Common Mistakes & Improving Exam Performance:
Lots of people don’t do as well in exams and tests as they would like to and hopefully this post will give you some answers and tips. To find out where you’ve gone wrong and how you can improve you need to reflect carefully on your past exams. Look back and think about how things went. Refer to feedback on exams or coursework if they’re available to you. If you don’t understand some of the comments then try and meet with the marker or a personal tutor to elaborate on them for you.If one of your friends got a particularly good mark you can ask to have a look at their work so that you can see what made their work get that mark and use it improve your own.
Try to do something about the faults you’ve identified in your work. Many of the causes of poor exam performance are easy to correct once identified.
There are a number of reasons for getting poor exam marks, a few of which are outlined below:
Not answering the exact question can be due to failing to recognise specialist terms, failing to carry out the instruction of the question, or failing to address all aspects of the question. Make sure that you are considering all aspects of the question and that your work is well-planned. Explain what you understand the question to mean or try rewriting the question in your own words. Keep your writing to the point and make sure that you answer all elements of the question. Make sure that you include basic information such as terms and definitions to ensure marks. Consider the context of the question. At more advanced levels, issues might stem from not providing enough in-depth information, providing a descriptive rather than analytical answer, not setting a problem in the relevant context (something that we are always told in psychology) or not considering both sides of an argument or debate.
Poor time management involves failing to match the level of the answer (the weighting) to the time allocated and thus not having enough time to answer the question sufficiently well. To combat this look at the weightings of the different questions and and time of the exam to work out the time allocations for each question (sometimes this is stated on the paper and sometimes it isn’t). To do this translate the total exam time into minutes. Allocate some time to consider the questions to answer, and some to review at the end of the lecture (about 5 or 10% each) and subtract this from the overall time. Share the time that’s left over between the questions, giving more to those which are allocated more marks. You can review your answers all together at the end of the exam or after each individual answer (I prefer this method because it gives my hand a rest in between answers).
Failing to weigh the different parts of the answer correctly involves not recognising that one part of the question may be worth more marks than others and therefore should be allocated more time and more effort. To combat this develop an essay plan before you begin writing. We are always advised to spend the first five minutes of an exam reading the paper and coming up with answer plans for this exact reason.
Failing to provide evidence to support your argument. Some subjects will require this more than others (psychology for example requires a lot of evidence in essays) so you should realise when material needs support in order to receive marks. Again this can be solved by developing a proper essay plan.
Incomplete answers involve failing to answer the question properly and not considering the topic in sufficient depth. To combat this people need to develop a better revision strategy, or a better understanding of the thinking required at university level of education.
Providing irrelevant information is basically “waffling” in your answer to fill in the space. Avoid this by referring only to material which is directly relevant to the question at hand.
Poor English involves poor communication of ideas and can be improved by planning writing. In particular reading fiction seems to improve writing technique and we’ve had this recommended to us at university. There are also a lot of blogs available which focus on developing writing skills like writeworld.
Factual errors are generally caused by poor note taking, learning, revision, or recall so different study strategies are necessary to combat this. Have a look at my study tips tags here (X)(X).
Remember that the markers don’t want you to do poorly. They want you to succeed. Seeing little errors like the ones described above probably frustrate them as much as you. They can’t assume that you know information that you haven’t included on your paper.
Try to think positively about the exam, develop a mantra and repeat it to yourself. Mine is that “I can do this. I have done the work. I know the material. I can do this.”
Not feeling prepared is one of the most common causes for being nervous about exams. Many people begin to panic. When time is limited, effective use of it is vital. Create a revision timetable that helps you optimise your activities and stick to it. So many people create timetables and then don’t use them. Spend time with others in your class to exchange ideas about what’s worth studying and to share answers. Be strategic in your approach to the work; pinpoint critical subjects from lectures and handouts, make sure you have a basic understanding, focus on key facts, and then finally, if you have time, add details and examples.
Another cause of failure anxiety can be perfectionism (something I struggle with). Exams have time limits and tough marking criteria and I’ve had to force myself to realise that with these constraints my work will never be perfect under exam conditions (not that it ever is). Don’t go into an exam expecting to produce perfection. Don’t spend too long planning an answer; yes, plan your answers (especially to essay questions) but only spend a few minutes on this. Don’t spend too long on the initial parts of an answer-focus on actually answering the question.
Sleeplessness is another cause. Make sure that you get enough sleep and don’t stay up revising before an exam. Make sure that you eat something, but nothing too heavy or you might be uncomfortable. Confirm dates and times of exams; take a walk to the exam room to familiarise yourself with the routine of the exam day, If you start panicking in the exam, try some relaxation techniques and then return to your paper. If you still feel bad explain how you feel to an invigilator and ask if you can go for a supervised walk outside or something. If you have problems with the wording of a question see if a representative of the department can help you understand the question. Don’t panic when you’ve got five minutes left, you can write a lot in that time; keep writing until you are told that you have to stop. If you do need to use the toilet don’t be embarrassed, just go and you’ll feel more comfortable when you return (taken from my post on anxiety here)
Before the Exam:
Make sure that you’ve revised well prior to the exam. Study guides are great materials to begin with because they list all of the topics that you’re expected to revise so you can cross each off as you finish that section. Make your way through the topics, allocating more time to the ones which you struggle with but not ignoring those you find easy. Remember just because you know a topic when you revise it doesn’t mean you’ll remember it in the exams. Information we think we have stored in memory can be lost so keep going over the material to keep it fresh and to consolidate it into longer term memory.
It’s always tempting to use the day before the exam for las minute cramming but please don’t do this. Use this alst day to relax and slowly go through material/notes. Don’t introduce any new material at this point. Take a bath/shower to relax. Maybe go on a walk. This is the day to get yourself mentally prepared for the exam.
The Exam Day:
When it comes to the exam day make sure that you know what you have to do. For some exams you may need to register or sign in so arrive with time to do that. For others you may need time to find your seat.
During the Exam:
Make sure that you enter the exam well prepared. Take in a bottle of water and wear clothes that you’re comfortable in; you could be sat there for several hours depending on the exam. Make sure that you’ve eaten breakfast, but not so much that you’re uncomfortably full. Check that you have any IDs or stationary that you need to take in with you and that you know the location (it might be worth taking a walk to the location a few days before so that you know how long the journey takes and you definitely know where you’re going).
Read the rubric of the paper so that you know how many questions you’re expected to answer, whether each answer is in a different answer book, whether there are any rules to question selection (only one per section or something like that). Look carefully at all of the questions and, if you have a choice, choose which questions you can best demonstrate your knowledge and skills on. Work out the order in which you’re going to answer your questions (best first, worst first, fact based first, etc). I usually go with the best question first because it lifts my mood and gives me time to think about more difficult questions while I write my answer. Also writing that answer might make me remember material for the other questions too.
If you get thirsty in the exam then drink but try not to drink loads because you’ll make yourself uncomfortable. Spend a few minutes planning your answers but don’t make these too elaborate and make sure you cross them out before the end of the exam. If there are standard abbreviations that you can use, do use them but remember to define the abbreviation the first time that you use it in the essay. Keep an eye on the time so that you know how much is left. Consider the speed of your writing; yes you want your exam to be readable but there’s no point in wasting valuable time writing slowly so that it’s neat. Markers are not going to give you extra marks for your penmanship; as long as it’s readable it’s good.
When you’re actually in the exam, everyone has from time to time faced the dreaded mind blank. If this happens, leave a black space and come back to it later. Alternatively, brainstorm connections from things you do know about the subject, work from the basics and ask yourself “Who? What? When? Where? Why? How?” Look for associations; read through the other questions and material; they might trigger your memory (this is the one that I tend to use) and get on with the other questions if you can.
When it comes to the end of an exam most people like to leave as soon as they can. But you should use this left over time to review your answers. As you’re reading and checking your answers you might notice mistakes or you might remember more relevant material which can be added using a footnote and an asterisk (*). This time can be used to check that you’ve numbered your questions and filled in your details on the paper correctly (even if this seems basic people get this wrong; only this week people wrote the wrong year on their exams and some wrote their answers in the wrong answer books so it’s always worth checking). Check your spelling and grammar. Sometimes markers can be lenient in spelling and grammar but there are times when they’re not (especially with key terms that you should know how to spell). Reading your answer will also tell you whether you structured it well and if you answered the question correctly and fully.
After the exam:
After the exam is finished it’s always tempting to spend lots of time with friends comparing your answers. However, this can be a bad idea because it can make you feel as though you’ve written the wrong answers and if you have more exams to come, this feeling really won’t help you. Feel free to discuss the exam and how it went but don’t let yourself feel down about it. After all the exam is over and at that point there is no way to know definitely how you’ve done and there’s nothing that can be done to change anything until results are given out.