Some advice on examination technique and revision.

It is possible to improve one’s chances of obtaining a better grade in an examination by observing a few simple rules and procedures which anyone can adapt to their own particular circumstances.

The first point is to establish what the types of assessment are required from you to achieve success in a particular part of the course. Your course involves taking a set of modules or half modules so make sure that you are registered for the correct set of modules and you are familiar with the module codes. Next establish the type of assessment, "exam plus coursework", "coursework only", "exam only". This information should be available in course handbooks, the University regulations (some of which are on the WWW) and from the Departmental Administrator. This information should also include the relative weighting between different modes of assessment, for example some modules have 40% for coursework and 60% exam, others are 30/70 or 25/75 etc.

Next check when the examination is and where. Every year some students miss an exam because they looked up the details incorrectly, forgot about the exam or overslept. This can have a serious effect on your progress – the University is not obliged to provide you with an alternative opportunity unless the problem was as a result of things beyond your control such as sudden illness (for which written medical evidence is always required).

Having established what examinations you are expected to attend make a revision plan. Divide up the courses into blocks of time and try to be systematic in deciding how to organise your revision. However, do not be obsessive about revision to the extent that you neglect your sleeping and eating. Make sure you have some breaks to recharge your intellectual and physical batteries. Failure to do this can result in exhaustion and this will affect your performance.


These days, many lecturers provide a set of course notes together with recommendations for further reading. In a perfect world you will have read through this material several times and consulted the further references. However, the pressures of coursework, and other things may have resulted in you doing rather less of this than would be optimal.

It is a good idea to make your own notes about the course, choosing the main points, techniques and results from the material and organising it as a series of "bullet points" and extracts in your own words. This should be done at a first run through of the material. I believe that the process of writing out the material makes it much easier to remember and using your own words causes you to think more about it. Using a highlighter to pick out the main points in someone else’s notes does not seem to me to be so effective. If you have made your own notes during the lecture you may find that this is a significant advantage when it comes to retention of information.

Assuming that you have enough time to go through the material several times, a later stage might be to write out a more condensed set of "bullet" points which link back to the first set, which themselves link back to the original material. This might help you to form mental links from small chunks of information in the distilled notes, back to the larger chunks in the first set and then back to the original source material.

For a course with a substantial amount of mathematical calculation it is often helpful to try to understand the structure of a proof or calculation and to try to remember that, rather than the full details, in the hope that you could reconstruct the proof in the exam from this. This will not work if you do not understand the principles involved, however.

A technique I found useful was to take special interest in what the lecturer did in the last couple of lecturers. If they seemed to be rushing to get some piece of material covered it may be because there is a question on the exam paper (which would have been set a couple of months previously). Also look carefully at the tutorial work, this can sometimes feature in some guise in an exam paper.

Always get hold of some previous examination papers and try the questions on them – taking care to note if there have been changes to the syllabus. Your lecturer will be able to tell you if there has been a change. Try the questions under "exam conditions", that is against the clock and without your notes.

At each question try to put yourself into the examiner’s position and ask yourself "What is s/he trying to establish?" If you were the examiner what sort of answer would you be satisfied with. For Multiple Choice Questions, why not try to set your own questions, perhaps based on your bullet points from the notes? This can give you an insight into the examiner’s mind!

Examination technique.

The first and obvious thing is to look carefully at the examination rubric. This will tell you how many questions to attempt (you should already know this from the course information and from previous papers – if the format has not changed). From this, work out how much time should be spent on each question (take care to allow for the situation where there is a compulsory question or questions of different value to the others).

Now look at the questions themselves, read them all quickly and try to decide which ones you are going to attempt. Pick out the one that you think will be your best and spend the allotted time on it. Then go on to the next one even if you haven’t quite finished it. You can return to it later. It is important to realise that the amount of effort needed in getting from the level of a good answer to an excellent answer in one question may be quite large and it could spoil your chances of answering the other questions well.

Always try to ask yourself "What does the examiner want from me?"

If you have a mental block, try to write something down. The examiner cannot give any marks to a blank sheet of paper. However, the process of trying to write down a few relevant bullet points and other related facts or principles may jog your memory sufficiently to enable you to answer the question better. The examiner may also give you some credit for writing something of interest down, anyway.

If the question is an essay then start by summarising a few points in note form (bullets again) and then try to plan out our answer. You know how much you can write in 40 minutes (or whatever the time available is) and this can help you to plan out a good, structured and informative answer. If you can bring in some relevant information from sources outside of the lecture notes (the wider literature) then do so. There is also scope, at least in level 3 and advanced MSc courses for critical evaluation - provided this is on the basis of some scientific or at least defensible and quotable evidence and not just prejudice.

Other types of questions may have a structure which starts with some simple definitions and then asks for some theory or other material from the notes. It might then finish with a problem. Often the middle part contains the main quota of marks so don’t panic if you cannot solve the problem fully, you may get method marks for the approach even if you don’t get it right out.

Some question papers will involve scenarios, which may have been circulated prior to the exam. Make sure you read these carefully – if they are previously unseen then the exam may have extra reading time allowed specifically to read the scenario – use it.

For questions involving some design task make sure you try to use the principles and methods taught during the course. For these questions try to recall the coursework assignments, they may well have been similar.


The sensible planning and some luck together with a reasonable amount of work should ensure success. You must have some good exam technique somewhere to have got here in the first place!

Try not to worry or panic too much, it won’t help in an exam. Keep calm, work steadily and try to write down as much as you can.

Good luck.

WMLH 22/5/98