Computing Science and Mathematics
Exam Hints

Some hints on exam technique

EXPERIENCE has shown that not all students are good at exams. Some don't take advantage of the opportunity to gain credit for what they know or can do. Thus, some simple advice on ``how to play the game'' seems appropriate. Apologies to anyone who needs no advice.

Disclaimer: Although the advice that follows is, in general, valid, it may not apply to all University examinations.
  • Exam philosophy: Our aim in marking exams is to find out what you know, what you can express, what you understand and what you can do. We can only give credit if we have evidence of your abilities. Thus your aim is to present us with evidence in this earnest enquiry - a skeleton answer might get some credit for a correct conclusion, or the right jargon, but it does not constitute evidence that you actually know what you are doing!

    In particular:

    • If a question asks you to ``explain'', ``describe'', etc something, then write in proper English sentences - don't just jot down buzz-words. Usually notes do not provide convincing evidence, because they are indistinguishable from vaguely remembered phrases.
    • If you are asked to work something out, or ``to show that ...'', then include your working out (neatly) as part of your answer - then we may be able to give you some credit for your method, even if you make a mistake or get the wrong answer.
  • Read the exam paper carefully: The ``rubric'' at the start provides important information: e.g. make sure that you know how long the exam is, how many questions you have to do, and check whether there are special directions given.

    You may wish to read the whole paper thoroughly before selecting the questions that you wish to answer, but, even if you don't, do read carefully each of the questions that you do answer.

    In particular, read the whole of a question before attempting to answer it: we try to design questions to be informative and direct, but sometimes later parts of a question contain a qualification, hint or additional instruction that help with earlier parts.

    Candidates sometimes forget to answer parts of questions, for no apparent reason, and lose credit that otherwise would have easily been gained. Make sure that you have dealt with everything that has been asked.

  • Read the instructions on the cover of the exam answer booklets: In particular the statement about writing clearly - again, if we cannot read what you write then how can we give credit for it?
  • Keep to a rigid timetable: Usually each question on the exam paper is worth the same amount (check this). Divide the time available equally among the questions that you have to do (you might even consider dividing the time up between the individual parts of a question). It is usually not worth struggling on with a question that is proving too difficult: if you have reached the end of the question's time slot then you should definitely go on to a fresh question (the early parts of the next question are almost certainly more easily won credit than the struggle you are currently having); if the time slot is not up, then either attempt other parts of the current question if there are any, or go on to a fresh question and come back to the current one if you have time left at the end (and you should have if you stick to the timetable!).
    If you have attempted to answer fewer than the required number of questions, and you had the patience to stay in the exam room to the end of the exam, then you ignored the timetabling advice, and we can virtually guarantee that you have lost easily gained marks.
  • Count the questions that you do carefully: On the one hand make sure that you do enough - if you are required to do four, and you only attempt three, then your maximum possible total mark is reduced by 25%! On the other hand make sure that you don't do too many (unless the rubric makes it clear that you simply have to as much as you can). If we ask you to do four questions and you do five, then we will simply not count one of your answers: so you might as well have spent the time checking and polishing just four answers (it may sound ridiculous, but students actually do make this mistake every year).
  • About crossing out: As examiners we have no time to read any more than we have to. Therefore anything which is crossed out we will simply ignore (whatever stupidities it may contain). So feel free to put jottings in your exam book and then cross them out. Equally, if you have done something wrong then simply cross it out and carry on. This applies to a reasonable amount of correction within written text - but if there are too many crossings out and rearrangements then it is probably better to put a line through the whole paragraph and re-write it. Here are some criteria to apply: neat and fast. One or two diagonal lines through a paragraph are enough to remove it from our view - no need to frantically scrub the paper with your pen (that takes a long time too!). You should be very wary of using Snowpake or Tipp-Ex to make corrections: they take ssso lllonnnggg to use for little or no benefit over a simply horizontal or diagonal stroke of the pen! (It distresses us immensely to see students carefully Tipp-Exing out whole paragraphs - they might as well take a coffee break for all the good it will do them.) Admittedly, there are occasions on which Tipp-Ex is probably useful (for example, to correct mistakes in diagrams), so just exercise care when using.
  • Long questions vs short questions: Questions which occupy a lot of space on the exam paper look intimidating, but this may be an illusion. Often, long questions consist of many small, well defined parts which can be answered independently: so you can probably gain straightforward marks from any part that you answer. In contrast, questions which appear to be short often consist of just a few parts, each of which requires sustained creative and compositional effort - and, although the marks are certainly available, it can be far from obvious how to guarantee that you win them! Therefore, when choosing between questions to answer do not just pick questions based on their length.

Good Luck!

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