Archive for the 'exams' Category

Written Exam Answers

Your subject teachers will have taught you about different kinds of written answers. How you approach them will depend on just how much writing is needed. Some require a single word or sentence, and probably start:

  • define
  • state
  • what is…
  • when
  • where
  • give an example of…

Those are the easy ones, and are usually more about recall than anything else. Some are much more open and may require a longer answer or even an essay. If so, there are a few things you can do to help you get as many marks as possible.


Check with your teacher – what kind of format is needed? Will bullet points lose marks? Can you use headings? Even if you can’t break a long answer up into explicit sections, it will probably be good to have some idea of what you will need to include. The number of marks available should guide the amount of time you spend on the question, but a moment spent thinking before you write will probably be well spent.

Showing Off

Your answer should show that not only do you know stuff but also that you can explain it in the context of the question. Use key words and processes, explain links between different parts of the topic, and relate concepts to real situations or consequences. One acronym which can be interpreted in several ways is PEE.

  • Point: what are you trying to say?
  • Evidence: state the fact in the real world, historical event, scientific concept or quote from a text you think is relevant.
  • Explain/Evaluate: justify your choice and show why it is linked to your opinion.

Of course, once you have given your answer you will need to check it makes sense. It might also be worth checking important words for spelling, and going over the grammar. Using the sequence on the printable above will help you to slow down your thinking so that the clear, concise sentences don’t need much editing once you’ve written them down.

Practice using this structure in your various subjects – perhaps write up a summary you can refer to during revision. You’ll probably find different ‘internal checklists’ useful in different topics (Safety, Variables, Controls, Measurements, Repeats might be helpful when writing experimental plans but less so in English) but the process of explaining your thinking in writing is universal – and useful in real life too.


Exam Stress

The bad news is that exams are supposed to make you stressed. That’s because they matter. The problem comes when the stress, instead of prompting you to prepare beforehand and then perform to the best of your ability, makes you feel so bad you make mistakes. The good news is that there are things you can do that will help.


Knowing that you’re prepared is the best possible treatment for nerves. Confidence that you’ve spent time on effective revision won’t solve the anxiety, but will make it easier to cope with. Some students are convinced they could never do enough preparation, so you need to really think through how much is a reasonable amount. This will depend on the subject, how much of your final mark it’s worth and how busy you are. Plan ahead, check the calender and think about how much social life during study leave is sensible. You shouldn’t quit your hobbies and stop seeing your friends, but equally it’s probably not the best time to train for your black belt grading or buy the latest Call of Duty installment.

Turn up for the exam in plenty of time, with spare pens and a calculator that works. Listen to music that will calm you down on the way. Try to make sure you’ve had some breakfast after a decent night’s sleep. Wear your lucky socks, or your favourite piece of jewellery (hidden from the teachers if needed). Your sense of smell is a powerful link to your emotions, so try having a hankie with a squirt of perfume or aftershave – parent or partner, just something that will help you feel safe.


Take a deep breath. Take another. Take a moment to meditate or pray if you’re so inclined. Spend a couple of minutes reading through the paper if you need to calm down. Some students find it helps to scribble a key word on each one, or to underline key words as a prompt for later. You might want to start with an easy question – often, but not always the first on the paper.

If you start to panic, don’t try to work through it. Put your pen down, cover your face with your hands and run through all the consequences of doing badly. (Fail the exam, fail the course, mockery by classmates, disowned by parents, abandoned by teacher, no future education, no hope in life, doomed with the only chance of a career to be discovered on ‘X Factor’.) By this point you’ve probably calmed down. It’s not that bad. You’ve got the panic out of your system, now you can give the exam your best shot, using the techniques that you’ve practiced ahead of time.

Use the time sensibly. Use checklists and mnemonics to help you answer well. If you get stuck, move on and come back to it. Focus on the ‘easy’ marks, like units and short answers. For longer answers, if you really can’t figure it out, write a relevant sentence that uses key words, and hope. Don’t leave any blanks. If you can, put yourself back into the same mindset as when you were revising; what music did you listen to, where were you, what do you remember?

Spend the last few minutes checking your answers, adding odd words and making sure that you’ve done the best you can. Don’t give up before the time runs out – there will be something you can do to improve your marks.

Maths Questions

To answer an exam question well, you first need to figure out what you have been asked to do. With written answers this can be complicated, although recognising command words can help a lot. For mathematical questions, the idea is a lot simpler. You need to find a numerical answer.

There’s a reason you have a set method to follow for mathematical questions. It works. Now, it’s quite possible that you can do some of the steps in your head, but writing down what you’re doing has two purposes, both worthwhile:

  • it makes it easier to avoid mistakes
  • it means the examiner can give partial credit (working marks) for a wrong answer

Of course, this applies in lessons too, with the added bonus that seeing where a mistake is made means your teacher – or perhaps you or a friend – can figure out how not to make it next time. If you have problems with mathematical questions, keep a copy of the checklist above (pdf available by clicking on the thumbnail) handy where you do your work. Follow the steps, writing down whatever you’re doing. If you have trouble with a particular step, look for worked examples or ask for help. Over time, you’ll find you’ve internalised the process, and should aim to recall the equations rather than looking them up. By then, you’ll be getting most or all of the exam marks.

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