Feature,  For Students,  For Teachers

An Open Letter to Students Sitting Exams

Dear Writers,

I know this can be a difficult and anxious time for students sitting examinations in college. The exam system is far from perfect and there are many valid criticisms of its ‘fitness-for-purpose’ and no doubt we will continue to improve how we assess learning in the future.

However, like it or not you will soon be sitting in a controlled setting, for a limited time, to complete a previously unseen set of tasks related to your subject – in other words you will be taking an exam.

So, here is some advice from the other side of the examination process – that of the college teacher tasked with reading your response sheets and grading your outputs.

1 You are Writers – We are Readers

This is so obvious but it is often overlooked by students taking exams. As a writer you have responsibility to guide and direct your reader throughout your response. You know yourself that readers like structure, stories, and clarity. Have you ever tried to read a book and come away saying “I just couldn’t get into it” meaning the author was obscure or rambling too much? Exam script readers want to find evidence for which they can award marks. They want you to do well. Why make it difficult for them? Point out what you are doing and take them with you on the journey as you complete the task.

2 Read the Question and Use it to Structure Your Response

This is another obvious and often overlooked guideline. You might think “obviously I’ll read the question – duh! I’m not that stupid”. Well, actually there are many situations in life where we overlook the obvious (as in “I just got to the airport when I realised I forgot my passport”). It so happens that in strange situations and times of stress we often overlook the obvious. And what are exams if not strange situations and times of stress? So please, please, read the full question or task. Parse it out into its constituent parts. Make a note of any verbs (discuss, compare, analyse, critique, solve, suggest, define etc.) and structure your response around the task – as in “(Hey reader!) this is where I ‘define’ – here is my ‘comparison’ and so on”.

3 Give Yourself (and the Reader) Some Space

Sitting an exam is a unique experience and as such it gives rise to some strange but common behaviours. Perhaps it’s the time limit, or the realisation that this is a test or competition but some student responses take the form of an endless stream of consciousness – a kind brain dump. As a reader, we are confronted with page after page of unformatted, unstructured and hurried writing. Trust me it is a difficult task to wade through this material to find where to award marks. Perhaps the student has misidentified the assessment goal and replaced the actual task with some sort of word count intensity trial. In my opinion, you need to write in blocks (paragraphs) with plenty of ‘advance organisers’ (e.g ‘in the next section I will show how my analysis may be applied…’) and headings to indicate the structure of your response. One of the best ways of achieving this is to leave space between sections and to consider the overall layout of your response from a readers perspective.

4 On Your Marks

Most exam papers provide a breakdown of the marking scheme – they might say “all questions carry 100 marks” and then indicate the proportion of the marks for each section (e.g. Part (i) 50 marks Part (ii) 25 marks and Part (iii) 25 marks). This is very useful information often overlooked by students. Your effort to complete Part (iii) of Question 1 carrying 25 marks must be weighed against the (perhaps easier) challenge of Part (i) of Question 2 worth 50 marks. Allocate your time and effort according to the marking scheme.

5 It’s About Time

It’s amazing how many student papers end with statements like “I ran out of time so I could not answer Question 4”. The hidden meaning is “I really know this stuff but the time passed so fast that I did not get around to the final question”. Well perhaps your did and perhaps you did not know but in all events the examiner can only mark what is presented on the exam script. So time planning is crucial to good exam strategy. Generally speaking you will have ample time to complete your test and some more besides. Most tests are not about speed writing. Allocate specific amounts of time for each question and then leave time for revision and improvement. I suggest you apply 80% of the total test time to attempt the required number of questions and 20% for revision and improvement. And don’t attempt more than the required number of questions – revising and improving your answers is a better strategy and there may be specific rules about exceeding the required number of answers.

Remember as readers, examiners and above all as teachers we want every student to do well. If you take the advice above into consideration your chances of exam success will improve.

Good Luck and

Remember the Reader!!

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