Exam Technique – What is it?

I’m sure you have heard your teachers talk about how your grade will increase “if you improve your exam technique”, or “Don’t worry, we will soon be working on exam technique”.  You may also have wondered, “Why does the grade I achieve, not match the effort that I put into my revision?”  This may be your exam technique!

But what is exam technique?  In simple terms, exam techniques are the ‘procedures’ and ‘tips’ that should be used in the exam room which make the most efficient use of the exam time and your knowledge.

There are many examples of exam technique.  I will highlight a few that I have found useful in my own academic career, your teachers may suggest others, and you may find yet more on the internet.  However, the mock exams are an excellent time to try them out and see what works for you!


We often start at question 1 – Why??  Spend the first few minutes of the exam reading the question paper.  Mark the questions which you are more confident with and answer these first.  This gets you off to a confident start.  With a question or two under your belt, you can now tackle the more challenging questions with a positive mind set.  If your question is essay based, then make sure you jot down an essay plan in your answer booklet. You may not get round to making the point in your essay, but because you have mentioned it in the plan, you may gain marks.  ‘Ticking off’ the relevant points as you complete them keeps you on track and ensures that you don’t miss out any of your initial thoughts.  However, ensure that you ‘tick off’ the points rather than crossing through them, crossed out work is not marked!

Answer the question!

Sounds simple?!  I like the following play on words based on the law court oath:

“Answer the question, the whole question and nothing but the question”

Underline the key parts of the question and any ‘trigger’ words.  If a question asks you to explain make sure you don’t simply describe, and vice versa.

Marks Awarded

Each question will have the number of marks allocated.  You can use these in two ways to your advantage:

Timing:  While the invigilator is going through the formal declarations at the start of the exam, check the front of the exam paper for the “number of marks” and “time allowed.”  A rough calculation will allow you to work out the number of marks per minute. e.g. if the total number of marks is 75 and the total time allowed is 75mins then you should be working at one mark per minute.  Hence, if you are answering a 2-mark question, spend 2 minutes on it.  If you get stuck on a question and go over your time limit, MOVE ON, you can always come back to it if you have time.

Key points: Marks are often awarded as 1 mark per key point.  Therefore, if you are answering a 5-mark question, make sure that you give 5 key points!

Show your workings

This may seem obvious, but under time constraints it is often easier to write down a final answer.  This is fine if your answer is correct, but what happens if it is wrong?  Showing your workings allows the examiner to award marks for partly correct answers.  On questions which require you to show your working, not doing so can lose you marks, even if you get the final answer correct!

“I’m running out of time!”

Hopefully, if you have been following your exam techniques this situation will not arrive.  However, if you find yourself with limited time and still several questions to answer, then you may want to consider the following.  The majority of the marks for a question are generally in the first part of the question.  Hence, with two questions to go, you may want to answer two half questions rather than one complete one, you may end up with more marks in total.

Take a bottle of water with you

There is plenty of evidence that suggests keeping yourself hydrated while under stressful exam conditions can be beneficial, and actually improve your exam grades (see http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-17741653).  However, make sure you drink in small amounts throughout the exam.  You do not want the distraction of a full bladder!

Finally, NEVER leave the exam early

I have never left an exam early. The thought of leaving the exam room, realising that I knew the answer, but could not return, is the source of nightmares!  There is always something that you can be checking:

Have you explained your workings?

Written the correct units? e.g. minutes, kilos, moles, Celsius?

Checked your calculations

Checked the key points in your answer, do they correlate with the number of marks?


Dr Ian Richardson

Deputy Head, Academic