The Scream - Munch





Physical stuff
Before you go in
In the hall
Keep cool
The last ten minutes


Exams - nature's laxatives or a chance to spend a relaxing three hours showing how much you know about the course? Probably a bit of both however well prepared you might be. The main aim should be to reduce the amount of the former in order that you can concentrate on the latter!

Exam technique is all about controlling how you prepare before the exam and react during the exam so that you can do your best.

Before you read through this please bear in mind that no amount of exam strategy will make up for studying the material and doing some revision!

Why have I written this? Because over the last couple of years I've spoken to a few students who have felt poorly prepared for their exams or feel they have done badly in exams because they panicked or froze. I was lucky enough to have a tutor-counsellor (Mary McKinlay) who helped her students prepare for exams and subsequent tutors also added their expertise. With this preparation I survived, and passed, seven OU exams. I hope you find something in here that will help you pass yours.

If you feel strongly that any of the advice here is wrong - or if you feel that you have anything to add that will help please let me know by using the "mail to" at the bottom of this page.

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Before you get to the exam you have some work to do.

  • Find out what you are allowed to take in - and make sure it meets the criteria, if you are allowed to take a dictionary it is unlikely that you are allowed to have one that has all your course notes neatly inserted in the margins!
  • Check your calculator is within the stated specification too.

Exam papers usually follow the same format on a particular course. They might be split into two sections and you need to answer all the questions in part one and two or three from part two. Make sure you know this before you go into the exam hall! There are no marks for answering too many questions and it is a complete waste of time. Time is another important consideration - you have three hours, 180 minutes, 10,800 seconds. That's all. And in that time you have to do more than answer the questions.

Also try and understand how you should lay out your answers. Do you need to use a different answer booklet for each section?

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Physical Stuff

  • Make sure you know where the exam centre is.
  • If you are driving check on parking, if you are using public transport check what time the buses/trains/planes run.
  • Make sure you know where the room is.
  • If you have mobility problems find out if there are any stairs to the room.
  • What should you take? Do you need coloured pens? A ruler? A stencil or template?
  • Take or wear a watch or clock. Most exam rooms have a clock somewhere but it might be out of your line of sight (Thanks to Linda Edwards for this one)

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Once you know the format of the paper you need to work out the timings.

Let's assume that the paper is split into two parts. Part one comprises 10 questions each worth 6 marks and part two invites you to answer two of four questions, each of your answers is worth 20 marks.

This is how I would suggest you sort out the timings:

Time (Minutes)

Thus the 10 questions in part one get 9.6 minutes each and the questions in part two get 32 minutes each. This is The Rule of Bits. Don't spend too long on a bit that doesn't offer many marks, If a question is worth 2 marks it isn't worth any more than 2% of your available time.

The mathematicians amongst you might have spotted that this only adds up to 160 minutes - read on!

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Before you go in

A few do's and don'ts.

  • Don't drink too much coffee or tea
  • Make sure you have turned off your mobile phone - an obvious one but................
  • Go to the toilet!
  • Do take mints and/or a sandwich into the exam, often a piece of chocolate or a mint or a jam butty can help calm your nerves and again offers you some control over your environment.

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In the Hall

The people who set exam papers are warm, friendly, loveable types who really want you to do well. They often demonstrate this by giving you clues in some questions which answer other questions!

Thus part of the spare time I suggested above should go to reading the paper all the way through before you start! Allow ten minutes to read the paper fully, also look out for the questions you know you can answer well and maybe mark them as you read through - I'll explain why shortly.

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Unfortunately few of us will know the answer to every question set in the paper (however warm, friendly, loveable, etc. the person who set the paper was) so we need some strategy to try and make sure we get as many marks as possible.

We've already looked at reading through the paper and now we'll sort out how to answer the questions.

Here is a big secret that the exam setter doesn't really want you to know............................you don't have to answer the questions in order! That's right, you don't need to answer question 1 first, in fact you don't have to answer part one first!

Now we have that out of the way let's look at how we are going to tackle this paper. My advice is to hit the questions that you feel you can do well on first. And if that covers a number of questions, which it surely will if you have prepared well with loads of revision, then do the questions that offer the most marks (that you know you will do well on) first. The idea is simple, harvest the marks - keep within the timings you set during the preparation session but now it's time to get a score on the board. Remember Pareto - 20% of the effort will reap 80% of the reward, to get the other 20% of the reward will take 80% of the effort. Thus we are going to hit the soft targets, the easy questions, first. Doing this you should find the clock on your side and you won't need to use all the time we've allocated for these questions and that additional time will be handy later when you hit the questions you might find a little more difficult.

It is also a good idea to leave plenty of space between each answer - more of that later - and if you do some rough work don't scribble it through, simply make a note next to it that shows it as rough work.

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Keep cool!

Many of us hit a moment in the exam when we panic. This can be very unpleasant (in fact it can be downright scary!) but it is possible to work through this and remain effective.

It is important to recognise what is happening when you hit the panic button. You have worked hard through the course and now little sections of your mind will keep insisting that your entire career, your love life, your family's health, your clothes sense, the fortunes of your favourite football team and the foundations of the building you are sitting in are threatened because you cannot answer the next question. Two things are happening, you are losing control and losing perspective. You need to grab both quickly! We all build our own techniques for doing this so I'll let you have a couple of mine:

I always take a "time out". Stop staring blankly at the paper. First thing I do is put down the pen and stop thinking about the exam. At Mid Kent College it's possible to look out of the windows and watch the light aircraft practising landings, you might be able to watch cars driving past or people moving about outside. If there are no windows look around the room, anything to take your mind off the paper. If you have been able to bring in any written material, a dictionary or a course book, open it at random and read it. Try and give yourself five minutes of kicking your brain into neutral - it usually helps.

If you have suffered in previous exams and feel that you will freeze you might want to try some relaxation techniques before going to the exam. Try deep breathing exercises and focussing on a particular event or person of place that makes you feel calm or happy. If you can bring these thoughts back while the monster is trying to eat you in the exam they will help.

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The last 10 minutes

You've finished the time we allowed for each question and now it's time for the "10 minute drill".

This is the time when you check through your answer books and make sure that you have clearly marked your name in all the appropriate places, you might also have time to add to an answer and garner a few extra marks (that's why we left space after each answer!).

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The exam is usually worth 50% of the course mark, you must pass the exam to pass the course. You owe it to yourself and the people who have supported you through the course to do your best.

Exams are usually fair and anyone who has done well on the course and continual assessment will pass the exam, nobody wants anyone to fail unless they haven't done the course. The majority of people who take their place in the exam hall will pass because they deserve to pass and you are no different.

Try to retain a sense of perspective and control the monster that makes you panic and you will be fine - exams are there as an opportunity to show just how good you really are and how well you know the subject.

Remain confident and calm and you'll be walking out of the exam knowing that you are closer to your degree!

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