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How to Do Well in Exams: A Practical Guide From a Veteran Teacher (2)

How teachers teach and evaluate their students isn’t a complete and utter mystery. That’s what we established in part one of our guide on how to do well in exams. I recommend checking it out first if you haven’t already. We looked at testing from both a student’s and a teacher’s perspective, covered the context of the exam, tasks and evaluation criteria. So far we distilled those into three practical tips:

  1. Consider the context of the test by thinking through what you will be asked to do and how you’re supposed to do it in advance.
  2. Break down the requirements of the task so you can plan ahead and don’t do more than is asked of you.
  3. Take the test with the evaluation criteria in mind. How can you make this as easy to evaluate as possible without compromising your unique approach?

In part two, we dive into tips number four to six: The easy wins, the dreaded knowledge gaps and a new perspective on failure.

Table of Contents

Three More Practical Tips on How to Do Well in Exams

As a quick reminder, all tips are mainly relevant to written and oral exams. Although, you should be able to apply almost all of the ideas to practical tests as well. Here we go.

4. Collect the Easy Wins

Easy wins are any aspects of a test that are relatively effortless to accomplish. More so than mastering the core knowledge and skills of the exam. The downside is they don’t count as much towards the overall grade. The upside is they do add up and are essential to get to a 100% test score anyway. The key to collecting them is prioritisation.

Taking our time to break down the tasks first (tip no. 2) and sitting the test with the evaluation criteria in mind (tip no. 3) may seem like it takes away valuable time from actually answering the questions. However, this approach not only allows our answers to be more relevant. It also enables us to identify and prioritise the easy wins in regard to content, structure and language.

Easy Wins: Content

A well-crafted exam begins with an easy task. For one it’s to give the student some confidence. For two it’s because of a natural teaching and learning progression from simple to complex. Should we find the first task not easy at all, it’s either because the teacher had other plans or we severely underestimated the subject matter. That doesn’t mean we cannot go look for some easy wins. Here’s one way how to find them.

Which task asks us to (1) reproduce knowledge (List all presidents of the United States.), (2) analyse an issue (Examine how Jimmy Carter came to power.) or (3) evaluate it (Comment on Jimmy Carter’s first 100 days in office.). The first type of task is a mere memorisation exercise. The second requires additional background knowledge, an understanding of the mechanisms of presidential elections and the ability to connect all those dots. The third type tests the first two skills plus our ability for independent judgment.

The least we can do is to notice when all we need to do is get our (memorised) facts right. Memorisation methods such as the Mind Palace Technique can help here and in an exam where the rest is all analysis and evaluation, those are the easy wins content-wise. If at all possible, we can do those first to build our confidence. Even if all else fails, the teacher will notice and reward those foundational skills. Speaking of foundational skills.

Easy Wins: Structure & Language

Structure and language are other areas with easy wins. As we discussed in part one, they usually carry less significance in evaluations. But good form is essential for everyone looking to score at the top and anyone looking to pass at the bare minimum alike. Because it’s essential for your evaluator to navigate your text in the first place.

When it comes to structuring, we’re talking about the basics of layout and formatting, We begin our text (or verbal answer) with an introduction, which gracefully segues into the main part and is wrapped up with a conclusion. We write (or think) in paragraphs that transition naturally (cohesiveness) and we make sure the reader will find everything to be consistent and follow logically (coherence).

What’s more, we write clearly leaving enough space between paragraphs. We alternate between long and short sentences, simple and complex grammatical structures. We don’t use jargon or technical terms unless they’re appropriate and we know what they mean. If required, we annotate with consistency. Finally, we check for spelling or grammatical mistakes and make sure all our papers are numbered and in good order.

Form and Grading

Good form is key. Imagine a teacher grading a meticulously articulated and structured paper whose only shortcomings are that the analysis is amateurish at best and the final assessment naive at worst. Now imagine the same in reverse. A brilliant piece of interpretation and evaluation that nonetheless takes the assessor two hours to decipher.

In the eyes of a demanding teacher, basic facts, structure and language are the fundamentals. Relatively speaking, they’re the easy wins that are absolutely necessary to score high. Because part of a justification for excellent grades is that the student not only got the difficult and important things right but also the fine details.

5. Fill in the Gaps

Knowledge gaps are (almost) inevitable. Complete blackouts, the Black Swans of testing, have more severe consequences but are rarely expected until they actually happen. There are, however, strategies to mitigate gaps and blackouts.

Avoid Mindreading

Teachers can’t read minds. If the tasks or parts of it aren’t clear and we write as if they were that can lead to confusion. A better strategy would be to include in our answer what we think certain tasks or terms entail.

For example, we may be asked to explain the transition of US presidential powers. If we’re unsure what ‘presidential powers’ are we can define the term before going into detail. In other words, we make our assumptions and rationale for answering the question the way we did as transparent as possible.

Anything that lets the evaluator understand our thought processes better helps. Although they ultimately have to fall back to the teaching material and the criteria, they will be more inclined to give us the benefit of a doubt. It’s not a perfect solution but a psychological win and better than skipping a question altogether.

Ask for Clarification

If the test format allows, there is of course a superior solution: asking for clarification. Oral exams, for example, tend to have a conversational format. Done cleverly, there are a few tactics that can help you fill gaps in knowledge or understanding without compromising your grade.

One is to simply repeat or paraphrase the task to buy yourself some time and potentially prompt a correction from your interlocutors (So you want me to explain how responsibilities are transferred from one administration to another.). That way you can make sure everyone’s on the same page. If certain technical terms are unclear, mirror the teacher by repeating the term you’re unsure about, spoken as a question (Presidential Powers?). This can prompt the teacher to expand on the term.

From an interlocutor’s perspective, it’s preferable to clarify what the actual question is in the beginning. Yes, it’s true that revealing big knowledge gaps through too many follow-up questions can hurt your grade. But it’s certainly better than the awkwardness of finding out you failed to even address the task after your five-minute monologue.

Beware of Closing Questions

Teachers distinguish between open questions with a wide range of possible answers (How do presidential elections work?) and closed ones with a finite set of answers (Is the US President also the commander in chief?). As a rule of thumb, the more closed a question is the easier it is to answer. It pays to keep track of what type of questions you’re being asked. Because the more challenging the questions, the better you can showcase your knowledge and skills.

In an oral exam, initial questions tend to be broader and more open. This gives you room to choose how you want to answer and what examples you want to pick. Put simply, it challenges you more to give a coherent answer. If a student struggles to answer open questions, skilled teachers will narrow down the options to make it easier. How do presidential elections work? may turn into a more specific Can you describe the process of the primaries? Or even into a very basic How many states does the US have? if a student seems to lack a basic understanding of US elections.

The more skilled interlocutors will vary between open and closed questions depending on a student’s performance. That doesn’t mean that you can’t steer the conversation yourself by signalling that you’re confident and more than capable of answering open and complex questions. Unless you’re sitting a lie detector test, you want to aim for a free discussion rather than being quizzed about facts with yes/no questions.

6. Change Perspectives

If you’re getting too stressed about an upcoming exam it may be time to detach and step back for a moment. Consider the following to put everything back into perspective.

Reassessing Failure

It would be wise to not allow yourself to make your happiness dependent on a single test. Understandably, a looming high-stakes exam can easily distort a sense of reality. Everything is focused on that one test. The future course of our whole life — so it seems — will depend on whether we pass this exam or not. That might be true, but who says failure wouldn’t be the better option?

Instead of fixating on this one opportunity, we might want to ask ourselves: What’s the worst thing that can happen in case we fail? Can we re-sit the test? If so how often? We absolutely MUST pass this placement test or we won’t be able to study at our preferred uni and our life will be ruined forever? That doesn’t sound like a healthy relationship to failure. Because if we think this way and fail, we will indeed lose.

Have Options

A healthier strategy would be to think two to three steps ahead of what your options and their benefits are. Other than a wounded ego, what are the actual downsides in case you need to repeat an exam? If a redo is not on the cards, think of alternative pathways or careers. Alternative goals should be equally valuable and challenging or even more so.

Think about exit strategies and other opportunities in case of an unforeseen catastrophic failure. Take the pressure off by trusting in the long-term benefits of accepting and managing life’s error messages. Failure may not even prompt a big shift in the end. Only a minor correction to find and discover your true Circle of Competence.

Don’t Be Pushed, Push Yourself

Lastly, I would caution you not to get caught up in requirements and evaluation too much. It’s true, you’re being evaluated against largely immovable criteria and compared to your peers. However, there’s a third far more important reference norm. It’s your individual progress, which is measured by comparing yourself today to what you knew and were able to do yesterday.

Perhaps you don’t meet some pre-defined criteria to pass an exam with high distinction. But you may still do much better than in the last test. A good teacher will notice if you were pushing the boundaries of your knowledge and skills and give you credit for it. This is particularly true for writing essays.

Imagine your essay being no. 57 on the teacher’s pile. No matter your level, a lacklustre effort shows in the writing. As long as writing that essay grips you, as long as you feel you’re pushing yourself, there’s a good chance the teacher reading it will be equally thrilled. If you’re not excited about what you’re writing, on the other hand, how is the teacher supposed to be?

How to Do Well in Exams: The Summary

Before I close with the biggest test-taking secret of them all, let’s look at all six of the practical tips again:

  1. Consider the context of the test by thinking through what you will be asked to do and how you’re supposed to do it in advance.
  2. Break down the requirements of the task so you can plan ahead and don’t do more than is asked of you.
  3. Take the test with the evaluation criteria in mind. How can you make this as easy to evaluate as possible without compromising your unique approach?
  4. Make sure to identify and collect the easy wins early on. For example by scoring high on anything related to memorisiation of facts as well as the structure and language of your answers.
  5. Graciously manage knowledge gaps by giving insights into your thought process or asking for clarification.
  6. Get some perspective on the importance of the exam by creating alternatives so failing a high-stakes test becomes your ticket to another exciting opportunity.

Closing Thoughts

The biggest secret to doing well in exams is obviously not to focus entirely on ourselves — even though the stakes are high and the spotlight is firmly on us. But neither should we try and please whoever will have to evaluate what we produce. The real secret is of course to find the right balance between the two in any given testing situation. It’s the eternal question of the creative and productive mind: How much should you cater to your audience’s wishes?

The more standardised the test, the more closed the questions, the more rigid the evaluation criteria will be. The more personal interpretations and judgement are required from us, the more we can bring in what we’d describe as our authentic selves. In any case, teachers neither want us to please them by parroting their (alleged) views. Nor do they want you to reinvent a task so it doesn’t even fit in any of their categories.

Some people may benefit from seeing the world more through their teachers’ eyes. Others may want to remind themselves of the unique perspectives and insights they’re bringing to the table. The Feynman Technique 2.0 is an excellent study method to experience learning and teaching from both perspectives. A genuine and authentic sense of self is developed through a constant negotiation with our environment. If we look at it this way, exams are merely a special case of every other challenge in life.