Exam technique and tips

Taking the exam

This is what is known as exam technique. There are many different techniques, but here is one that is probably the best and uses some  actual scientific research. N.B.This plan is suggested for the exams relating to UK A Levels, which have around 7 to 11 questions, I would not suggest this method of an exam with a larger number of questions (ie GCSE exams)

·         First thing – review the questions
o   When you hear the examiner say start, do not begin answering the questions.
o   Start by skimming the questions for 2 to 5 minutes, figuring out which is the easiest and which is the hardest.
§  Write the hardest question down first, all the way to easiest one. Do not worry about exact easiness or hardness, just a rough estimate.
§  You know which question is easiest, if you know what method or steps to get to the solution, straight away.
§  A question is hardest when the solution is not obvious, or is on a topic you are not that confident with.
o   Write this at the top of the first page (usually where the first question is or a blank page is). After answering each question you will refer to this page each time to find out which question to attempt next.
o   The aim of this method is to get the brain thinking in the background, priming the brain, this allows your brain to come up with the relevant knowledge to solve the problem unconsciously
·         (Second thing – Time budget)
o   I would advise against this  for individual questions, as this can be very tricky and time consuming to work out how long to spend per mark and having the pressure on you to check the timings.
o   I would only suggest a time budget for the beginning, to read the questions and mark down the hardest to easiest (around 5 minutes), and at the end, for checking your solutions (5 to 10 minutes). But these are just guides to remind you to get going.
o   Best write down on the paper the actual clock time you need to stop attempting the questions and checking the solutions. Or if have digital watch or timer, use a countdown feature.
·         Strategy: Hardest then easiest question, then next hardest then next easiest and so on, until all questions are attempted.
o   Now start on the hardest question (for you). If can answer the question, go for it.
o   If after 1 or 2 minutes (Check stop watch or clock) or you have read the question two or three times and you are stuck (can’t begin, stuck with finishing the method or a sub question etc) stop and go to the easiest question on the paper (should be at the end of the list)
o   When the easier question is done or as much of it is done, go back to the next hardest question and repeat. Check the list of ordered questions, cross off or circle (not done) the question you just completed and attempt the next question (should be near the top of your list, if list of question difficulty was ordered hardest to easiest).
o   Eventually you will go back and forth throughout the paper, until you have attempted every single question.
o   If an easier question was harder than anticipated, don't stick with it (especially at the beginning of the exam), instead move on after 1 or 2 minutes. Just as above for the hardest questions.
o   Sometimes, the perceived hardest question is actually easier than first thought. This will give you lots of confidence if you complete it.
o   This goes against the idea of doing the easiest first to build confidence, but what this method does is allow your brain as much time to think about the solution when you start the exam. So you could give your brain 80 minutes out of 90, to think about this problem unconsciously, while answering other questions, much better than spending 15 minutes on it and being stuck writing nothing down. As the next question is easiest (as you feel you are strong in that topic) you will still get confidence from doing it very early in the exam.
·         Never waste time on problems that you cannot do
o   If starting with the hardest question, you will likely be stuck (at the beginning or during answering) but as long as you thought hard about the question for 1 or 2 minutes, you can move on to another question.
o   There is no point being stuck on a question at the beginning of an exam, if you cannot answer a question skip it and move on. But give  it a good go (read the question a 2 or 3 times, apply some methods etc)
o   The only time to stay with a question, and try some problem solving techniques is when you have answered all the questions that you can do. Which occurs when you have attempted all the questions.
·         Answering the questions
o   You must realise that an exam paper is just a set of similar questions that you have answered during your classes, homework, and revision sessions. You have covered the majority of different types of questions, and all the topics in the syllabus throughout the course. 
o   Write fast, but keep your writing neat and readable. If you do a lot of working out for each question, you will have less time, so write quickly.
o   Make sure you copy the question and previous lines of working out correctly. Focus. 
o   There are different types of questions, asking for different types of solutions (see here) but you should know this after practising with past exam papers.
o   Use plenty of space, don't worry if you run out, ask the examiner for extra paper. Better to have clear writing and easy to check, then messy writing making it hard for you to spot any errors.
o   Use an empty line between each stage of working out, especially if you have big writing.
o   Always write out the specific question number before writing your solutions, ie “2)a) i)”
o   When finished, make sure you mark on the paper the question done (or the parts of the question done ie “2)a) i)” )
o   Mark down what questions or sub questions that you have left undone or incomplete. Circle the question number or put a question mark next to it. So when you go through the paper you know what to complete.
o   Always underline the final answer. Make it easy for the exam marker to give you the marks.
o   If you cannot do part “a” of question, maybe you can do part “b” and “c” without part “a” needing to be answered. So do not skip the whole question, if you cannot do a part of it, attempt the next one part within the question.
·         Handle anxiety
o   Make sure to stretch your legs and arms through out the exams. Even shake you hand and arms out to avoid them cramping, especially if you feel your hand is tired.
o   Drink regularly through out the exam, drink mainly water.
o   Eat some sweets through out.
o   Do some breathing exercises.
o   Avoid looking at your friends for their reactions. Can lead to anxiety and nerves, or over confidence and not being fully focused.
·         Go back to unanswered questions or sub questions when attempted every question.
o   This should be done only when you have attempted answering all the questions and all that is left are completely unanswered or unfinished questions. OR if you have an idea for the solution for a previous question while answering another question.
o   If going back to a question midway through another question, you can either stop answering the current question and answer the previous question, or make a note on what to do next to the previous question and come back to it after finishing the current question.
o   Start with the hardest question or the question with least amount of solution written down. Leave if after 1 or 2 minutes have passed and go to the next unanswered question.
o   Use the marks on your paper to show you what you have to answer.
o   Make sure you have attempted all questions, there should be no blank spaces for any question or sub question.
o   If stuck write out method or reasoning or your approach to solving in words.
o   Only start to guess near the end of the exam, after all your thinking has come up with nothing.
o   If no progress on finding a solution after a couple of run throughs, then spend a bit longer on the questions and use some problem solving strategies (See Here).
o   After each run through the paper, the number of questions not finished should reduce. If not, then spend a bit of time on each unfinished question.
o   The exam paper is a test and it will have questions that you have never seen before. This might make you panic, but if you have revised well (and covered lots of different types of questions)  you will notice that these questions will be similar to what you have already done in the past.
·         Check your work
o   With 5 to 10 minutes left, hopefully you should have answered every question, you should go back over your work and check that all your solutions are free from errors (see here for types of errors).
o   Always go through your paper as many times as possible, to check everything is clear, the questions are answered, no mistakes in working out and errors are fixed.
o   Remember you can always add to your solution by using arrows to show new working out.
o   Don’t cross out everything if wrong, only the parts that are wrong.
o   If you have not answered all the questions and only 10 minutes left, then leave this question and check the solutions. You can always go back to the unanswered question if you have an idea as you check your work.
·         Leave when the time is up
o   Never leave before the time is up, no matter if you believe you have answered all the questions correctly, need to keep checking work again and again.
o   There is always a mistake that you have made that can be corrected if you just keep checking your work when you have finished answering all the questions.
o   If time is still left after checking all your questions, make sure to keep checking your solutions and make sure all questions are answered.

Test taking - Types of questions

Test taking - Types of questions

In the exams, you will be faced with a series of problems to solve. Some will be straightforward, some you will need to think about. So you need to know what the problem/question is asking you for, before you can answer it. Below is a list of clues (question words) of what a problem is asking you to do.
  • One mark questions – don’t spend long, it should be obvious form the graph or equations what the solution is. It could also be a recall question of an identity, definition, curve etc. Here a couple of examples
    • “Verify ...” - check that it is correct, so mainly doing a substitution of a value into an equation. State what you are doing when answering.
    • “Write down ... “ or “State the value...”  - The answers are there, you need to find them, there is no working out needed (or very little). It is on the diagram or part of an equation.
  • “Show ...” or “Prove ...” - Generally show that one side of an equation is the same as the other, or two statements are the same, use algebra or whatever. They will give the mathematical statement to prove, or they will expect you to prove it with something you should already know.
    •  If you get this as part of a question, don’t worry if you can’t do it, just carry on with the questions. As the solution is given in the question, and you just use the solution in the next part of the question.
    • You can start with the solution given, and work backwards to the answer.
    • This occurs a lot with trigonometry questions.
  • “Hence or otherwise...” - This means use your answer from the previous part of the question to help you in finding the solution
    • In some multi-part questions, they will not use the word "hence", but you may be expected to use a previous answer.
    • Always assume in all multi-part questions that you may have to use some of your solutions that you have found in later parts of a question.
    • The “otherwise” part means you could use a different method and thus not need to use the previous solution.This is unwise, as using your prior answers will save you time.
  • “Find the exact value...” - Leave in surd, logs, exponentials, pi, or fractions form
    • They will generally tell you which form you should leave your answer in.
    • No writing in decimals to rounded number of decimal or significant places.
  • “Find...” or “Solve...” – Using a method/technique to come up with an answer. Generally straight forward. Depending on amount of working out could be between 2 to 5 marks.
  • "Use ..." - Here the exam question is asking you to use a specific method to answer the question. If you use another method, you will lose marks.
    • Can use another method to check that the solution is correct, but only if you have lots of time to spare and checking your solutions.
  • “Express...” and “Simplify...” turn something (a formula/equation etc) into something else that is the same thing (e.g. put a quadratic in to completing the square form). Just applying a technique, probably a solution in terms of algebra or surds.
  • “Sketch...” – means give hand drawn sketch, with key points and their positions (coordinates) or amounts marked on it i.e. x and y intercepts, turning points. Make sure the shape is correct.  Sometimes they will state what is required in the question.
    • Always use a pencil
    • Make it big enough and clear to be able to be understood clearly first time you look at it.
    • If sketching a graph, use a ruler to draw the axes.
  • “Plot...” and “Draw...” – Use a ruler, find several points, via subbing in numbers into an equation (make a table). Should be accurate as possible, no straight lines if it is a curve.
  • “Factorise ...” – sometimes they will tell you what to do and what technique to do, you just got to remember it and apply it correctly.
  • “Find the values...” - If you don’t read the question properly, you might miss this. Don’t just give one answer, as “values” is plural, there are several answers.
  • You will also get follow through marks, if use you answer from "part a" in "part b", even if you got "part a" wrong, as long as the method is correct.
    • This means never give up on the other parts of a question if you cant do the first part or think you got it wrong.
  • If asking for more than one thing in the sentence, split up sentence into parts using a pencil, and as you finish each part, tick it off.