Efficient Timekeeping in Exams

Updated: Jul 24, 2020

Every year there are myriad students that don't finish an exam. It's a massive shame—I know because I've done it myself! The important thing to remember as you read this article is:

A few careless errors cost less than a few blank pages.

So, here come my top tips...


1) don't go too slow


My advice here may be viewed as controversial, but it is plain and simple: Go almost as quickly as you can.


Here's a couple of reasons why:


i) It's the only practical way to guarantee you finish.

Think about it, two things could happen if you go through an exam very quickly: (1) You finish with ample time, which is great as you can go back and check your answers (and nothing feels better than giving in a paper you've checked twice through). Or (2) You just finish the exam in time. In such cases it's just as well you went through it so quickly as otherwise you might not have finished at all! Whichever way you look at it, going through an exam quickly is always the optimum option.


ii) Maths and science is like a language.

Hopefully you


have become fluent in appropriate level of 'maths' by the time you are to sit your exam. Just imagine for a second that I—a native english speaker—try to speak a phrase particularly slowly. It's actually more difficult for me than speaking at my natural pace, because it breaks my flow. The same is true for maths: You will be most effective at your natural pace i.e. slightly slower than your quickest possible pace




2) 'Star it and move on'


This is a skill you need to refine ASAP. Why? There are certain questions that you won't be able to answer even if you spend the whole exam working on them. A critical element of timekeeping is identifying those questions quickly, starring them, and moving on.


It is also worth bearing in mind that sometimes all you need to solve a problem is a fresh set of eyes. Occasionally the brain will take us down a dead-end method to a problem, and we can't see our way out of it until we leave it alone for a bit and then return to it later.


Here's a general rule of thumb I use: On the first run through an exam, if making zero progress with a question after 3 minutes, star it and move on.






3) You don't have to be 'chronological'


You absolutely don't have to go through an exam in order. If you check my post on General Exam Technique, you will see that I recommend flicking through the paper at least once before starting.


Ok, you've done that, so now tell me what's most logical:

a) Struggle with hard questions first and potentially run out of time on easy questions later on?

b) Get a healthy percent of the exam under your belt early with the easy questions, then solve harder questions at the end in a far more relaxed and confident manner.


Of course, it's a loaded question, the answer is (b)


Most of the time exams do increase in difficulty and so simply going through chronologically is a fine idea. However, this is not always the case, and so just a little thought as to which questions you want to nail first goes a long way.



3) The End Game


If you've followed my timekeeping advice so far, you should have answered all the easy questions in the exam and still have a good amount of time to spare. The end-game is all about how to divide up that remaining time. The problem is how much time to spend on the most difficult (starred) questions vs. how much time to spend on rechecking easy questions. The answer to this is somewhat of a case-by-case matter, but the goal is always to maximise marks, so here's some things to think about:

  • Is there a hard question worth a lot of marks? It is probably worth your time.

  • Is there a very hard question worth only one mark? It is probably not worth wasting too much time on it (unless you are adamant that you have double-checked everything else and there are no mistakes).

  • Did you go extremely quick through the exam? Maybe spend a little time checking through answers.

  • Perhaps you could still apply my (or your own) rule of thumb: If making zero progress with a question after 3 minutes, leave it and return later.


Congratulations! You're now a newfound master of time! ^_^



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