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Exam techniques: Planning and writing your answers

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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.

Students often describe feeling that everyone else starts writing confidently straight away. 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. Mark the ones you know you won’t attempt, and then go through the questions again and decide which to answer.

Once you’ve decided which questions to go for, check the instructions again. Are any questions compulsory? Should you write some in separate booklets or just start a new page?

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.

Plan your time

Allow 10 minutes of checking time at the end, and then allocate your remaining time according to the marks available for each answer. Write down the finishing time for each, and try not to go over that because you won’t have enough left to do well on the remaining answers.

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

Read the question again

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.

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