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Planning and writing your answers Exam techniques

Take care to follow the instructions on the exam paper and be sure to answer the right number of questions. Misreading instructions can lose you more marks than poor revision.

It's tempting to grab at familiar questions as the ones you want to answer but you might misread them in your hurry. Take time to carefully and steadily unpack the questions and you'll make a better selection. It's also important to plan and time your answers carefully. It's better to spend at least 5–10 minutes reading through the paper, identify the key terms and then, if you have a choice, decide which questions can best show your knowledge.

Once you’ve decided which questions to go for, check the instructions again. Are any questions compulsory?

Decide which questions you'll answer first. You don’t have to do them in order as long as you do the right number. You may want to start with an easy question to get warmed up.

Roger, an OU student, shares his thoughts on how to plan out your time during an exam:

Plan your time in the exam

Click here to listen 104


One of the best pieces of information I've been given over time is actually how to fail an exam. Knowing this makes life a lot easier and reduces stress and, of course, you know what to avoid. And I think, in almost every course I've taken, I've been told that the biggest root cause of people not passing an exam is firstly poor time management on the day, which means they run out of time and do not attempt all the questions that they're meant to answer. This means lost marks. If a question is worth twenty five marks, a script marker cannot give you any marks, and you've lost 25 marks straight away. If you miss out on two questions, the numbers are just stacked against you all the time. So the key there is to be disciplined on the day, and set yourself specific time limits for how long you're going to spend on each question. And, even if you haven't finished answering, just stop answering there and move on to answer the next question, so that you have something down for each question. Most marks, I've been told come from what you write in the early part of your answers, because longer answers will inevitably be polishing and fine tuning and, therefore, picking up less marks. Go for the big hits early off. If you have time left at the end of an exam, you can always go back and fill in some blanks at the end. And it's probably a good idea to budget some time at the end of an exam to be able to do that and go back.

Before you start planning an answer read the question again so you start off in the right direction. Identify and mark the key words and process words that are at the heart of the question so you're sure what the question means and what you've been asked to do.

Write a plan

Plan your answer to the question, writing down some key points, examples, evidence and references. Work fast and uncritically at this stage. Put in everything that seems relevant to start with – you can always cut out unwanted points later.

Number parts of your plan, indicating the order you want to put them in. Omit anything that doesn’t belong, and then start writing.

Some students prefer not to write detailed plans, but you should make sure you at least have between six and twelve key words or phrases. Make sure that you allow time to check your answers before you submit.

I use mind maps for revision and for summarising units or topics, but they’re also great for planning an answer in the exam.

Last updated 8 months ago