Writing the exam



Although this often seems to be the most threatening aspect of life as a student, testing is not all bad. You will write several tests during the year, and of course, your assignments and essays will also be assessed. These are good opportunities for you to monitor your own progress. Your test and essay results should help you to answer questions like:

  • Am I working hard enough? Do I need to adjust my timetable or my learning habits?
  • Do I need help with understanding the work? Should I consult my tutor?
  • What factors contributed to my success? How can I make sure I succeed again?
  • The more tests and essays you write, the more familiar you will become with your departmentsí expectations for their students. Even if you learn what you are supposed to learn, you also need to know what the department expects you to do with that information (analyse? compare? apply?), and class tests and essays will show you the kinds of skills the department will finally evaluate you on. Your final exams (if your courses have them) will also test not only content but skills.

    (Adapted from Stella Clark, Studying at University: A Guide for First Year Students, 1998. ã Academic Development Programme, UCT)



    1. Find out about the exam

    As the end of the semester or the year approaches, take care not to miss lectures, as this is the time when lecturers will share information about the examination. They may clarify which sections must be learnt or which may be left out; they may illustrate the type of questions that will be asked, or how many of each kind you are obliged to answer in the exam; they may be prepared to answer some of the questions you have about the exam.

    It is usually useful to go to the library to look at copies of the examination papers from previous years. This will give you a much better understanding of what you will face in the exam room, and if you copy down some questions or photocopy them, you will be able to practise answering the various kinds of questions usually asked. This is not a strategy you should depend on if the course curriculum has changed very much recently.

    The danger in looking at old exam papers is that it encourages some students to "spot" certain questions or sections for the exam. This is highly unreliable - you have no guarantee that just because every paper for the past 5 years has had a question on "gender and poverty in the Western Cape" this yearís will too. Concentrating on one section of the work and neglecting others is always risky. Proper preparation should make such strategies unnecessary.

    2. Getting the timing right

    When the provisional examination timetable comes out, it will be displayed on noticeboards around campus. For each course, it will show the name of the course, how many papers are being written, how long each paper is, which day it is being written, whether it will be in the morning or the afternoon and where it will be written. Sometimes a big course will be written in two venues, one for students whose surnames start with the letters A-M, and the other for those with names starting with N-Z, or some such division. Read the timetable carefully, write down the times and venues of your exams and report any clashes to your lecturers. Read the final examination timetable when it is put up, confirm the dates, times and venues of your exams, and note any changes. Although these details may be mentioned in your lectures and tutorials, it is ultimately your responsibility to find out about them.

    Draw up a study plan for yourself. Start by drawing a grid of the time period from the end of lecture to the last exam you write:

    Fill in the exam slots, and show other fixed commitments. As with any time planning, try not to be unrealistic. The week between the end of lectures and the first exam is called "study week" but it is unlikely that you will study all day every day during that week. By this time of the year you should have a good idea of your own patterns of learning, and should be able to draw up a plan that makes allowances for your special learning needs. How long does it really take you to read a long article? Can you really get up at 6.30 and start studying at 7.00? Will you really manage a four hour study session with only one 10 minute break? Can you (and should you) come home from a three hour exam and begin work immediately without eating a meal or taking a break? You should also timetable in any other activities that you will spend time on - the laundry still has to be done, even though it is exam time. You may want to keep up with that weekly squash game, or your twice-a-week hour at the gym.

    When you see a big time-slot free for studying, donít just write in "Sociology, 4 hours a day." Try to divide the work up into sections, and visualise which part of the day you will spend on each.

    It is easier to keep track of how much time you are spending on which parts of the work if you plan it like this, and also whether you are achieving your goals in your allotted times. If you are not, then try to adjust your schedule so that you donít keep falling further and further behind.

    Keep the whole of your exam timetable in mind as you prepare your study timetable. Donít direct all your efforts during study week to the first exam you are scheduled to write, in the belief that you can prepare fully for all the others after the first one has been written. Try to include advance preparation for each of your exams in study week.

    It is unwise to have a full social calendar at this time of the year and some activities will certainly have to be deferred, but you should still devote the minimum required amount of time to sleeping, eating and exercising. It would be foolish to put your body under extra stress at this demanding time.

    3. Approach to studying for exams

    The end of the semester or the end of the year is too late to start preparing for exams. All the work you have done throughout the year constitutes preparation - this becomes apparent when those who havenít worked well throughout the year realise that they cannot suddenly get everything into their heads in the few days before finals. If you donít have much experience of studying at this level, it is all too easy to get into this position - after all, when you look at your year planner, you see that big empty space called "study week" and it is tempting to delay all serious study till then. It might be more helpful to call it "consolidation week" as this is the time, after lectures have ended, when there is no new information coming in, but all the ideas, theories, facts, information and skills accumulated during the year must be consolidated. According to the South African Pocket Oxford Dictionary, consolidate means "to make or become strong or secure" and "to combine". This is exactly what you should be doing before your exams: making connections between ideas and concepts, constructing the "big picture" using all the bits and pieces you have gathered during the year, and strengthening your understanding of the whole subject area. This kind of preparation will allow you to respond to a broad range of questions about the work, even ones that havenít been explicitly prepared. This also means that you should expect to do some thinking (and not just regurgitation) in the exam room itself.

    One way to work on constructing the "big picture" is to try writing answers to questions (either old exam questions or practice questions the lecturer might have given you) instead of just reading over notes. This is time-consuming, but it is worth doing as it helps you to find the words to express your understanding, and gives you a way of judging what is missing from your knowledge.

    It is often helpful to work with friends or some members of your study group, but you must do some individual preparation as well so that you can fully prepare yourself for the individual testing that will come in the exam. You will really be "on your own" in the exam room, but it can be rewarding if you have prepared properly.

    (Adapted from Stella Clark, Studying at University: A Guide for First Year Students, 1998. ã Academic Development Programme, UCT)


    It is not a promising start to arrive in the exam room breathless and hot and five minutes late because you missed the bus or got up late. You can prevent getting yourself into this distracting situation by getting up in time, eating a healthy breakfast, dressing comfortably and getting to the examination venue at least ten minutes before the exam is due to start. Remember that you are required to present your student card at all university examinations.

    Do not use the short time before the exam to start going over whole sections of the work, or frantically trying to learn something new. Try to stay calm, and donít let the pre-exam talk of others upset you, especially if they seem to know a lot more than you do, or if they are very nervous and panicky.

    Once you are seated in your allotted seat in the exam room, you must listen to all the spoken instructions. There will be many groups of students there, writing different exam papers, so some of the instructions may not apply to you, but you should be alert so that you can take note of those that are relevant.

    When you get your exam paper, make sure that it is the right one - it should have the course name and code on the front cover - and then read the instructions very carefully. This is probably the most important piece of advice you will get about exams:



    If there is any confusion, or if there is something you donít understand about the instructions, ask the invigilator to explain. There will always be someone from your department in the exam room at the beginning of the examination. They are there to answer questions, so donít hesitate to ask.

    When the invigilator officially starts the exam, you should flip through the whole paper and choose the questions you will answer, in accordance with the instructions. Decide on how you are going to divide up your time. If you have to deal with three sections of equal weight, and the exam is three hours long, you should plan to spend an hour on each section. Be strict with yourself throughout the exam and stick to the times you have allowed for each section or question. Answering the first two sections very well will not make up for leaving out the third section altogether. If you feel that you probably canít do the third section very well, you should at least spend enough time on it to get the maximum marks you can for it. If you have time left after doing your best on that section, you can always go back to the first two sections to improve your answers there. Remember that your marker knows that your answers have been produced under exam conditions, and wonít expect you to include every possible thing.

    It is not always best to answer the questions in the order in which they appear on the paper. You can choose to start with any question, as long as you number them all correctly. It is often a good idea to begin with the question that you feel you can answer best. This will make you feel confident about your knowledge and may help you to answer the next question well, too. Before handing in your paper, check that your questions are properly numbered.

    You should be prepared for the different types of exam questions.

    Essay type questions should be treated in a similar way to essays that are written during the term (see the section on Essay Writing). Of course the big difference is time, but otherwise the same steps should be followed:

  • Analyse the essay title. What is the focus of the question, and what are the action words? Keep the title in mind as you plan and write, as going off the topic will lose you marks.
  • Plan. You might think that this is a waste of time in an exam, but, in fact, it could save you time as you wonít get stuck halfway through the essay, wondering how to proceed.
  • Write the essay, keeping to your plan. If you are writing an "open book" exam, observe all the usual rules for referencing and quoting. Plagiarism is as serious an offence in an open book exam as it is in an assignment during the term.
  • Watch the time carefully, and donít get carried away with one essay if it means neglecting other questions.

    Multiple choice questions are very often included in exams. Although they look as if they should be quick, they often require careful thought, and sometimes you have to go through the process of eliminating the impossible or obviously wrong answers before choosing between two that look similar. In some subjects, for example in the Commerce Faculty or the Science Faculty, you will have to complete some calculations before being able to choose the right answer. You should always check beforehand whether your department will employ "negative marking" in which they will penalise you for a wrong multiple choice answer. This is done to discourage guessing. If no marks will be deducted for wrong answers, it is definitely worth guessing; if the penalty is very small, for example, a quarter of a mark, then it is sometimes worth guessing, especially if you have excluded one or two of the possible answers already.

    Short questions are so called because they require answers that are shorter than essays. You do not need to do the kind of planning for them that you would do for an essay, but you do need to write short paragraphs which require some degree of thought. You should always be aware of the number of marks allotted to a short question so that you can give it the right amount of time. A question asking you to list six properties of something, for 3 marks should obviously take less time than one asking for a paragraph on the advantages and disadvantages of something, for 8 marks.