How to pass every exam that you take

In the previous article, I covered the importance for learners to know the syllabus of each subject that they are taking in what I termed “knowing your enemy” to achieve “smart learning”. This article digs deeper into knowing your other enemy, the dreaded examination. I have passed every single academic examination in my long study career at university of eight and a half year and hence have the “formula” to share.

In the academic settings, even if you know your “enemy” well and have all the facts and figures of the subject, you are still not there yet – the “last mile” is how you translate this knowledge into marks. Examination is perhaps better associated as the “enemy” by most learners. The key to conquering your examination blues lies in how you can maximise your mark scoring potential with the knowledge that you have attained.

There is not much in terms of examination taking technique to multiple choice questions. You have to be sure of the marking format, whether marks are taken off for wrong answers. Aside from this, you just have to be careful that you shade the correct answers for each question and put a mark on the question paper to tell you that you have answered the question. All multiple choice paper will be very time constrained, so your “thinking time” per question is very limited. You just have to answer as many questions as possible. Move on to the next question if you are stuck (making a notation on the question paper so that you can come back to this later if time permits). If there is “no penalty” for wrong answers, then if you are unsure of the correct answer, just “guess” and move on. If there is a “penalty” for wrong answers, you will be best to leave any questions that you have doubt unanswered and concentrate on those that you are confident of answering correctly. You need to read and understand all the choices offered in each question and do your best to spot any “trick” questions. I must admit, multiple choice question is not my favourite form of assessment whether as a student or an examiner. For Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC), multiple choice question is the format used extensively. In the case of MOOC, a great many variations of the classic “one correct answer” multiple choice question have evolved. These include having learners choose more than one answers (and scoring both the chosen and unchosen answers), thus making the choice by learners a lot more complicated.

For essay type of questions, you will likely be given ample time to write your answers. There will usually be some choices, such as you need to answer 4 out of 6 questions etc. You should act like an investor of stock and shares: evaluate each and every question and figure out how many marks you will likely to score for each question before making your choice. But before that, try to read and understand in detail what each of the questions are asking. Jot down in point form the relevant answers. If you have done your studying well, you probably would have constructed some mind maps or concept maps while revising. Try to draw these for your answers. Label each concept map with the question number. Always ask for an extra examination answer booklet and use this to jot down the answers in point form together with your mind maps and concept maps, this will be your answer plan. Do not forget to fill in the candidate details as required on this answer booklet. When you have completed the answer plan for all the questions that you can answer, you should then proceed to evaluate how well you are likely to score mark for each question and decide on your choices. Only then should you begin to write according to the answer plan. If you are running out of time and you have one or two questions to complete, you can make use of the relevant section of your answer plan and submit these as your answers (crossing out those that you have already completed). This way you are extending your chances to score marks. Examiners are trained to look out for ways to understand if a candidate has provided relevant answers to a question. Even if your answer is in point form and with a mind map, it will still be acceptable and you can salvage a good portion of the marks. You are in fact “maximising” your marks by doing so rather than having no answers for these questions.

The choice of questions is also a key consideration. Given equal potential to score, I always choose questions that are long and avoid one-liner questions if possible. The logic is simple. If a question is a one-liner, it will usually be very broad-based. There is little in the form of clues for you to pinpoint what the examiner needs to see for you to score. For multi-paragraph questions, you will have a clear indication of what the question entails and it is very unlikely that your answer will go off in a tangent. I will also choose to answer questions on topics that I know are not so popular (a knowledge of this gained during lectures and during discussions with fellow coursemates). This is a strategy that will work if you can answer questions in the “unpopular” topics well. The rationale is simple, the examiner will be reading a great many answers on “popular” topics and thus has a lot more cases to compare. If you are offering answers to “unpopular” questions, it will be something different, a “breath of fresh air” and you stand a better chance of impressing the examiner.

Another examination technique that has been used but with varying results is the spotting of questions. This involves studying the trend in the topics examined in past year questions and using the statistics along with the syllabus to home in on topics that are likely to be featured in the examination. This is a very dangerous strategy. Unless you are like my applied mathematics lecturer in GCE “A” levels who has years of experience teaching and “spotting” questions, your payoff may not be good. I faced the exact dilemma during my first year at university. In the early 1980s, my university did not practice the provision of a syllabus for each subject. A topic might warrant only a two minutes mention in class and yet when it came to the examination, we would be expected to write a long essay on the very topic. Hence we have one crucial “enemy” that we would have trouble defeating. Animal physiology was a subject taught by a team of 8 veterinary researchers who were very generous in giving us printed notes. The trouble was, every one of these lecturers gave us copious amount of notes and extra reading with the effect that students did not know what was crucial. I teamed up with my college mate and analysed 5 years’ worth of past year questions to limit the notes that we had to study (about 2 rims of paper in thickness) to something more manageable. On the day of the examination both of us were stunned – of the eight essay questions (in which we were to choose five), we spotted only two and a half questions. We did not take into consideration that my university’s system dictated that every three years there should be a change of external examiner for every subject. We had a new external examiner that year who changed the way examination questions were to be composed and the topics that were to be examined. I scraped through but sadly my study buddy did not.

Open book examination seems to be an “easy” option at first glance but in fact is the most difficult for learners to score well. The questions that come with open book examination sometimes give you no clue as to what are the appropriate points to be included in your answer. These questions also tend to be more complicated and include a lot of application of the knowledge of the examinees. The hardest part for some learner in this type of assessment is knowing what to include and what to exclude from the answer. The chances of mis-reading the questions are very high. Even the best student could be floored by an open book examination as it did one of my top performing engineering students in a project management subject some years back.

I hope the sharing of my “formula” for “smart examination taking” would help adult learners in conquering their examination blues and help to ease the burden for those who are resuming their studies. The same “formula” will also work for young learners. So far I have not covered any tips on doing desk research and writing good assignments, this is a topic for another article.

This is a revision of the original article submitted to Focus Malaysia that was published in August 2013 under Dr. Chow’s moniker of “Plantcloner”. Dr. Chow provides education management consultancy and technology commercialization advisory as a principal consultant of MyGreenCircle.

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