are likely to be grateful, too.
- The more practice answers you write, especially under exam conditions, the better off you are likely to be. Early on, you may simply want to work on practice outlines, especially if you are revising with a group and can critique one another's essay plans. Nearer the time, you will need to practice writing full-length answers and-critically-doing so under the pressure of the clock. However, do not keep practicing the same essay questions and do not come to the exam with a 'prepared' essay in mind. Examiners are continually struck by the number of students who prepare 'potted' essays well ahead and then write them out with little or no regard for the specifics of the questions they are (supposed to be) addressing.
The last day of revision and the day of the exam
- This is up to you and all the advice in this paragraph, as well as any advice you receive from friends, tutors and colleagues, should be set against what you know about yourself and what you feel like doing. That being said, here are a few bits of advice you may want to consider.
- Common sense would suggest that a good night's sleep before a major exam is a must, so it may seem a bit silly to mention it, but for centuries a fair proportion of students have opted for all-night cramming instead. Unless you function better without sleep than most of the human race, the additional revision time probably won't do you enough good to justify the loss of sleep. Clear thinking is likely to profit you more than the recollection of facts memorised at 3.30am.
- Likewise, it is probably best to avoid an 'exam fast'; don't let your nerves put you in the position of skipping meals on the day of the exam until it is over. Some relaxed revision of essential topics on the last day is worthwhile, unless it is a very early exam, but your physical and mental state will probably matter more at this stage than any last-ditch cramming effort.
- One thing worth checking a day or so ahead of the exam is the time and place. It may sound stupid even to mention it, but every year there are students who turn up at the wrong time or place.
- It is generally a good idea to clear your head for an hour or two before the exam. While personal approaches to revision differ, and you need to do what suits you best, it is usually not a good idea to revise up to the last minute. All too often the result of such last-minute revision is that candidates enter the exam stressed rather than relaxed. Also, there is a real danger that the last material you revised will be so much in the forefront of your mind that you will use it whether you need to or not.
- It is also generally wise to avoid the company of your fellow candidates in the last couple of hours, unless they are prepared to join you in a 'moratorium' on exam-related discussions. Fevered exchanges of the 'what-do-you-think-we'll-need-to-know-about-X?' variety in the final minutes rarely do anyone's concentration any good. Students don't help one another or themselves by making each other more nervous.
During the exam
Writing the exam
- Once you are given the word to start, read the entire exam paper carefully, taking special care to make sense of the instructions as well as the questions themselves. Too many students lose marks simply for failing to read the instructions with sufficient care. Note how many questions must be answered, whether there are any restrictions on your choice of questions (e.g. one from section A and one from section B) and whether there is any additional rubric indicating what the examiners are looking for (general statements such as 'Candidates are expected to show a knowledge of X.'). The same is true of exam questions. Be certain to read them carefully before making your selection, paying especially close attention to the verb or verb phrase and making sure that you understand exactly what it requires of you. There is little point in attempting to answer a question if you don't know what it is asking.
- Take time, too, to plan your essays. If you have, say 55-60 minutes in which to write an essay, you can afford to spend five minutes on an essay plan. Indeed, you can hardly afford not to, as an unplanned essay is likely to be badly disorganised and may well read like a rather unfocused ramble. Examiners are not generally fond of stream-of-consciousness prose. Decide how you will answer the questions and jot down an outline of the argument you need to make to support than answer. Then write to the outline, avoiding 'hesitation, deviation or repetition'. It is always disconcerting to see a student select a question and immediately begin filling his/her exam book with prose. This usually means either that the student is reproducing a 'potted' essay, regardless of whether or not it fits the question, or that the resulting answer will be rich in detail but lacking in coherence-'full of sound and fury, and signifying nothing'. Section 8 below, on essay answers, gives you a good idea of what to bear in mind when drafting any essay plan.
- Once you start writing, keep half an eye on the clock. You needn't be panicked about not spending exactly the same amount of time on each essay, but you must take care to leave adequate time to answer the required number of questions. If the instructions say to answer three questions, you may rest assured that that means three: your overall mark will be the average of the three essays. If you answer only two questions on a three-essay exam, your two answers will be marked, and the marks will be added together and divided by three. This means that you should always attempt the number of questions required. If the exam is a three-essay exam and there are only two questions you think you can answer, at least have a crack at a third question. You might do better than you think you will, and any points you are awarded for the attempt will help your overall mark considerably. Nothing pulls an exam mark down like a zero for one of the essays.
- If you are fortunate enough to finish before the end of the exam period, don't bolt from the hall. Take a moment to clear your head a bit and rest your hand, and then look back over your answers to see if there is anything particularly important that you missed out. Don't sit there torturing yourself with second-guesses about the questions you chose or the decisions you made, but do use the time to correct any small errors or to add any additional material that might need to be appended to your essays. Small slips of the pen, like leaving the word 'not' out of a key sentence, are well worth correcting.
- In all of this, you need to bear two facts in mind. The first is that you are racing the clock; three good essays in three hours is indeed a challenge-it is meant to be. The second is that more haste can mean less speed: failing to take the time to select questions carefully and draft essay plans before writing is almost always a mistake. You may save a few minutes to begin with, but it may well turn out to be a false economy. The Roman Emperor Augustus is said to have been fond of the motto 'festina lente'-'make haste slowly'. He would probably have been a good exam candidate.
Making sense of exam questions
- Read questions carefully, making sure you know what subject matter it is referring to and stopping to consider what the possible answers might be. Often a slight change in the wording of a question can change the range of possible answers you might give-hence the danger of coming prepared to write a 'potted' essay on a particular topic. While some questions are open-ended, others implicitly call for one of a limited range of answers: if faced with what is logically a 'yes or no' question, answer 'yes' or 'no', even if (as is often the case) you need to qualify your answer carefully. If the question poses a dichotomy, consider whether it is a false one: many students faced with an either/or question ('Does the electoral system determine the party system, or the party system the electoral system?') never consider the possibility that the answer might be 'both/and' or 'neither/nor'.
- Every examination paper is different, of course, as is every course in which you might be examined. Nevertheless, there are certain things virtually all examiners will be looking for when they read your scripts.
- Answer the question. As obvious as it sounds, this is advice many candidates forget once in the exam. One of the most common criticisms of exam essays is that the candidate has failed to address the question. Some candidates don't seem to be trying to answer any question at all; they just write whatever they know about the subject and hope it will be enough. Others respond like cabinet ministers on Radio 4, answering the question they wish they'd been asked instead of the one that has actually been set. This is why it is so important to read the questions carefully and make sure you know what has been asked. The safest way to make sure you do answer the question is to do so right away: stake out a position at the start and then defend it.
- Make an argument. Exam essays should always present an argument in answer to the chosen question-no more and no less. Do not try to rehearse everything you know about the subject. An essay should provide an analysis of the subject rather than consisting merely of description. The argument should be put forward coherently, substantiated by factual or textual evidence, and soberly presented in formal language. It should respond precisely to the question posed. Your argument should be sustained from the first paragraph to the last, with each paragraph contributing in some way to the support or elucidation of your argument. That does not, however, mean that you should put 'blinders' on and write a one-sided polemic in support of your position. You will need to show an awareness of different views, approaches and theories that may be relevant to the question and to address objections that you know can be raised against the position for which you are arguing.
- Sketch out your argument straight away. It is difficult to exaggerate the importance of the first paragraph in organising your essay. The first sentences of an exam essay should address the question directly and crisply, and introduce the argument that you intend to make. Sketch out the structure of the rest of the essay, indicating briefly the issues you will address and the way they fit into your overall argument. Remember, too, that, should you run short of time and leave an unfinished third essay, a strong first paragraph will help, since it should provide most of your answer in embryo. Examiners will be more generous to an unfinished essay if they at least know what the candidate is arguing and why. By contrast, it is difficult to award many points to a third essay which runs for pages and pages but leaves the examiner unclear as to where it would have led when finished. Unfortunately, it is not unusual to read three or four close-written pages and still have no idea what answer the candidate will reach in the end. (If worst comes to worst, and you have not even begun a third essay, then at least set down your essay plan in a form clear and coherent enough for the examiners to know where you were headed.)
- Keep it simple. Simplicity of expression throughout is strongly preferred to purple prose. Marks will be awarded according to the quality, clarity and coherence of the argument presented in the essay, the essay's structure, and the extent to which the main claims of the essay are supported by logic and evidence, rather than simply being asserted.
- Keep it legible. Examiners cannot mark what they cannot read. While those marking your exams are aware of the pressures under which you have written them and will make every effort to give them a close, thorough and, above all, fair reading, illegibility can pose real problems. Remember that by remaining focused on the argument you are making you can write less rather than more and still have a complete, well-reasoned answer. This should make writing legibly easier.
- Keep it short. Avoid time-wasting diversions. Remember that you are writing under time pressure; any digression or inclusion of material that is not strictly relevant will cost you precious time which would be better spent building your core argument. Many a good exam candidate comes to grief for want of time on the third essay, after having 'padded' the first two with inessential information.
- Exams involve a fair degree of stress for most students, but some candidates become so anxious that the fear of the exam itself gets in the way of their preparation. A few of the most common sources of anxiety are listed below; as you can see, some are more or less groundless, while others can be overcome by knowing what will be required on the exam and preparing for it intelligently.
- Fear that exams are designed to reveal hidden weaknesses. Put your mind at rest and remember that your exams are set by your lecturers, who know what you have been taught and who have an interest in your success. Moreover, all exam papers are carefully vetted by the whole school and by visiting examiners in order to ensure that questions are clear and fair. We do not want to surprise or trap you, but we do want to ensure that you have to show a good grasp of a significant portion of the material you have covered in your courses.
- Uncertainty about what will be required of you in the exam. That is precisely what these guidelines are intended to address, but if you are still uncertain, then ask. Members of the school are not generally fond of questions taking the form 'will we have to know (fill in the blank here) on the exam?' but they are more than willing to answer more general questions you may have about the material covered in your courses, about the structure of exams and about what examiners will be looking for when marking exam scripts. One of our principal aims is to ensure that a candidate who has prepared well for the examination will not be surprised by the exam paper. However difficult the questions may be, they are not intended to trick you or to emphasise obscure issues. They are meant to reflect the themes that have been emphasised throughout the course.
- Worry about your memory and mastery of all the detailed material covered in the course. Examinations are not designed to test your ability to memorise lists of facts and figures, or to regurgitate detailed chronologies of historical events. Rather, they aim to test your understanding of the major concepts, issues and debates in a particular field. Examiners generally look to reward evidence of understanding and the ability to think, to argue a case or to solve problems, rather than rote memory. Of course, few exams are ever entirely 'fact-free', but your focus in preparation should be on the 'big picture'. An excess of factual detail can often hinder rather than help, if the result is an overly long essay full of unnecessary detail.
- Doubts about your ability to think clearly under pressure without recourse to texts, notes etc. Clarity of thought is much more important than memory and mastery of detail. Here, there is no substitute for experience: the more practice essays you write under exam conditions, whether in mock exams organised by your lecturers or on your own, the better.
- Lack of experience. Here, too, practice is the key-especially if you have no previous experience of essay exams in higher education or if that experience was long ago. That being said, this guide is intended to help you avoid many of the most common mistakes that arise from inexperience even if you have never sat an exam. Learning from your mistakes is always a good idea, but learning from other people's is much less painful.
- Uncertainty about how to prepare for an exam. Read on! Most of the rest of this document is given over to explaining how to prepare for an examination.