Proven exam-taking strategies to pass on to students

You’re sitting in the exam hall. The time for preparation is over. There is no more anticipation. It is just you and the exam. Your revision will surely pay off, but so too will these proven techniques for sitting exams.

Love them or hate them, end of year exams are a part of life for all students. Exam success is shaped by three things: knowledge, preparation and exam strategy. The last part is often overlooked so we have penned this piece with the hope of helping your students acquire techniques they can use during exams to boost their success.

hand completing multiple choice exam

1. Scan every question at the start of the exam

Problem-solving is as much an unconscious effort as it is conscious. When they scan questions, students plant key ideas into their brains, which will tick away in the background. If they do this, they won’t be starting from scratch when they tackle the question. Quite often, they’ll find that the key insight will already be waiting for them. Additionally, scanning questions removes the anxiety that comes with anticipating what might come up. However hard the exam may be, when a student scans a question, they at least know what they’re up against.

2. Underline the key parts of every question

During the exam, encourage students to try and see things from the examiner’s perspective. They should think about what exactly the examiner is asking for and what key vocabulary or concepts the question is based on. They should then underline the words that seem to matter most. Underlining the key terms in a question can bring this to the fore.

3. Get marks in the bag

At times it may be worth students going through the paper and answering every question or sub-question that they feel they can answer right away. If they encounter a tough question, they may want to leave it until the end and build their confidence in the marks they have just bagged. That said, it’s worth reminding students to leave adequate time towards the end of the exam to tackle those tough questions – particularly if they’re worth a lot of marks.

4. Show working – as far as needed

Students should always have a look at the number of marks available for each question, as this should give them a good gauge of the appropriate amount of detail they should put into their workings. Generally, we recommend that they always err on the side of ‘too much’ detail (but not to the point of running out of time for other questions). Additionally, they should make sure that their reasoning is clearly laid out – we recommend that they read it back to themselves and check that it makes sense!

5. Strive for every mark

Even when students are stuck, they may get partial credit for showing some working. If they have an idea that might be relevant to the problem, or even just part of the solution, it is always worth jotting it down.

6. Look for dependencies

Many exams, particularly in maths, will contain questions that can only be answered by completing a logical set of linked sub-questions. If a question has multiple parts, it is highly likely that later parts will depend on the earlier ones. With that in mind, students should be taught to think about how certain concepts link together.


Final thought

In closing this piece, we’d like to share one last pearl of wisdom that will help your students put any upcoming exams in perspective. Here it is:

Students should be reminded that they have several years of learning ahead of them and that, whatever the outcome of an exam, it will not determine their life trajectory. Ultimately, they should just do their best and once they’re done, take a breath and enjoy the sunshine.

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