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Skills Check 0

The Skills Check is a short survey which should take you no more than 3 minutes to complete. Once you have completed the Skills Check we provide you with a personal learning plan targeted to your personal study needs and goals.

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  3. Examinations
  4. Your exam paper

Your exam paper

  • Take care to follow the instructions on the exam paper and be sure to answer the right number of questions Misreading instructions can lose you more marks than poor revision!
  • Students often describe feeling that everyone else starts writing confidently, straight away. Make sure you allow yourself at least five minutes to read calmly through the paper.
  • It is tempting to grab at familiar questions as the ones you want to answer, but you might misread them in your hurry. If you take time to carefully and steadily unpack the questions you will inevitably make a better selection. It is also important to plan and time your answers carefully.

Spend at least 5–10 minutes reading through the paper, taking time to identify the key terms and then, if you have a choice, decide which questions can best show your knowledge. Mark the ones you know you won’t attempt, and then go through the questions again and decide which to answer.

Once you’ve decided which questions you’ll answer, check again against the instructions. Are any questions compulsory? Should you write some in separate booklets, or just start a new page?

Decide which questions you will answer first. You don’t have to do them in order as long as you do the right number. You may want to do an easy question first to get warmed up.

Plan your time

Divide your time according to the weighting of the questions. Write down the finishing time for each question. Try not to use more time than you’ve allocated to a particular answer because you won’t have enough time to do well on the remaining answers.

Roger, an OU student, shares his thoughts on how to plan out your time during an exam.

Allow 10 minutes of checking time at the end. If your timing goes wrong and you end up with less time than you would wish to finish the last question, then follow your plan by using the time to write out the main points in note form, perhaps including an introduction and conclusion. This may earn you a few further valuable marks.

Read the question again

Before you start your planning, read the question again so you start your answer off in the right direction. It can be tempting to put down information that you know very well and have put a lot of effort into learning, but you won’t get any marks for it if it isn’t relevant. As you answer the question, refer back to the wording frequently.

What examiners look for

Help yourself get marks. Examiners look out for particular points you have made so they can give you marks, but they’d rather not search through a disorganised or illegible mass of writing to do so. They won’t give you extra marks just for writing a lot either, so answer the question, make reference to your module themes, topics and examples, and move on. Present your work legibly and in an organised way, with clearly labelled question numbers and diagrams if appropriate.

Common faults that lose marks What you should do
Not following the instructions on the paper about how many questions should be answered Read the instructions carefully, and check them again as you complete your questions
Not answering the question set Read the question several times to make sure you know what is being asked
Writing without reference to the module material Plan your answer to include module themes, topics and examples
Not allocating time appropriately between questions Plan how much time you’ll spend on each question, depending on how many points they are worth

Check the meaning

Identify and mark the key words and process words that are at the heart of the question, so you are sure what the question means and what you have been asked to do.

Write a plan

Plan your answer to the question, writing down some key points, examples, evidence and references. Work fast and uncritically at this stage. Put in everything that seems relevant to start with – you can always cut out unwanted points later.

Number parts of your plan, indicating the order you want to put them in. Omit anything that doesn’t belong, then start writing. Some students prefer not to write detailed plans, but you should make sure you have between six and twelve key words or phrases.

"I use mind maps for revision and for summarising units or topics, but they’re also great for planning an answer in the exam."

You can choose to plan a question and then answer it, one by one, or plan them all – do whatever suits you best.

Answer the questions

Try to keep your writing legible. As you start to write the full answer, check back against your plan and tick off the points as you go. Use material from your module - names, key concepts, diagrams and arguments, including supporting evidence.

Roger tells us about his overall approach to the exam paper: what he reads first and how he formulates his answers.

If your exam involves statistics or numbers, show your calculations – some marks will be given for the process, even if the answer is wrong. Make sure you use the skills you’ve learnt in the module, for example working to the appropriate number of significant figures in calculations, and including units.

Is there a place for a diagram such as a sketch, graph or chart? If so, use one and label it clearly.

In short-answer or multiple-choice questions, if you can’t answer a question right away, leave it and come back to it if you can. If you still don’t know the answer, make a guess rather than leave it out.

If you have a mental block about an aspect of an essay question, develop your plan and the name or detail may come back to you.

"Problem question? I leave a bit of space after each question, in case I want to add something relevant during my check-through before the exam finishes."

Know when to move on to the next question

Don’t spend too much time trying to polish one answer for a few extra points. Generally speaking, you will get the bulk of the marks for each question in the early stages of writing your answer. Two partly answered questions are worth more than one highly polished answer.

Imagine you have five equally weighted questions to answer and each question is worth a maximum of 20%. If you only answer three, you can’t get more than 60% even with perfect answers.

If you attempt five questions you’ll get marks for each (even if you don’t write as much), and you’re likely to reach 60% or more.

3 x 20% = 60%

5 x 13% = 65%

Work this out for your own paper – your questions will be worth different amounts, but you’ll soon see that attempting all the questions is really important if you want to get the most marks you can.

If you find that you are running out of time and you don’t have enough time left to write a full answer, make brief notes or bullet points instead. You will get points for these.

Check through your answers

Allow a few minutes to check through your paper, and add anything you’ve remembered, such as names, dates or details. Make sure that any additional material is easy to identify, perhaps using an asterisk to show the examiner where content has been added on a later page.

  • Check that any diagrams are correctly labelled.
  • Ensure your work is legible.
  • Take care that small mistakes are corrected.
  • Check that all your answers are numbered.
  • Make sure that your details are filled in on the front sheet.

This work at the end of an exam can gain you several marks, so make time for it.

Check all the paperwork

You’ll give in all the paper you’ve used, including your notes, so if you’ve made some notes because you didn’t have time to finish an answer, don’t cross them through. Your examiner will read everything that hasn’t been crossed through.

Write the numbers of the questions you have attempted in the grid on the first answer book, and write the number of answer books in the box on the desk record card. Attach the desk record and question paper to your answer books, and make sure they are collected by the invigilator so they can be marked.

An identification number is used to identify your exam work rather than your name, so script markers don’t know whose work they have.

It can be fun to spend time with fellow students after the exam, but discussing the exam questions can lead to needless worry. Have a well-deserved rest and perhaps a treat, and congratulate yourself on getting to the end of the module.