Academic Writing – Part 3: Exams

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For most students, an exam is the one form of assessment that causes the most worry.Yet the expectation of the difficulty of doing exams often far exceeds the reality.

Exams can be useful.They:
● Encourage you to read widely so that you are more knowledgable about your subject
as a whole.
● Ensure that you are the author of the work being assessed.
● Enable the lecturer to compare individual student performances across the subject thereby enabling the assessment to be moderated fairly.

In order to maximise your chances of passing exams, you will need to:
● Overcome exam anxiety.
● Engage in adequate exam preparation.
● Develop appropriate strategies to use when sitting the exam.

Exam Anxiety/stress
Overcoming exam anxiety involves more than just developing specific strategies to use during your exam. It involves knowing what examiners expect (or want to assess).

Feeling ‘stressed out’ is one of the most common student complaints at university. Stress is a normal reaction to the exercise of our mental and physical capacities. However, our stress level tolerance decreases if our capacities are challenged and stretched, the challenges involve unknown properties, we are faced with the unexpected.

There are a number of physical symptoms that alert us to a stressful situation:
● Our heart starts to race, signalling an increase in the production of adrenalin.
● Our breathing becomes deeper.
● We are edgier than usual.
● It is important to recognise that these symptoms are produced automatically.They arise whenever we are confronted with a daunting task that will test our physical and mental capacities – especially if that task involves something new, unexpected, or unknown.

Fear of the unknown 

With exams, the fear of the unknown or unexpected is likely to dominate your thinking.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?
● The more you think about these sorts of questions, the more likely it will be that your physical response will be an increase in anxiety leading to increased feelings of being ‘stressed out’.

Once you have recognised the onset of rising stress levels, it is necessary to do something about them,
before they affect your study abilities. What you need is good preparation.

Exam Preparation 

Succeeding with exams requires adequate preparation involving:
● Effort.
● Perseverance.
● Strategically organised study habits.

Inspiration and luck have very little to do with passing exams. In preparing for exams, the earlier
you start, the better. If exams are part of your assessment regime, then exam preparation should
be an important part of your study habits throughout the semester. Exams test your ability
to recall information in particular ways.
Consequently, your revision and exam preparation should be directed towards practising and testing
your ability to recall information. This will involve maximising your concentration span as well as your
memory techniques.

● Give your revision priority, put on hold other tasks until you have finished your scheduled study time.
● Make sure that your study space is as uncluttered as possible (remove physical distractions).
● Before you start, do some body stretches or exercises to loosen up your body physically.
● Set yourself clear and specific short-term study goals.
● Start from what you know and gradually incorporate more difficult material as you go.
● Work on a number of different subjects or tasks for a short time (e.g., 20 to 30 minutes per subject or task).
● Take (short) regular breaks.

Exam Reconnaissance
Find out as much information about your exam as possible.This will help you with your planning of a revision timetable.What type of exam is it likely to be? What other information will you need to know? Key questions to find answers for are:

When will the exam be held?
Usually your university will have a set period at the end of each semester in which final exams are held.
However, there may be individual variations between different subjects that might need to be taken into
The timetable for end of semester exams is not your lecturers’ responsibility and so they will probably not
know the exact date of the exam for their subject until a draft timetable is published.

Where will the exam be held?
Make sure you know:
● How to get to the exam location.
● How long it will take you to travel there from home.

How much time will be available to complete the exam?
The time available to complete an exam will give you some indication of how much detail you will be expected to produce.
If you have some particular worry or problem that might make it difficult to complete the exam within the
allotted time then seek advice from the Student Advice Centre.

How will the exam be structured?
This will depend on the type of exam. However your lecturer should be able to give you information about:
● The type of exam (i.e., closed book, open book, oral, practical).
● The number of questions.
● The style of questions.
● Whether there is a choice of questions.

What can you take into the exam room?
This refers to equipment like calculators, tables of formulae, and other information.This will largely depend on the type of exam.

Are there any past exam papers that you can consult?
Consulting past exam papers is an important means of preparing for exams. Much of the information
concerning structure and format can be found from past, but relevant exam papers.
However, do not assume that your forthcoming exam will necessarily be anything like the one the year before.
Lecturers change their approaches. Quite often, the lecturer for a subject might not be the same as the
lecturer for that subject in previous years.

How will marks be allocated for problem-solving questions?
Problem-solving questions often require you to demonstrate your understanding of the method of arriving at an answer.This means that marks will probably be awarded for your working out as well as for your answer.

What percentage of the total marks for the subject or unit is the exam worth?
In most subjects, lecturers will indicate the assessment requirements in the subject outline. If there is an exam in your subject, knowing how much it counts towards your final grade in a subject helps you to plan your study and revision timetable.

Health Issues
Even more than other forms of assessment, the exam process has the potential to lead you to neglect your
health.This is because of the misguided belief held by many students that in order to prepare adequately for an exam it is necessary to adjust their lifestyle in a negative fashion in order to ‘cram’ in as much information as possible.

This usually involves:
● Skipping meals (or not eating proper meals).
● Interrupting your normal exercise routine.
● Altering your sleep patterns.

This usually means that you will become de-energised or even seriously ill just when you need to be at your
To maintain your physical and mental efficiency, especially around exam time, you will need to maintain sensible eating, sleeping, exercise and leisure habits, especially in the lead-up to your exams you will maximise your chances of maintaining your energy levels, staying healthy, and enhancing your concentration.


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