calendar-icon Jun 10, 2023

Post By Joshua C

Exam Technique

Here come six invaluable tips for any maths or science exam—it shouldn't take much adjusting to make them work for an exam of any kind!

1) Timekeeping

In my opinion, this is the most important skill of all when it comes to exam technique.
My advice is simple and very clear: Do NOT go too slow

The rationale behind this advice is equally straightforward and clear: Missing entire pages in an exam carries far greater consequences than a few careless errors that may arise from a faster pace. In fact, I deem this skill to be of utmost importance, I have dedicated a separate article specifically addressing it. If you haven't had the chance to read it, I highly recommend doing so by clicking here.

2) Opening minutes

Start off on the right foot! Don't just open the exam and dive into writing immediately.

Take a few minutes (or even just one minute if you're worried about time management) to quickly skim through the exam before beginning.

This advice can be challenging to follow, especially for younger individuals, as the temptation to skip it is strong. However, trust me, it's incredibly valuable, and here are four reasons why:

i) Skipping this step leaves you without a "map" of the exam. You won't know its length, what topics to expect, which ones have lengthy questions worth six marks, or how many long-form questions there are, among other details.

ii) You don't have to approach the exam in a strictly chronological order anymore. You might discover that a topic you excel in constitutes the final 20% of the exam, prompting you to tackle that part first.

iii) Sometimes, one section of the exam can assist you with another. It may not always happen, but occasionally it does! For instance, you might encounter a question about Newton's First Law or Second Law later in the exam, which can serve as a helpful reminder for the other.

iv) Scientifically, it has been proven that even a quick scan of a question triggers your subconscious brain to start processing it while you work on other problems.

Note: I'm not suggesting that you read each question thoroughly. I'm simply recommending that you swiftly browse through the exam, thinking something along the lines of: "Ah, okay, a few short questions on electrolysis... ooh, and two substantial six-markers on covalent and ionic bonding... ah, then an experiment on titration... and so on."

3) Presentation

When discussing presentation, I'm not referring to fancy, cursive handwriting. Instead, I'm emphasizing the importance of organizing your work logically.

One clear example of this is "underlining or boxing your final answer" in A level Maths exams. As an examiner, there's nothing more frustrating than sifting through a sea of numbers on a page, attempting to guess which one might be the correct answer. Make the examiner's life easier by clearly emphasising your final answer with a box. By doing so, you'll find that those "benefit-of-doubt" marks start leaning more in your favor.

Additionally, maintaining a well-structured layout will make it easier for you to review your answers later in the exam.

Here are some additional points to consider regarding presentation and notation:

i) Avoid using "sideways lines" with vulgar fractions. It's never clear where the numerator and denominator begin and end.

ii) Use a reliable pen that doesn't smudge on the page. If your small numbers (like exponents) get blurred, it becomes easy to misread what you've written.

iii) Cross your 7s to differentiate them from 1s, 2s, or Zs. Cross your Zs to distinguish them from 2s. While it's not mandatory, paying attention to these small details can go a long way, especially when you're near a grade boundary. Develop your own presentation style and stick to it. Every week, I come across numerous students who misinterpret 1s as 7s and Zs as 2s, or vice versa.

iv) Instead of scribbling mistakes out, draw a single line through them. It's possible that you might realize the initial answer was correct, and you want to revisit it. Alternatively, the examiner may notice it and award some marks for it.

v) Avoid writing chains of operations with incorrectly used equal signs. For example, let's consider the question: "What is 2 multiplied by 3 added to 7?"

Incorrect: 2 x 3 = 6 + 7 = 13 (Using the equals sign poorly)

Step 1: 2 x 3 = 6
Step 2: 6 + 7 = 13 (Using equals signs correctly)

If you're unsure, start a new line to maintain clarity and avoid confusion.

4) Read the whole question!

It may seem like an obvious tip, yet many students still overlook it. Here are a few key points to keep in mind:

i) Every question has a purpose. Whether it's a math problem, a science inquiry, or any other subject, the parts labeled (a), (b), (c), and (d) are interconnected, guiding you toward a final conclusion. It's immensely helpful to read all the parts of a question before attempting to answer. How often have you answered part (a) of a question, only to realize that some of your response actually belongs in part (b)? Let that speak for itself!

ii) Skipping the introductory information and diving straight into the "mathsy" part is a common and detrimental habit, especially in mathematics. Here's an example to illustrate:

If you jump straight to letter (a), you'll miss the crucial detail mentioned in the introductory information that defines m as an even number. Therefore, take the time to read the introductory text!

Remember, taking a moment to carefully read the entire question ensures that you grasp the full context and don't miss any important instructions or clues.

5) Play the game

Sometimes you'll come up against a question you really don't know the answer to, or that  perhaps makes no sense at all. In these situations, 'play the game'.

Here's how to play the game: 

  • Convinced your answer to a question is complete nonsense? Put it down anyway. You'll be amazed how many nonsense questions in exams have nonsense answers. Even I sometimes second-guess myself only to find that an answer really was that obvious. If it's not negatively-marked (i.e. you lose points for incorrect answers) you have nothing to lose by putting your guess down.
  •  Convinced a 6-mark question can be answered in '2 marks'? Play the game: Pad it out and write around the subject by adding extra tidbits of information which are as closely associated to the topic as possible. Go for 7 marks so that if one point is null, you still get 6!
  • Learn: 'How to answer Maths and Science questions' that seem impossible at first glance. This is a separate blog article that can be found here.

6) The end-game

More details can be found on this in my timekeeping article. However, here's a brief summary of the end-game, the part that is all about divvying up your leftover time between 'checking' answered questions and 're-attempting' unanswered ones. 

No set method here, you just want to figure out where you can scrape the most final few marks. Here's what I tend to do:

  • Start with unsolved questions. I believe that's where there are the most marks to be gained. 
  • Follow the general rule of thumb: After 3 minutes of no progress, change to a different task. Recall that sometimes leaving a question and coming back to it with a fresh set of eyes is all that's necessary! 
  • When there's little hope of answering the remaining unsolved questions, I will take some time to go back and check the ones that I did complete. 
  • If fully satisfied with my solution to all answer questions, I will dedicate all remaining time to the difficult, unsolved questions until time is up.




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