How To Approach Exam Questions I Oxford Open Learning


    How To Approach Exam Questions

    Exam Questions On The Horizon

    It might only be March, and May may seem so far away, but two things are worth mentioning: it’s never too early to be exam-ready, and time moves faster than you think it does.
    So while you’re stepping up your revision, one of the best and most effective approaches is getting stuck into past exam papers. You’ll have a lot of the fundamentals of whichever subject you’re tackling in your memory already, but these questions will test how you apply what you know. It’s not just about information retention, but how you can use it alongside your problem-solving skills to reach an answer. Don’t think of them as tests but as puzzles.

    The Anatomy Of An Exam Question

    First of all, let’s pull apart these questions, and typically how they’re put together and the big clues they contain that will tell you what kind of response examiners are looking for (unfortunately, it won’t outright tell you the answer, just how to structure it).

    The Prompt: This is the stem, the important part of the question amongst all the jargon and other information you’re given. It’s here that you’ll find the core information and the context for the question. It’s also where the imperative verbs will be that will tell you how to answer it.

    Imperative Verbs: pay attention to these, because they are the indicator of just how to go about it. ‘Describe’, ‘compare’, ‘evaluate’ and ‘justify’ will all demand different answers. ‘Describe’ simply wants you to explain, while ‘compare’ will want you to look at the differences between two sets of data/sources. ‘Evaluate’ is likely going to want to you point out the flaws and the strengths of a source and decide on its reliability, and ‘justify’ will be wanting you to back up your answer using evidence from the text. These are just a few examples, so be sure to make a note of all the different ones you run into when looking at past papers, you may just notice a trend.

    Supplementary Materials: these will be your data sets/graphs/images/sources depending on the exam you’re taking. It’s important to take the time to give them a good read-through. Your impulse will be to do so quickly and the temptation will be there to skim. Don’t. You’ll run the risk of misreading the information and that can derail your entire answer.

    Mark Allocation: Have a glance at the marks available for the question. While not applicable to all exams (those that require longer-form responses) these can be a good indicator of just how much time and effort is required. If there are only a couple of marks at stake and you’re scratching your head at the way to answer it, chances are you’re overthinking it.

    Planning Makes Perfect

    Be sure to spend a few minutes before writing your answer to plan out what you’re going to say. Jot down some key arguments and examples, and highlight anything you think could be relevant. Prioritise the points you think best fit the answer, and then write. Taking the time here will help focus your writing and stop you from meandering from your point. Plus, should you run out of time, that plan will point out where your answer is going. It may not have much of a bearing on your marks, but you can’t rule out the marker not taking it into account.


    Spending too much time on one question has the consequence of leaving you considerably less time for any subsequent ones. If you’re struggling with a question, the next one you may find much easier—how you’ll kick yourself if you waste time on a lost cause when you could maximise your marks elsewhere on the paper! Two partially answered questions will net you more marks than one good one and one terrible one, bear that in mind.

    Using your time wisely is very important, and while it’s understandable that exam situations can cause a bit of stress, and once you get momentum in a question you can lose track of that clock; discipline with your timing is one of the most valuable assets to have in an exam.

    Cross Your ‘T’s, Dot Your ‘I’s

    Keep in mind to leave yourself five minutes at the end to give your answers one last read-through to catch any errant spellings and missing punctuation. The amount of marks dropped for not adhering to the fundamentals of writing keeps teachers up at night, and you wouldn’t want to lose out on a grade because you misplaced too many commas.

    Whatever You Do, Don’t Do Any Of These

    Panic! Of course, that’s easier said than done, but keeping your cool will help you save precious time. You can help mitigate your angst by practicing exam papers under timed conditions. It won’t solve everything, but at least it will give you one less thing to be worried about.

    Waffle! Keep in mind the points above, and don’t jump straight in to writing your answer, and you’ll do well to avoid this. Long answers that dance around the point don’t score as well as concise ones that are half the length.

    Dwell on it. Coming out of the exam wondering what could have been and talking to your friends comparing answers is a great way to bring your mood down. Once time is up, there is nothing else you can do. Take a break, do something to take your mind off it—then on to the next one!

    There’s plenty of time between now and the exam, so use it wisely. Just remember, whatever may come results day, if you can get to the end of May and tell yourself that you tried your very best, what else could you do? Nobody can ask more of you than that.

    You’ve got this, good luck.


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