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Preparing for exams

Understanding your learning style and the different types of exams will help you determine the best revision strategies.

Learning styles

The way in which you learn will affect the sort of memory technique that you might use. People tend to be divided into three basic categories of learners. 

  • Approximately two thirds of students are visual learners. They learn best when they can see or visualise their information. This could be in the form of notes, diagrams, symbols, pictures, and so on.

  • About 30 per cent of students are auditory learners. They learn best by taking their cues from sounds. Information becomes more meaningful for them when it is spoken out loud.

  • Kinaesthetic learners (about 5 per cent of students) learn best through using touch, movement and space. Learning most often occurs through imitation and practice.

    Nobody is exclusively a visual, auditory or kinaesthetic learner. However, one style of learning will tend to predominate.

    Most memory techniques are written for visual learners. If you learn best through listening or using kinaesthetic style you will need to adjust your techniques to suit. For example, recording important information onto a tape and listening to it repeatedly.

Types of exams

Exams can take a variety of forms. Often lecturers use a combination of these forms in a single exam paper.

For example, one three hour exam might have a third of its marks devoted to multiple choice type questions, one third to short answer type questions, and one third to essay based questions.

  • This means that the answer to the question must be chosen from a range of possible answers, given to you as part of the question. You will be asked to choose the answer that you think best fits the question. Be sure to read your instructions to candidates section carefully.

    Example:

    Question - Which is the capital of Sweden?

    1. Gdansk
    2. Stockholm
    3. Helsinki
    4. Helsingborg
    5. Volvo

    You would usually be required to indicate the correct answer by writing your answer as (a), (b), (c), (d), or (e) in your examination book.

    Some examiners might require you to write the correct answer in full, rather than just give the appropriate letter. Other examiners might require that you circle an answer (or tick the appropriate answer box as indicated) on the question sheet and then hand that sheet up to be marked.

    In a web-based examination format you would be asked to click on the appropriate answer. Or on the button next to the correct answer.

  • The length of a short answer is quite flexible. It could range from one word, to a phrase, to a sentence or to a paragraph.

    Whatever the required format of the short answer, you will almost certainly be tested on memory (i.e. your ability to recall specific information) rather than interpretation. The examiner will be expecting you to produce discrete pieces of information.

    Only in a paragraph length answer might any significant interpretation be required, but even then the limitations of space should guide you as to how much detail is required. If in doubt, re-read your exam instructions.

    Short answers, as well as multiple choice and true/false examination questions, usually emphasise central issues within the subject. In revising for an exam that uses one or more of these three forms, it is advisable to focus on identifying the main points, and how they might relate to each other.

  • Essay answers in exams differ from those done during the semester in two respects:

    1. You are not expected to provide much referencing.
    2. You do not need to provide a bibliography/reference list.

    If you can make some knowledgeable references to key texts for your subject then so much the better.

    You will be expected to write an essay that:

    • answers the question
    • has an introduction, body, and conclusion
    • is logically and thematically structured.

    Preparation

    Usually, exam essays will require you to explore the major themes of your subject. The lecture topics and (especially) the tutorial topics will give you a reasonable, but not foolproof, guide to the main issues. In particular, the tutorial questions offer some idea of how exam questions might be structured. You can also look at past exam papers to get some idea of both the structure and content of questions asked in the past.

    Identify likely topics and questions

    Practise writing up plans for each question. This plan should set out major headings and a basic outline of the main ideas that you would include under each.

    Practice

    You could also practise writing an essay answer in a set time limit for at least one or two of these. To determine how long your practice time limit should be, you will need to know some background details of the exam.

    • Length of the exam (i.e. one, two, or three hours)
    • Number of essay answers required
    • Value of essay answers as a proportion of the total exam mark
    • Value of each essay as a proportion of the total marks for the essay section.

    Examples of essay exams

    Suppose exam one:

    • is a three-hour exam
    • requires four essay answers
    • that the essays are 100 per cent of the total exam mark
    • and that each essay answer carries an equal marks value

    Therefore, each essay will take up 25 per cent of the total marks and total exam time. If you have to do four questions in 180 minutes (i.e. three hours), you will have approximately forty-five minutes per question. For practice purposes, work on a time span of forty minutes. In an exam situation this will allow you some extra time for planning and re-reading your answer.

    Suppose exam two:

    • is three hours long
    • is divided into two parts
      • Part I consists of multiple choice questions worth 40 per cent of the total
      • Part II consists of essay questions worth 60 percent
        • Part II requires you to do three essays
        • One essay is worth 40 per cent and the other two are worth 30 percent of the marks for Part II

    Again, 60 per cent of the exam time (i.e. 108 minutes) will need to be used for the essays. However, one essay needs 40 per cent of the total essay time of 108 minutes. Thus this essay will need about 43 minutes. The other two each need 30 per cent of the remaining essay time of 65 minutes. This means that they each need about 32 minutes. Again, for practice purposes, you should reduce the time for each essay by five minutes so that in the exam situation you will have an extra five minutes per question available for planning, re-reading and so on.

  • Practical exams in science disciplines aim to examine your ability to perform specific tasks in which you apply your knowledge of the subject to solving specific practical problems or performing specific tasks.

    The best way to prepare is to practice what you will be required to do in the exam.

    Work through the various laboratory exercises that you did during the semester.

    • Think about what each laboratory exercise was trying to achieve.
    • Link the aims of the experiments up with the appropriate topic for your subject.
    • Try to reconstruct in your mind your physical movements when doing the experiment.
    • Re-familiarise yourself with the various pieces of equipment that you used, especially their technical names.

    Remember, in a practical exam, the examiners are trying to find out what you know by examining how you apply your understanding of the subject matter to the problems posed in the exam.

  • An open book exam means that you can take your notes, specified books and other references into the exam room. This will probably vary with the subject and the lecturer concerned.

    Open book exams can be a trap because you might think that you do not need to concentrate on revising the subject to the same extent as a closed book exam. WRONG!

    There are three main areas that your preparation must encompass:

    1. Prepare properly: You must prepare as if you were sitting a closed book exam.
    2. Know your subject:  If you do not know your subject matter when you are actually doing the exam, the notes and books that you take in with you will be of little help.
    3. Making revision notes:
    • Make sure that the notes you prepare for your exams are:
      • concise
      • easily understood, and
      • easily accessed in the exam.
    • Know your way around the relevant textbooks:
      • Identify the appropriate sections so that you can access them during the exam without having to search the text.
      • Identify key arguments. Provided the text books belong to you, this can be done using coloured highlighter pens, sticky paper notes, or, if necessary, brief annotations.
  • Examinations in mathematics, physics, accounting, economics, and similar sorts of subjects commonly use this format of question.

    The key to success here is to have a thorough understanding of the theories and concepts that give rise to the various formulae that you need to use. The best way to do this is to work through lots of problems similar to the sorts of ones that you are likely to get in the exam.

    Work through each problem step by step. If you end up with a wrong final answer, go back over the steps that it took to solve the problem. Work your way forward until you isolate the wrong move.

    One of the hardest aspects of problem solving is to determine what the question is asking you to do. Practice with as many questions as you can find so that you can improve your ability to decode the questions.

  • In an oral examination, the questions are delivered and answered on a face to face basis. In most undergraduate areas, except for languages and medicine, oral examinations are fairly rare.

    Revising for an oral examination will require you to do much the same sort of preparation as for objective, short answer, and essay modes of examination.

    Give some thought to the likely aims of an oral exam within the context of your subject. Your lecturer or tutor will be able to give you some subject specific advice about how to proceed.

    In most cases, the exam will be looking to assess your understanding of the subject matter, especially vocabulary (if a language), key ideas, your ability to verbalise and explain your thought processes, and so on.

Preparing for exams

  • During the semester

    • Anticipate and prepare for exams - preparation reduces anxiety.
    • Start preparing for exams from the first day of semester. Avoid cramming at the last minute.
    • Schedule weekly exam revision into your semester study program - practice questions, revision discussions, consultations with your tutor, making summaries, etc.
    • Exercise, eat well, and take regular breaks. Drinking water helps hydrate and relax your body.
    • Take action to understand - discussing material with a study group or the tutor/lecturer can help you develop confidence in what you know.
    • Develop a range of revision strategies - intense study, developing flow charts/diagrams, discussion and explanation with peers, consultations with tutors – to avoid monotony and maintain motivation.
    • Access resources which can assist in developing strategies to prepare for exams and manage anxiety.

    Revision plan

    The top tip for successful revision is to make a plan; otherwise it is easy to waste your precious revision time. We recommend that you start your revision at least six weeks before your exams begin. It is helpful to look at your exam dates and work backwards to the first date you intend to start revising.

    • List all your exam subjects and the amount of time you think you will need for each one. It is unlikely that the amounts will be equal. Many people find it advisable to allocate more time to the subject or topics they find the most difficult
    • Draw up a revision plan for each week
    • Fill in any regular commitments you have first and the dates of your examinations
    • Use Revision Checklists or Syllabuses for each subject as a starting point. Look at what you need to know and try to identify any gaps in your knowledge. (A good way of doing this is to look at the results of past papers or tests you have worked through)
    • Divide your time for each subject into topics based on the units in the revision checklist or syllabus, and make sure you allow enough time for each one
    • Plan your time carefully, assigning more time to subjects and topics you find difficult
    • Revise often; try and do a little every day.
    • Plan in time off, including time for activities which can be done out in the fresh air. Take a 5 or 10 minute break every hour and do some stretching exercises, go for a short walk or make a drink
    • You may find it helpful to change from one subject to another at ‘break’ time, for example doing one or two sessions of maths and then changing to Geography, or alternating a favourite subject with a more difficult one. It helps to build in some variety
    • Write up your plan and display it somewhere visible
    • Adjust your timetable if necessary and try to focus on your weakest topics and subjects
    • Don’t panic; think about what you can achieve, not what you can’t. Positive thinking is important!
  • Revision is an ongoing and cumulative process. It is not wise to leave revision until the night before the exam. You should revise after each lecture and tutorial. Plan your revision across the semester.

    The first thing you need to do formulate a revision timetable.

    Formulating your revision timetable

    For each subject:

    • schedule short revision times rather than one lengthy session: this helps with concentration
    • assign specific segments of work to each review time
    • alternate harder tasks with easier ones
    • combine different study activities in each study session
    • set realistic limits on the amount of study that you do
    • allow regular breaks for rest and relaxation
    • make sure that your study space is available when you need it (and is free from unnecessary distractions)
    • if you lose concentration, stop studying and do something else, but before you stop decide when your next study session will be and what you will study.

    Good planning and effective preparation will mean that you will not need any last minute cramming efforts.

    Revision strategies

    There are many different revision strategies and the ones you use will depend on your learning style and the type of exam.

  • On the day of the exam the most important task is to remain calm and to keep focused on what you have to do. At this stage there is nothing to be gained from worrying about your preparation or lack of it.

    However, there are strategies you can pursue to maximise your chances of success.

    • Read through your revision notes to refresh your memory then put them away and concentrate on relaxation
    • Get a good night’s sleep
    • Stick to your regular meal routine on the day of the exam
    • Before you leave home check that you have everything that you will need for the exam
    • Allow plenty of time.

    During the exam

    When sitting an exam make effective use of your reading time.

    All exams will have a designated period known as reading time. Usually this will be ten minutes, but in some units (e.g. law) reading time can extend beyond that to twenty or thirty minutes.

    This is the time in which you:

    • check through the paper, reading through the instructions and questions
    • allocate your time and organise your strategies for answering the questions

    Memory blocks

    It might happen in an exam that your inspiration suddenly dries up, or your mind just seems to go blank.

    Do not panic.

    There are a number of things that you can do.

    • Pause and refocus your energy. Relax yourself by taking several deep breaths, hold them in and then count slowly as you let them out
    • Return to your question. If your mind is still blank, try jotting down, on a sheet of scrap paper, any words or ideas that seem to be connected with your question
    • Try visualising your notes or anything else that you have written that might be connected with the topic
    • Do not force the issue if you still find your mind refusing to co-operate. Move on to another question. Often the information that you are trying to recall may re-emerge while you are concentrating on something else.

Controlling stress and anxiety

  • It is normal and natural to feel some stress associated with tests and exams.  However, that stress should not prevent you from studying or thinking clearly in the test or exam.

    Signs

    There are a variety of indicators or signs for anxiety including:

    • feelings of irritability and/or uneasiness
    • heart palpitations
    • muscle tension and pain
    • headaches
    • nausea
    • shallow breathing
    • dizziness
    • muscular tremors
    • repetitious thoughts
    • excessive perspiration
    • change in sleep or eating patterns.

    Reducing anxiety 

    With exams, you will probably be asking yourself questions like:

    • Will I pass?
    • Do I know enough?
    • Will I be able to remember everything?
    • What if they ask something I do not know?

    Steps you can take to help reduce stress

    • Identify what it is that you are stressed about.
    • What can you do to address these issues?
    • Stay healthy and physically strong - practise relaxation.
    • Start revision early and stick to your revision plan.
    • Think positively – recall other areas of your life where you have succeeded against the odds.
    • Acknowledge your competence.
  • Keep reminding yourself of the following points:

    • Even though you have may have prepared thoroughly for the examination you will never be totally prepared.
    • You will never know everything there is to know about your subject so focus on the main issues, ideas and points.
    • You do not have to give perfect answers.
    • Exams are designed to test what you know, they are not designed to fail you.
    • There are worse things than exams to endure.
    • Most people end up passing most of the time.
  • This is a potentially risky time because you will be surrounded by many other students feeling just like you - anxious and stressed out and other students who seem to be very relaxed and light hearted.

    There are several things that you can do to minimise being influenced by other people’s negativity.

    • Keep reminding yourself of all the positive thoughts that you had on the way to the exam.
    • Avoid discussing with other students which areas you studied (or did not study), what you know (or do not know), and so on.
    • Avoid discussing possible exam questions or topics with other students.
    • Avoid asking yourself what you know about some topic - there will be time enough for that once the exam has started.
    • Try to stay relaxed by focusing on calming and positive thoughts.
    • Relax yourself by taking some deep breaths, hold them in and then count slowly as you let them out.
    • Do not worry about an exam that you have already sat earlier in the examination period. You can no longer do anything to influence the outcome of that exam. However, you can still influence the outcome of the exam that you are about to do.
    • Focus your thoughts on what you are about to do, not on what you have already done.

    Remember that you have done all that you can possibly do to prepare for the exam. The time for worrying about what to expect has long passed.

  • In most cases you will probably be too busy to worry about not passing. Occasionally, however, you might find that you are running out of steam with a particular question. This can be a dangerous moment in an exam because it opens up the possibility for you to lose your focus and concentration.

    There are several things that you can do if you find your thoughts drifting away from the task at hand.

    Refocus

    Try to refocus your energy. Relax by taking several deep breaths, hold them in and then count slowly as you let them out.

    Reassess

    Decide whether to persevere with the question. Will your time be better spent on another question? You can always come back to this one when you have completed the other required questions. It is possible that you might remember things to use in this question while doing another.

    Remember

    Keep reminding yourself that:

    • you do not have to give perfect answers
    • exams are designed to test what you know, they are not designed to fail you
    • you do not have to write down everything that has been written on the subject, just the main issues, ideas or points relevant for the question.
  • Feeling stressed is one of the most common student complaints at university.

    Stress is a normal reaction to unexpected events in everyday life.

    However, our stress level increases if: we are faced with something new, unexpected, or unknown (or potentially catastrophic!).

    Physical symptoms

    There are a number of physical symptoms that alert us to a stressful situation:

    1. Our heart starts to race, signalling an increase in the production of adrenalin
    2. Our breathing becomes shallower
    3. We are edgier than usual
    4. Other symptoms.

    Fear of the unknown

    With exams, you will probably be asking yourself questions like:

    • Will I pass?
    • Do I know enough?
    • Will I be able to remember everything?
    • What if they ask something I do not know?

    Steps that you can take to help reduce the level of stress affecting you.

    1. Identify what it is that you are stressed about
    2. What you can do to address these issues
    3. Stay healthy, physically strong ... practise relaxation ...