Options: Print view
The first thing to do if you have exams coming up is to
demystify the process. Exams are commonly considered
a mammoth test of memory and stamina under highly
pressurized conditions, where, having revised until you
drop, you answer impossible questions for cloven-footed
In fact, these are all myths:
Exams are more a test of how you can apply knowledge, and organize your ideas,
than just of what you know.
Exams offer you the opportunity to show what you have learnt on the course in a
definite amount of time, during which, if you can assume the right mental attitude,
you will be performing at your peak efficiency.
Examiners are not looking for the opportunity to catch you out – they will mostly
just skim through your answers and spend no more than a few moments on each.
In this article, we shall look at techniques that will help you do your best on the day.
Revision is obviously important to exams (provided it is done in a planned, rather than last
minute and rushed fashion), and so please look at the revision guide in conjunction with
For the purposes of this article, we shall be concentrating on exams with essay-type
Before the exam
You need to revise, certainly, but it’s also important to ensure that you arein peak form
mentally and physically on the day of the exam. An athlete doing a marathon does not
spend the last few days running as often as he can: he prepares mind and body in other
ways, and that’s what you should do.
In the weeks before the exam
Make sure that you know the practical detail of the exam(s): how many, when, where?
Get as much practice as you can – are there mock exams? What can your tutor tell you
about the exam? Where can you get hold of past exam papers?
Find out (either from past exam papers or from your tutor) about the format of the exam,
including how many questions you are expected to answer, whether they carry equal
Practice writing under exam conditions, perhaps with friends, then you can compare your
In the days before the exam
This is the time when you will need to build up to your peak performance!
Make sure that you get plenty of rest and exercise.
Eat healthily and drink plenty of water.
Try and stay positive – avoid people who are negative or who panic.
Make practical plans – your route to the exam, any cover arrangements you need to
make for home or work.
According to Northedge (2005, p. 341) the mind under pressure is better at focusing on
concrete matters than on abstract thi king. For this reason, it is best to do the broad
planning about how you are going to tackle the exam and revision well in advance, and
devote what time you have in the last few days to practical preparation.Any revision
should be ‘overlearning’ or reading through ‘summary notes’ if you have created these –
The last 24 hours
The night before, make sure that you re read the details about the exam (where it’s being
held, time etc.) and that you have all the equipment necessary(pens, also any tools, such as
Try and get plenty of rest – if you can’t sleep, don’t worry too much as tiredness may be
compensated for by nervous energy.
On the day of the exam, eat well – slow releasing carbohydrates are good for giving you
energy. Allow plenty of time for the journey. And make sure you have your exam ID!
In the exam
The first few minutes
When the invigilator utters the magic words, ‘You may now turn over the page’, avoid the
temptation to rush in and adopt a calm, methodological approach.
1. Read the instructions, and make sure that you understand them (e.g. how many
questions from how many parts, how many questions in total, do the questions
attract the same proportion of the marks?).
2. Write out your personal detai s.
3. Read the whole paper, checking both sides of the page, so that you don’t miss
4. Put ticks beside the questions you think you can answer.
Look for questions that relate to those parts of the course that you have revised. Read the
questions carefully before you attempt to answer - what exactly is it asking? Does the
question have more than one part? Make sure that you underline key words. Having done
all this is the question about what you think it is and do you still want to answer it?
Writing essay type questions in exam conditions
Answering essay type questions in an exam is as much about organizing your ideas as it is
about reproducing knowledge.
The easiest way to look at writing exam answers is to see them as cut-down versions of
course essays. You need to adopt the same approach as for an essay but you will not need
to write as much, as the time scale is obviously much shorter. Thus:
You need to have a structure, with a proper introduction and conclusion, and cover
points in an organized way, BUT you can say less on each point and leave out some
of the background.
You need to include critical analysis, and show that you understand different (and
perhaps opposing) points of view. Read the question carefully – is a particular
viewpoint hinted at?
You need to demonstrate RELEVANT knowledge – bring in terms, ideas and
concepts from the course, as well as evidence and examples, BUT you will need
fewer examples than for a course essay. AVOID bringing things in just for the sake
of it – always ask yourself, is it relevant to the question?
Quote key thinkers in the field as part of your evidence, BUT you don’t need to
include a bibliography and references.
Use proper sentences (not notes) and paragraphs BUT minor grammar and spelling
errors are probably less important than in a course essay. You can adopt a concise
style, but spell out words properly and AVOIDusing ‘texting’ abbreviations!
Above all, don’t fill your answer with names and facts just for the sake of it. Make sure that
everything you include is relevant to the ques
tion. Padding is out!
The importance of planning
As with a course essay, you need to spend time planning in order to ensure that you have
an organized framework and write a disciplined answer. Northedge (2005, p. 363) suggests
spending between five and 10 minutes on planning each question (assuming a three-hour
exam with four questions equally weighted). Jot down a series of headings with key points,
including concepts, theories, names, examples. Then decide what to include and what to
The other reason why it’s important to plan is that under the stress of the exam, it’s easy for
the mind to go blank in mid-question. If this happens, you will find it easier to bring your
thoughts together again if you have a plan of what you are going to say.
Using time productively
Exams are highly time-pressured events, and it’s important to use the time productively and
to avoid the common trap of having far too little time for the last question.
Plan your time strategically – look at the weighting of the marks, and allow proportionally
more time to questions with a larger weighting. Assuming four questions of equal
weighting, and time spent at the beginning reading the paper, allocate the same amount of
time to each question. If you find yourself running out of time on a question, draw it to a
close, and go on to the next question.
If you are likely to freeze up under pressure, it’s probably best to start writing fairly soon
(although not before having done a proper plan). Attempt your ‘best’ question close to the
beginning of the exam, when you are at your freshest.
Once you have done the first question, rough out the plans for your other questions, so that
you will avoid having to plan close to the end of the exam, when you are feeling under
pressure to finish.
It will be beneficial if you can finish early, and allow five minutes to readthrough your
If you do run out of time, write part of your answer to the last question, and write notes,
keywords or short sentences forthe rest. Most examiners will give some credit for this.
Techniques to avoid going blank
Having a plan means you are less likely to go blank in the middle of a question, but should
this still happen, go on to the next question and come back to the one you were tackling
Another way of avoiding these blank moments is to allow yourself to jot down notes
whenever ideas come into your head, even though these concern another question
(although obviously in a place separate from the question you are currently answering,
perhaps on a separate piece of paper from the exam book).
Although there will be some tolerance for this, and no examiner will expect perfect
handwriting, it’s important to be as neat as possible under the circumstances.
Start each question on a new page, and make sure that you number questions correctly.
Write your plan in your exambook, but make sure that you cross out any notes so that they
are not confused with your answer.
Northedge, A. (2005), The Good Study Guide, The Open University, Buckingham, UK
A revision strategy
Options: Print view
Because of its association with exams, the word revision
often evokes doom and despondency, nights spent on
last minute cramming of notes that can be regurgitated
under timed – and hence stressful – conditions.
Planning a revision timetable
Creative revision strategies
Using past exam papers
Maintaining a positive attitude
However, effective revision has little to do with either cramming or rote learning. Rather it
should be part of a planned and creative process that consolidates course learning, and
helps you see how different parts interrelate, giving you a holistic knowledge of your
Planning a revision timetable
Revision should not be done piecemeal and haphazardly, but as a series of planned
activities. It should be seen as a project, with a series of distinct but interrelated tasks,
linked by a timeline.
Ideally, you should approach your studies throughout the year with a ‘revision mentality’,
having regular reviews of topics as you study, but you should start seriously thinking about
the revision two months before the exam date.
Analysing the problem
You first task is to analyse what it is you have to revise. For example, if you have an exam
for a marketing course, it does not mean that you necessarily have to revise every part of
Your first task should be to find out as much as possible about the exam. You can do this
Getting hold of past exam papers and looking at the types of questions and how
they are organized. How many sections are there, how many questions per section?
Are the questions and sections weighted equally in terms of marks? How do the
questions relate to the course content? What are the types of response that the
questions dictate? Are they multiple choice (requiring selection out of a choice of
predetermined answers) or do they require essay type answers? If the questions
have different parts, what is the mark weighting?
Talking to your course tutor, who should be able to give you information about the
exam. Many course tutors provide revision sessions as part of the course.
Sorting out your course notes
You may be the sort of organized person who has all your coursenotes neatly filed in one
folder, separated by tabs for different parts of the course. But then again you may not, in
which case your first task is to assemble all your notes for one course and then sort them
out into topic (this may well fit into particular weeks, for example, week 1= what is
marketing, week 2 = market segmentation etc.). You should include lecture notes, notes
from books, journal articles etc., assignments, handouts etc.
Overall this exercise should give you a good idea of the overall shape of the course, and
how bits of it fit together.
Deciding on priorities
You will not be able to revise the whole of the course; you therefore need to select
particular topics and revise them well, rather than attempting to memorize everything. You
should make sure that you revise sufficient topics to enable you to answer a range of exam
questions – for example, five topics for three questions (don’t just revise the topics that
didn’t come up on the exam last year.)
Preparing the timetable
Once you have decided what you need to revise, you should make yourself a timetable.
You can do this using your computer, using the ‘Table’ facility in Word, Excel or (perhaps
the best as the months are laid out for you) your Outlook calendar.
The exam(s) should be the first date(s) you put in, together with any important coursework
that may be due in the time. Equally important, however, is that you take account of your
personal, work and domestic commitments.
If you are in full-time work, and/or have child care responsibilities, you should note the
times when you will not be able to work. You should also plan in adequate time for
relaxation, as well as perhaps opportunity to study with others.
If you have a busy life with a lot of commitments, try and make use of ‘dead’ time – for
example when commuting, during lunch breaks etc. If you do this, it will be especially
important to break tasks down into manageable chunks. Memorizing the whole ofKotler
would need a long bus journey!
You should by now have an idea of the slots of time available for revision. Go back to your
list of topics, and slot them into your revision time (you will probably need to do this fairly
roughly at first, until you get a better idea of how long things take). You will need to do a
certain amount of prioritizing at this stage, deciding on the most important things you need
to revise, and concentrating on these first. Try to give similar amounts of time to your main
Creative revision strategies
A common mistake with revision is to see it as a reading and memorizing activity – it is
more creative and active, and will certainly involve writing and organizing.
The whole object of revision is to gain a whole picture of a branch of knowledge. To
achieve this, it’s important to understand not just the bare bones of topics, but the theories,
models and concepts that underpin them, as well as they way in which topics relate to one
another. As such, you need to develop revision strategies that encourage you to connect
ideas and to think creatively.
Creating condensed notes
Northedge (2005) suggests that a good strategy is to ‘boil down’ your chosen revision
topics so that you have the concentrated essence, bearing in mind that exam questions
demand short answers and therefore there’s not room for a lot of detail. In order to do this
you need to:
Take your notes from books, articles, lectures, plus handouts etc., and make
From your condensed notes, create summary sheets for each sub-topic.
Summarize the main points from your sub-topic summary sheets onto one topic
You could also use index cards to record essential information, such as dates, formulae,
legislation, components of models (e.g. what does SWOT stand for) etc.
Here are some other strategies you can use, all of which call for creative and interactive
Find the essence of a topic
– for each topic, select and make notes on the main theories, models, evidence (as
relevant). You can use the Table facility in Word for this.
– seek the key questions at the heart of the topic, and make notes around these.
Look at topics from a different angle.
Use your senses and your creativity
– Make your notes creative and visual, using mind maps, different colours etc. (You
will benefit if you use these techniques throughout the year, but if you have not,
– Revise by ear – record your notes, and listen to the recording.
Create hierarchies (as in the condensed notes referred to above).
– Use the ‘outline’ view in Word for your notes, which allows you to cut and paste
easily, rearrange things, and view in as much or as little detail as you want.
– Mind maps are also a good way of organizing your thoughts.
All these are active strategies, designed to help you recall information under exam
pressure. You will probably also want to check back over your notes several times, and
check that the information has sunk in.
Using past exam papers
We have already said that it is important to get hold of past exam papers, in order to get a
good idea of the sort of questions you are likely to be asked. You need also to use these
papers as part of your revision strategy, to ensure not only that you have the knowledge,
but that it has sunk in.
The peculiar thing about exam questions is that you are required to write an answer in a
given time frame. The upside of this is that you will not be expected to give a long answer.
You do need however to practice thinking and writing for these types of questions.
The important thing to remember that for an essay type answer, the examiners are looking
for some sort of structure, just as in a course assignment. So you need to test your ability to
think quickly and organize your knowledge coherently as opposed to writing down
everything you know.
Look at the question carefully and decide what it is asking: what are the key words? What
topics in the course does it refer to? What are the themes, concepts and ideas that you need
to draw from the course? What order do you need to put things in?
You also need to practice your ability to write under timed conditions, in handwriting –
neither of which you may be used to. It’s probably best, because of the time involved, just
to do this with a few questions.
Maintaining a positive attitutde
Maintaining a positive attitude, keeping calm and getting adequate rest is very important
when you have exams coming up.
When working on your revision schedule, avoid the temptation to cut down on sleeping
time, and plan time for relaxation.
Give yourself short-term goals, plan for short breaks and include rewards, such as watching
a favourite programme on television.
It’s a good idea to revise with other students – you can test one another, and discuss ways
of answering exam questions. You will learn a lot through discussion as well as by
explaining things to people. However, avoid spending time with people who don’t have a
positive attitude – this will only make you feel worse.
If you find yourself getting very stressed, seek the advice of a counsellor (your university
may well have its own counselling service).
However, if you revise in a planned and active way, remember that you are giving yourself
the best possible chance of success in the exam.
Northedge, A. (2005), The Good Study Guide, The Open University, Buckingham, UK