Guidance for Exams

It is disappointing to come out of an exam feeling that you haven't done yourself justice. It is disappointing for lecturers to mark exams and find students throwing away marks through carelessness in reading the question, lack of attention to detail, failure to say clearly what is easy to say correctly, failure to check that what they have written makes any sense.

Preparation for exams is a particularly personal undertaking, depending on how you learn best and even how you work under examination conditions. The following guidance is a mixture of general ideas and ones that work for a good many people.

Exams are a highly stressful experience, even for those heading for a good first-class Honours degree. Much of the content of an exam in a science subject is about displaying at the appointed time specialist knowledge and understanding, and some moderately routine problem solving. Exams are not a time when your creative juices need be flowing at their quickest. What needs to be flowing is knowledge that you are confident about. Raising your level of confidence and knowledge to the required height needs more preparation than most people credit. Many successful students do little thinking in exams. They have done their thinking before hand, found out what does and doesn't work, how to tackle standard issue problems, how to phrase tricky concepts and arguments so that all the pieces are there in the right order using the right technical words. In the exam this knowledge pours out and they just write. Aim to get yourself into this position and you'll come out of University with a Degree you hardly dreamt of.

Base your revision strategy on how you remember and learn best. Some people particularly remember the sound of words and arguments; some have a good visual memory for diagrams and drawings; some prefer to concentrate on remembering the general principles and how to deduce the special cases rather than remembering a list of results, and so on. Build your revision strategy on your personal strengths.

Let me illustrate the last maxim by one simple example. The Galilean moons of Jupiter are called Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto, in order from Jupiter. These are not easily remembered names and there is no logical reason for their order. The order is nailed by making up a memorable and silly sentence with initial letters in the correct order, such as 'the classic' phrase I Eat Green Carrots. You can remember this as an unusual sentence or you can remember it as a picture of yourself eating green carrots. For whatever reason, it sticks much better than the four names. However, once you've got the initial letters of the names, the remainder will occur to you when it really matters, in the exam. It may seem a very roundabout method of learning but mnemonics and other memory aids are very good for keeping the facts in your head. In an exam you are more likely to forget what you thought you knew than to remember what you thought you'd forgotten. You can make mnemonics highly personal but you will have to work out your own. They won't give you understanding but many people find that understanding comes more easily when they remember precisely what they are supposed to be understanding!

Here, then, are 16 maxims to help you pass your exams. The good old days when ten commandments were sufficient have passed.

  1. Plan out your revision strategy at least 2 months before the exams

  2. Divide out the time available to your different courses on a calendar. Make a schedule that's flexible enough to allow for slipage and unforeseen contingencies.

  3. Allow time for each course to be revised more than once

  4. Make summaries of your notes, so that late revisions need only cover these summaries. Build these summaries using your own memory strengths; for example convert relationships into diagrams, if that helps, or introduce funny mnemonics. Some people like to use cards, others A4 sheets that they can keep with their notes. Some even make summaries of the summaries, so that in the end the structure of the whole course can be seen on a couple of pages of your own preparation.

  5. Carefully study the 'learning outcomes' of the course. The examination must be be based on the learning outcomes, which are statements of what you should be able to do or know when the course has been delivered.

  6. Get the course textbook and use it to supplement your learning.

  7. Use tutorials, lecturer's question time and every opportunity throughout the course to get the basics of the subject clear as the course progresses.

  8. In physics exams you get precious few marks for waffle. Make sure that what you are learning is the heart of the matter and the real physics of the subject.

  9. Let me almost repeat the previous maxim in different terms. Physics is characterised by precision of thought and attention to detail in definitions and the development of arguments. Examiners will spray your script with marks if you get the detail correct but will be correspondingly sparing if you convey that you have only a passing acquaintance with the subject. When revising, make sure you are aware of all the detail that makes the argument precise.

  10. When revising coursework, don't simply read the notes or textbook. Write down on paper what you've learnt. Writing gives you practice in articulating ideas, which you'll have to do in the exam. Writing as you revise has been amply proven to help memory. It doesn't matter if you screw up the paper at the end of the evening and put it all in the bin. It's still worth writing down as you revise.

  11. Begin by practising typical questions with your notes and textbook beside you. In the last few weeks, try questions without the notes and with a watch beside you.

  12. Put in lots of practice answering exam questions. Don't just read them over or wait until the lecturer goes over them in class, write out the solutions fully. If asked for definitions, write them out fully and compare your attempt with the textbook or lecture notes. Get a friend to mark your efforts, and vice-versa. Exam questions put the course learning outcomes, which may be stated a bit generally, into perspective, providing concrete examples of what you are expected to deliver.

  13. As part of the planning process, make sure you know well in advance the layout and structure of the exam, the number of marks per minute (probably a little less than 1) and the ratio of 'bookwork' to problem solving.

  14. Make sure you can do the last 3 years' past papers, if available, and all the lecturer's practice questions.

  15. Don't just concentrate on practising problem questions, also practice writing out the descriptive 'bookwork' answers in the time available in the exam. Finding the correct words and getting the argument in the right order in the comparatively short time available can be just as big a challenge as solving a standard problem.

  16. In golf, it isn't necessarily the person with the best swing who wins the tournament but the one with the lowest score. Likewise in an exam, what counts is the highest possible score, not necessarily the most penetrating physical insight. Weeks before the exam, concentrate on learning the physics; close to the exam, concentrate on maximising your chance of scoring well. In a nutshell, make sure you use the revision week just before the exams for revising the course and not for learning it up in the first place.

And finally, on exam day:

  1. Make sure you know when and where the exam is, looking out the exact location of an unfamiliar place.

  2. Bring with you appropriate tools, including pens, calculator, ruler, pencil, rubber and a coloured pen for diagrams.

  3. Arrive with the attitude that you know much more about the subject than you can possibly write in the time allowed and you're looking forward to the opportunity of demonstrating this. (Yes, sure. Well, you can aim to be in this state of mind).

  4. Arrive 15 minutes before the start.

  5. Make sure you read the instructions (the 'rubric') at the front of the exam.

  6. Follow requests in the question. If the question asks for a definition, then give a definition, not just a few related facts; if a question asks for a diagram, draw a diagram.

  7. Spell technical words correctly that are given in the question. For example if the question asks you about principal planes, don't keep writing about principle planes.

  8. A good many exams have 'compulsory' parts at the beginning before a section with a choice of questions. Try not to be thrown if you can't do some of the compulsory parts. If necessary, go on to the choice questions first and come back to the first section later.

  9. If the paper has a choice of questions, look for a difference in the questions. Some may be a slog on a relatively simple topic, others comparatively short on a more advanced topic. Answer the type of question that suits your approach.

  10. If your answer needs mathematics, take time to explain the symbols you introduce and what your mathematical steps are trying to achieve.

  11. Keep a close eye on the clock. Don't spend 5 minutes trying to figure out the answer to part of a question worth only 2 marks, unless it's at the very end of the exam and you've time to spare.

  12. Keep an eye on the marks per section as shown on the right-hand-side of the paper and tailor the length of your reply to suit the reward.

  13. If you can't do part of a serial question in which the answer is needed for the next part, don't automatically abandon the question. If you can see how to proceed had you found the answer, try calling the answer X and proceed as you would have done with the number but using the symbol X instead.

  14. In descriptive answers, marks are often allocated for the key points mentioned. It is therefore better to try to incorporate more key points in your answer than ramble about one or two specific aspects. However, do stick closely to the question that has been asked. I've seen two pages of well written physics obtain zero marks because it wasn't an answer to the question asked.

  15. Remember that all papers other than multiple-choice exams are marked by people. It is good psychology to try to present a reasonably neat answer paper, with the logic of your argument clearly shown, symbols you use defined and diagrams drawn with some care and nicely labelled. Usually a useful number of marks are specifically allocated to diagrams and a quick but clear diagram, using a ruler for straight lines, can be a high earner in terms of marks per minute.

  16. Expanding on the previous observation, remember that in an exam you are essentially sitting at a desk explaining a topic to the examiner, one to one. He or she is sitting in silence listening, looking at your diagrams. Communication is the name of the game. Too many people still just try to dump their memory cells, paying little heed to whether what they say is coherent or makes much sense or is particularly relevant. Don't forget that an exam is an exercise in communication.

I'll finish with the bottom line for getting good grades, apart from the obvious one of learning the lecture material:

That's enough for now. Aim high. There's nothing worse than aiming low, and failing. Good luck - everyone needs some.

"There is no expedient to which a man will not go to avoid the labor of thinking" T. A. Edison..