Changing your approach

At advanced levels - especially postgraduate - exams are less about what you know and more about how you apply your knowledge and understanding to problem-based situations.  They’re not there so much to test your knowledge, as to be part of making learning possible, for example as opportunities to apply higher order learning skills like analysis, synthesis and evaluation (and creativity).  There are some very simple hints and tips that can make all the difference to your exam technique, especially for essay-type questions – the whole way in which you perceive an exam, approach it, prepare for it and sit it.

I’ve already addressed elsewhere how you can change your mindset from focusing on exams as outcomes to having a more mindful approach to exams and assessment as part of the learning process.  This changes entirely the way you perceive and approach exams.  What about the lead up to exams themselves?


If you’ve adopted a more mindful approach to exams as part of the learning process, then in order to prepare for exams a more active revision style is helpful rather than just being passive and attempting to memorize.  Memorizing is at the root of many problems students have with exams – as a technique it might have worked at a more basic level, but is not what advanced level learning is about.  You cannot feasibly cram the amount of information you are likely to think is needed into your brain!  And in any case such as an approach does not prepare you for tackling real problems in the real world, since those problems are likely to be ones you haven’t faced before – unlike memorizing which is all about issues already known. You need an alternative strategy: active revision, which means practicing or planning answers, for example to past questions, or even to your own made up questions or problems.  It requires a focus on understanding core principles of the subject in hand so you can apply them to any situation you might face, working out the answer from first principles, even if you’ve never considered the issue before.  That is quite the opposite of attempting to question spot and revising by memorizing specific subjects you just hope will come up!  

As you develop confidence in your understanding of core principles, and practice applying them to past or example questions so you change the way you respond to exams as potential stressors.  Your appraisal can shift from being negative to seeing exams as a challenge, or you may be changing your problem-based response to the stressor to a more helpful response (e.g. active revision).  One negative problem-based response might be to work harder and longer into the night, except that that can typically end up becoming a vicious cycle – you think you can always cram more information by working ever longer and later, which results in lack of sleep, inability to take in and understand information, and so you work longer and later.  That is a dysfunctional problem-based response to stress and sees exams as something extraordinary, not as part of the learning process.  You can also change your emotion-based response through using mindfulness and relaxation, so reducing anxiety – a common emotional response to a stressor like exams, because of your appraisal of your own (in)ability to cope. Changing your coping strategies to a mindful approach, active revision and relaxation and exams are no longer events to be feared.

Maintaining routine – eating, sleeping, exercising etc – is also crucial in the run up to exams, so the exams just become part of your routine and learning process rather than something completely out of the ordinary. 

In the exam

So, if you’ve prepared well you can settle into the exam and be curious about the problems you have to solve, confident that you have a good handle on core principles and can apply them to situations you may never have faced before, just as might be needed in the world of work.  There are some simple hints and tips of things to do that can make all the difference to the way you respond in the exam to the questions posed and therefore the way you make use of your own knowledge and understanding.

1.       Read the rubric: the starting point – simply follow instructions and the time allocation; if in doubt ask. Be organized in the exam with water and sweets or snacks to avoid hunger pangs!

2.       Tackling questions: first identify ‘definites’, ‘probables’, and ‘possibles’; work on ‘definites’ first – questions/topics you immediately feel confident about - and those questions that are more straightforward in the way they are structured.  Allocate time proportionately to each question: if you have three questions in three hours, for example, spend no longer than an hour on each, and give yourself 10 minutes in each hour for planning your answer and 5 minutes for reading through at the end.  Don’t fail to do the third question.

3.       Understand the question and plan your answerall of the question: be clear as to all the elements of the question and what is being asked – use a highlighter to be clear, e.g. Describe, compare, discuss, explain etc.  Think before writing – what level of detail is needed, apply your knowledge to the situation posed – analyse the question (break it down into its component parts), build the evidence base and bring it back together (synthesis) and then draw conclusions (evaluate) on the basis of the evidence.  Jot down a rough plan/outline of main sections – use sub-headings.  Organise material logically – time spent on planning is obvious to an examiner – it is easy to read and flows so much better than a stream of consciousness.  Use sketch diagrams or tables if useful (especially useful if English is not your first language; they allow you to be efficient with words).  And use your plan – check back to see if you’ve used the things you first thought of and jotted down. 

4.       Answering the question: Start by introducing the actual question set and conclude also by referring back to the question set, so that you use the question to help create the framework for your answer and draw your answer back to the question.  The question set that is – not the one you wish had been set!  Don’t re-phrase the question into something you would prefer, or be selective.  In practice, this means that you don’t start from your knowledge base – you start from the point of framing your answer as the question poses it.  In other words, the question sets the framework for your answer, not the information you have in your brain!  Break down the question and use the material in the question to help structure your answer – there is often a lot of useful information contained in the question itself.  Don’t structure it artificially by some construct of your remembered knowledge, because that too easily creates tramlines you get stuck in, unable to get back to the real question.

Show you can think critically and that you are aware of different perspectives.  And draw conclusions – don’t leave the answer hanging in thin air, bring it back to the question.   And finally, re-read your essay and edit/correct as necessary to improve the flow and legibility.

A final tip – if you run short of time when answering an essay question especially, remember that the first 50% of marks for a question are the easiest to get, the next 25% are harder to get, and the final 25% harder still (and probably not worth it).  Two half answers are therefore better than one complete answer.  So be intelligent with your time management, and learn that before you do an exam rather than after it!


A key part of developing a more helpful approach to exams is to keep them in perspective.  Contrary to popular belief doing well in exams does not necessarily lead automatically to career success and therefore happiness.  Even if you don’t do well in exams, there are other alternative futures for your career.  Not everything hinges on doing well in exams; from an employer’s point of view other skills and qualities are at least as important as the qualification – being creative, calm, resourceful, having key transferable skills, other languages etc – all or some of these contribute to being a good employee.  And note that in any one cohort of students (and certainly in the field I work in) while say 25% of students may get a distinction in their Master’s degree each year, 85%+ of the cohort get relevant jobs within six months.  So clearly the degree award is less important than the degree itself, and in any case, many people get job offers long before they even know their final degree award!  What and how you have learned through your studying (your education) is actually more important than a few percentage points here or there (your qualification).

So, if you enjoy your learning, exams become part of that learning process and are no longer ends in themselves.  You can then be more active, analytical and creative in the way you approach your preparation and in answering individual exam questions.  And when you are more relaxed about your learning, and less focused on the outcomes, you will get so much more out of it and, ironically, may well do better than you might have done had you pursued a less mindful approach. Doing well then becomes a bonus.

Enjoy your learning!

Bill Sheate - 13 November 2016