Exam season is almost upon us and one challenge you may find yourself facing is revising for essay-based exams. These can cause a lot of anxiety, not least because essay-based assessments are often something we are used to doing over the course of several weeks. How do you plan, structure and write an essay in the space of a couple of hours? And how on earth do you revise when you don’t know what you’ll be asked?
Read on for our guide to effective revision and exam technique for essay-based exam questions:
What are essay exams testing?
Before you jump into your revision, it can be helpful to remember that essay exams are not just testing your memory. Instead, your lecturers are looking for evidence of how well you can apply the knowledge you have gained throughout the course to solve a problem or answer a question under timed conditions. Therefore, whilst memory is still important – you’ll need to be able to recall that knowledge in the exam – it’s only part of the story. You’ll also need to make sure you have an in-depth understanding of that knowledge and have practiced applying it to different questions, problems, and contexts.
How do I revise for essay exams?
You may be tempted to write a ‘generic’ essay on each of the topics you’re revising and memorise them so you can repeat them in the exam room. However, keep in mind that your lecturers are asking you to solve the specific problem they’ve set for you and simply ‘dumping’ everything that’s relevant won’t address the question and is unlikely to earn you good marks.
A more effective approach to revising for essay exams is incorporating strategies that develop your understanding of the topic so you can apply your knowledge to different problems effectively. Some revision strategies you might want to try for this are:
Questioning and interrogating the knowledge: why does this happen? How does it happen? Does it always happen this way? Is this always true? What about if we apply it to a different context? What are the implications of this?
Try applying the knowledge to case studies or different scenarios to get a better understanding of how theory works in practice.
Look at past papers or devise your own questions and either answer them in full or sketch out an essay plan under timed conditions. This will help you to test your recall and practice skills you’ll be using in the exam.
Compare and weigh up different approaches to the topic. Does everyone agree on this? Why? Why not? Which perspective is stronger?
Identify gaps in your knowledge and do some additional reading to fill them.
What about strategies for the exam itself?
You might be used to spending hours or even days planning, writing, and editing a coursework essay and be wondering how on earth you do all of this under timed conditions. Keep in mind that your lecturers know that this is a big ask and they are not expecting the same level of sophistication in the way you construct your arguments that they would be looking for in a coursework essay. However, it’s still necessary that your lecturers can follow your answer and see clearly how it addresses the question so:
Spend some time at the beginning paying attention to what the question is asking you. Our video on question analysis offers some strategies for understanding essay questions:
Sketch out a basic structure to follow. This needn’t be more than the main points you want to argue and the order you want to argue them in.
Clearly state your point or communicate your main focus at the beginning of each paragraph to help your reader get their bearings and follow your argument.
If you find yourself running out of time, write down a few bullet points around your remaining points – you may still pick up a few extra marks for this!
Do I need to reference sources in an essay exam?
While you won’t be expected to reference others to the extent you do in a coursework essay, it’s worth incorporating a few references to back up your points and show how you worked out your answer.
Try to memorise a couple of key arguments and/or debates made by others for each topic as well as the authors’ surname(s) and the year of the article so that you can cite it in the exam. Don’t worry about the details – just one or two lines summarising their main argument is enough.
Want to know more? Come along to our Your Skills: Exam Techniques and Revision Strategies workshop to find out about effective revision strategies and ways to tackle both in person and 24-hour take-home exams. Book online here: https://newcastle-uk.libcal.com/event/3920456
Exams are a common cause of stress, and I think one of the reasons is that the ‘curriculum’ at university, unlike the school curriculum, is very open-ended – there isn’t a finite, definitive list of all the things you have to learn, just a suggested starting point. You’re expected to ‘read around’ on top of the material covered in lectures, so there’s no ‘end point’ where you can say ‘i have learned everything and I can stop now’. It can feel unmanageable and overwhelming. Anything could and might come up in the exam, so how do you, how can you, prepare for that?
So there really is a limit to how much you can realistically learn, and just because in theory with an open-ended curriculum, if it’s relevant, you could include *anything* in an exam, doesn’t mean you have to learn *everything* just in case. One of the keys to doing well in exams is understanding what is really being tested, being selective about what you learn and thinking about how and why you select it.
What’s often behind this stress, this perception that you need to learn ‘everything’, is that we’re often not clear about what exams actually test and how that’s different to other forms of assessment, and we’re not sure what the expectations are that we’re trying to meet. We try to hold ourselves to the same standards we’d expect when we’re working on a piece of coursework, because that’s a standard that’s familiar, that we know, and exams are the unknown (which is kind of the point of them). This is true even of take-home exam papers – although you often have a longer time period, such as 24 hours, you’re not expected to learn everything or research *everything* within that time frame as you would with coursework – you’re working with information that’s already to hand and familiar.
There are differences between subjects – if you’re studying the physical or medical sciences, for example, there is especially in the first years, an emphasis on memorisation and understanding of key information, and a bit less on the kind of open-ended analytical thinking that you’d find in an Arts and Humanities subject where it’s less about learning core facts and more about building arguments- but certainly in higher stages, there is less of a difference.
Let me give you an analogy to help illustrate the difference between the expectations for coursework and exams. So coursework, whether it’s a report or an essay or a dissertation or other piece of writing, is like giving a dinner party. You know in good time that you are going to throw a dinner party for your friends, and you can fix a lot of things in advance – which friends you’re going to invite and how many people, what they like and or can’t eat etc. You then have time to do some research in your cookbooks and online recipe blogs to decide what the menu will be, find just the right recipe, you can spend time sourcing the right ingredients in all the different places, you can go to the deli, to the posh supermarket, that specialist shop you’ve found, and you can plan how you’re going to approach it, practice any techniques and make sure everything’s prepared on the day. Your guests expect you to go to that effort and put in that extra work to make it a bit special for them. Now, you don’t throw dinner parties that often, and even if you did, you’d probably not cook that exact meal again for those same people, so chances are, the ingredients you’ve bought might not get used again much, they are quite specialist, for a particular recipe and occasion, and that’s ok. You *might* find another use for that particular jar of unusual spices you bought, or you might not and it’ll quietly go out of date at the back of your cupboard, but that’s not the point. It was sought out and chosen for a particular purpose, and that’s been achieved, you’ve shown that you can plan, source and prepare a special meal and you’ve impressed your friends. Coursework tests your ability to do just that – think about how you’re doing to approach it, find and choose just the right knowledge and use it in just the right way for that particular task, and if it’s a bit unusual or special, so much the better, you’re showing off. And you don’t need to memorise or keep all that knowledge handy – the point is that you were able to find it and use it when you needed it.
Now, an exam is much more like an evening when you’re sitting at home and a couple of your friends turn up at your door unexpectedly, they were in the area and thought they’d drop in and say hi. They’re also hungry. Your job here is to keep a well-stocked store cupboard of things which you could throw together to give them a couple of options depending on what they fancy and whether one of them is vegetarian or doesn’t like spicy food, whatever. And by ‘well stocked store cupboard’, I don’t mean you’ve got every possible ingredient in, I mean you’ve got the basics, the rice, the pasta, the bread, the tins of tomatoes, maybe some cheese, onions, peppers, lentils… enough things that are the foundation of a meal and could potentially be turned into a number of different dishes. You’ve also got the herbs and spices and other things that could be thrown in there to help you create those different options and make it tasty and interesting. No one is going to expect a three course meal with elaborate ingredients, but with the basics and a few creative options, you could offer a pasta dish, a curry or tasty soup according to what’s needed. IF you still have that jar of spice from that dinner party last month, fine, throw it in there if you think it would work. And that’s what exams test – can you answer questions and problem-solve under time pressure with what you have to hand – not *everything*, but do you have the fundamentals, the essentials and a few useful, adaptable things you can use flexibly in multiple ways, throw in there to spice it up a bit creatively so that you’re responding to whatever challenge is set on the day. You’re not expected to know absolutely everything, no matter how niche, or create perfect, polished and in-depth answers- that wouldn’t be realistic under the circumstances, nor would it be a useful thing to test. Students often ask us if they should include references in exams – it might add a bit of interest if you could throw in the names and dates of a couple of relevant or key studies, but there would be little value in asking you to memorise the full bibliographic details of references – why would you need that information in your head?
So when it comes to selecting and managing your revision, you’ve got two starting points. The first, to ensure that you’ve got the essentials in stock, are the lectures. These will cover the fundamental, essential facts, concepts or techniques you will need. When you’re going back over lecture recordings and notes, don’t get sucked into revising everything, but try and distinguish which is the core knowledge, and what are illustrations, examples, demonstrations or just interesting asides. If you want to cross-check this, you could map your understanding of the fundamentals with a textbook or handbook or two – where the coverage overlaps, that’s reassuring you that you’ve covered the essentials. You can also add in anything else you find in your reading around as that extra spice, those additional ingredients you can throw in to adapt those essentials in different ways or give them different flavours to respond to the question you’re set in the exam, but again, you can’t learn everything – the key is to go for things that could be used flexibly in various ways or for different purposes.
The second starting point, which might give you reassurance that you’ve covered the essentials AND that the kind of extras you’re selecting will earn their keep, is past papers. Try working with past papers right from the start of your revision process – NOT to question-spot or predict what will come up this year, that’s very unreliable, and NOT to test yourself to see if you HAVE learned something, but as a guide to the kinds of thing that are typically called on in exams, as a way to think through how you might use a piece of knowledge in an exam, how useful or adaptable or central it’s likely to be. What would you need in order to answer that question, bearing in mind the time limit in the exam and the fact that you can only be expected to work with what we can reasonably assume is in your head? If you’re wondering whether or not you need to learn a particular piece of information, could you see how you might potentially use it in more than one question, or is it so niche that it’s unlikely to be an essential or even useful as an optional extra?
No past papers for your module? Try this – put yourself in the examiner’s shoes and set your own questions. If this was your module, what questions would you set to test your students’ knowledge of the essentials and also their ability to problem solve creatively under pressure, with a time limit and only what it’s worth carrying in their heads rather than researching? How much would you test, how much depth, how much detail, before you felt you’d got a reasonable measure that they know their stuff? Would it be worth them learning that knowledge or is that more the kind of knowledge they just need to know how to find if they needed it for coursework?
So when you’re revising for exams, and perhaps looking over previous coursework from the module to help you prepare, don’t feel that you need to reproduce a coursework-standard answer in an exam – they’re testing different kinds of learning, and expect different sorts of response. You don’t have to learn *everything*.
Research has show that we can often recall things better when we are in the same context as we were when we learned them. The features of our environment enrich our memory with more detail (the sounds, scents and sights around us), which act as prompts to cue recall when we try to remember that information in the same situation.
When sitting an exam in a traditional exam hall, this can work against us, as we will not be in the same surroundings (library, study bedroom etc) that we were when we were studying for the exam. Some people use ‘portable’ cues such as a particular scent they associate with studying, but generally under normal exam conditions, you have to work extra hard to find intrinsic ways to prompt yourself within the material you’re learning rather than relying on external cues.
This year, most students will be taking exams ‘at home’, in the same environment they have been studying in, and you can use this to your advantage. However, over the last year, you may have had to live in lockdown conditions or isolate yourself, or been unwell. Many people have found that this has impacted on their memory, concentration span and motivation. They’ve found that they are forgetful, their minds are prone to wandering, it’s harder to think straight or get organised and they have ‘brain fog’.
This is happening as it’s likely that your environment hasn’t changed much and days seemed very similar. There is very little variation to distinguish one memory from another, or novelty to make anything stand out as worthy of attention. Chronic boredom and monotony do not make good memories, or make you want to take notice of your surroundings. Social interaction can be stimulating, but much of our socialising has been online, which is known to be more tiring, requiring greater concentration and resulting in overload and overwhelm. We have all been living in stressful circumstances to one degree or another for a long time, and this too can wear away at our ability to focus.
This all means that material you learned during lectures and other teaching might be less easy to remember and all blurs together, and also that your revision becomes more difficult as your circumstances don’t vary enough to aid your memory or concentration.
Try to deliberately vary your surroundings as much as possible – change room or position in your room as much as possible, change something about your room by moving things around every so often, or change up the things you’re using to revise – your notepad, font or ink colour. Be a little cautious about changing the sounds around you by using music or radio – listening to music splits your attention, adds an extra load on your mental processes and means you have less awareness to focus on what you’re learning.
If you’re finding that learning really is becoming a struggle and you’re concerned at the impact on your results, do speak to your Personal Tutor or contact Student Wellbeing.
Many of you might be facing coursework as a replacement for an exam that just wouldn’t work in an online, remote format. You may have experience of writing assignments before, but not necessarily under such time limits – your writing skills need to be sharp to ensure that you can work efficiently and do your best under such conditions! Especially when you may also have exams to revise for – you don’t want to throw yourself into an assignment at the expense of revision.
Just for you, the WDC have pulled together some of our top advice for really focussed, efficient writing, from analysing the question and planning under pressure, to targetted researching, and writing and editing your work with as little waste as possible. If you are writing essays or similar things for a 24 hour take home paper too, some of these tips might be helpful.
We know many students have questions about learning in these suddenly uncertain times, and we’re here to help you develop and adapt your study strategies and academic skills to meet these challenges. The current situation is unprecedented – we wish we could tell you how it’s all going to work out, but the truth is, we’re all figuring it out as we go. The good news is, the WDC tutors are experts in learning, and in listening to students to help you find ways of working that will work for you.
To that end, we’ve launched a new video series on Youtube – our Academic Agony Aunts (and Uncle) are here to answer your academic skills queries! in You Ask the WDC, we respond to some of the most common issues you’re raising, whether it’s about remote study, online assessment, or even just a good old fashioned study skills question.
Tuesday 29th October is shaping up to be an exciting day for us all here at the Writing Development Centre as it will mark the launch of our brand new ‘…with the WDC’ workshops. What makes the launch even more exciting is that it will introduce a brand new format into our range of provision. For these are workshops with a difference. Instead of spending most of the session sitting listening to one of us speaking, you’ll be able to bring your assignments along and use the time to make progress in a supportive, distraction-free environment. We’ll be on hand to provide you with a structured session, along with strategies and techniques you can try on your own work. You will also have the chance to reflect on and discuss your approach to studying and writing with your peers.
‘…with the WDC’ workshops will take place three times a week in the Writing Development Centre (we’re on Level 2 of the Philip Robinson Library, which is, somewhat confusingly, the entrance level). The sessions will run on a first-come, first-served basis so there’s no need to book; just turn up ready to make progress with your assignments. To do this, you will need to bring your work with you on paper or a fully charged laptop or device given that the sessions will not be taking place in computer cluster.
The sessions we have on offer for you this semester are:
Kickstart Your Assignment … with the WDC!
This session is for everyone who’s ever been given an assignment title and thought: “Where do I start?!” So, yes: this session is for everyone!! We’ll help to make this stage more manageable with a set of activities that will take you through:
Narrowing the question down and finding ‘an angle’
Analysing the question/task to work out what markers are looking for
Planning your reading: considering what to read and how much to read!
Bring your current question/task along and get ready to kickstart your assignment!
This session will take place on:
Tuesday 29th October: 10am-12pm
Thursday 7th November: 2pm-4pm
Tuesday 26th November: 10am-12pm
Thursday 6th December: 2pm-4pm
Top tip! You may still like to attend this session even if you’ve already started your assignment. Our strategies and techniques can help you double-check that you’re on the right track and producing the best work that you can.
Strategic Reading and Notetaking … with the WDC!
Need to avoid getting swamped by your reading? Don’t fancy becoming a human photocopier? Want to read more critically? This is the session for you, with a set of activities that will take you through:
Identifying your purpose – what are you reading for? – and the strategy to achieve it Experimenting with critical reading techniques
Reviewing your current notetaking strategy and experimenting with new ones
Remember to bring some of the reading for your current assignment! This session will take place on:
Thursday 31st October: 2pm-4pm
Tuesday 5th November: 10am-12pm
Tuesday 12th November: 10am-12pm
Thursday 28th November: 2pm-4pm
Write Here, Write Now! … with the WDC
Our regular writers’ group is here to:
Provide you with a supportive, structured, distraction-free environment in which to get some work done
Help you work towards a clearly defined writing goal for the session – such as drafting a particular section or achieving a specific word count
Encourage you to reflect on your existing writing process and discuss your practice with peers
Highlight techniques and strategies that you can use to maintain your writing momentum – and help beat procrastination and writers’ block – beyond the session
You can use Write Here, Write Now! for any writing-related activity, including planning or outlining and editing and revising. Remember to bring your assignment materials and/or devices with you! These sessions will take place every Wednesday from 10am-12pm from 30th October to 11th December.
Editing Your Work … with the WDC!
You’ve got your thoughts down on paper and it all makes sense to you. But could someone else follow your argument? Does the structure flow? Are your points clear? Our editing session comprises a series of activities that will take you through:
Writing for a reader
Transition and cohesion
Ensuring relevance: need to know or just nice to know?!
Unpacking and developing your points
Bring your current assignment and get ready to make it as good as it can be! These sessions will take place on:
Thursday 14th November: 2pm-4pm
Tuesday 19th November: 10am-12pm
Thursday 21st November: 2pm-4pm
Refresh Your Revision Strategies … with the WDC!
How much am I expected to remember?! What are markers really looking for? Why isn’t it going in?! We’ve all been there. Take some of the stress out of exam season with our workshop, which features a set of activities that will take you through:
Establishing what exams are really testing
Selecting: what should be in your ‘Store Cupboard of Knowledge’?! (Don’t worry; we’ll explain!)
Memorising: evaluating your current approaches and considering new ones
Discussing and comparing revision strategies with peers
Bring your current revision notes along with you!
These sessions will run on:
Tuesday 10th December: 10am-12pm
Thursday 12th December: 2pm-4pm. We’ll be running more revision sessions in January, along with sessions for Dissertation students throughout Semester 2.
Keep an eye on our website for further details. We’re really looking forward to launching these workshops and to welcoming you all along. If you have any questions about ‘..with the WDC’ or if you have any suggestions for future workshops you’d like to attend, don’t hesitate to drop us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Exams test your knowledge and understanding of your subject, and also your problem solving skills under time constraint. But if that were all, then perhaps they wouldn’t be quite such a stressful experience! Exams also test a set of skills commonly known as ‘exam technique’, which are in some ways nothing to do with your learning of the subject matter, but can still make the difference between pass and fail. There’s quite a lot of mystique around exam technique, as if there were some kind of arcane magic trick or secret password which would unlock higher levels of performance. Actually, a lot of ‘exam technique’ is plain common sense, which can be a bit deflating until you realise that these skills really do make or break exam performance regardless of how much revision has been done – and that common sense is not exactly in great supply in stressful situations!
Time management is the most obvious aspect of exam technique. Coursework has to be completed to a deadline of course, but the time pressure in exams is rather more acute! Time management in exams involves making sensible decisions about how to realistically divide up the time you have and keeping an eye on the clock. You could think of it as a calculation:
How much time do you have in total?
How many questions do you have to do?
How many marks are they worth?*
Subtract 10 mins at the beginning for reading the paper and planning your approach (including for this calculation)
Subtract time at the end (15 mins?) for reading through and checking all your answers, and to accommodate ‘slippage’ if questions take longer than expected
Divide the remaining time by the number of questions (*adjusting for marking weight) Factor in experience from doing past papers about how much you can expect to write in that time.
Split the time per question into three – some time for reading the question and planning, the bulk of it on writing, and a little time for checking.
Now there’s a plan, you need to keep an eye on progress. If an exam consists of two questions and you accidentally let time run away with you and spend all your time on one question, no matter how perfect an answer it is, you can still only get 50% of the mark. Don’t worry if the plan goes a little astray, though, and don’t feel you have to stick to it rigidly – if you get stuck on a question or haven’t finished it within the planned time, leave it and come back to it. It’s just there to make sure you give yourself the opportunity to shine equally in all the questions.
Reading the exam ‘rubric’ (instructions) and the questions very carefully is the second factor which can have a major impact on exams. An exam question isn’t asking for everything you know on a topic – it’s asking you to do something very specific with your knowledge. A student might write the fullest, most accurate and intelligent answer ever, but if it’s not the answer to the question that’s set, then it’s not going to do well. Similarly if a student answers all the questions, only to realise that they were only supposed to choose three out of them, then it’s going to harm their marks on the three questions that count, and certainly won’t win them any extra points!
Planning is a related skill – the ability to plan the time and also plan the answers, on paper or in your head, however briefly, to make sure that it’s well-structured and isn’t going off on a tangent. The structure of an exam answer isn’t going to be as elaborate or polished as a piece of coursework, but it should still give a logical direction to the argument or answer.
Related to both reading the exam paper and planning is the issue of tactics. Which questions will you answer first? Would it be better to go for the one you find easier or quicker to answer, to make a good start? How much more time should you give to questions which have higher marks, or how much information should you give if there aren’t many marks available? Tactical decisions like this, based on the information in the exam paper itself, can help boost your confidence, make best use of your time and energy, and also get a significant proportion of the marks under your belt early on.
Good presentation matters too – of course, you’re handwriting at speed, without much time or possibility to tidy up mistakes, so your answer isn’t going to be – and doesn’t need to be – a thing of calligraphic beauty. However, it does need to be legible. Many of us don’t actually do much handwriting on a daily basis any more, so simply building up the strength in your hand through writing more in the weeks coming up to the exam will help. Your answer paper also needs to be easily followed if you have edited anything in or changed the structure on re-reading it, so if you have changed anything, arrows, asterisks, crossings-out, numbering etc can help. You can usually answer the questions in any order, and sometimes there may be a choice of question. Clearly mark your answer paper so the examiner knows which question they’re marking! Remember to give a clear indication of the material you want them to mark, too – you can use the answer paper to scribble plans, and you may edit what you’ve written – but remember to cross it out.
Finally – personal organisation counts. The ability to get yourself to the right exam room, at the right time, on the right day and with the right equipment is essential!
All of these things are common sense, and probably there’s nothing here which you didn’t sort of already know. But every year, students do make unnecessary mistakes due to poor exam technique, and their learning doesn’t appear to the best advantage. Exams can be stressful events, and common sense isn’t easy to hang onto!
It’s coming up to exam time, an experience many people understandably find a bit stressful. Some of the stress may come from facing The Unknown – after all, in most cases you won’t really know what you’ll encounter in the exams until you actually get into that room and turn over that paper. Exams are of course a test of your ability to think on your feet and apply what you know to a new situation under time pressure, but there are some things you can inform yourself about in advance, which might help to steady your nerves and make you feel more in control of the situation! In this post, we’ve collated some of the support that’s available to you so you can be as well prepared as it’s possible to be.
Things you should know about:
The University Examinations website has all the information you need about exams at Newcastle, including FAQs, timetables and details of the processes and procedures.
One of the best revision resources is looking at and working with past exam papers. You can find out more about the kind of paper you’ll likely be sitting, and can practice with authentic questions. You can find past papers for your modules online.
It’s a good idea too to make sure you’re familiar with the examination regulations– you don’t want to accidentally fall foul of them!
Hopefully all will go well, but it’s a good idea to know what to do if the unexpected happens. Find out about how to let the University know about Personal Extenuating Circumstances and what adjustments might be possible. The earlier you let the University know of any personal issues which might have impacted on your exams performance, the better. You can find out more via Student Progress, or have a chat to the Student Union Advice Centre who can talk you through the process and support you.
Similarly, it’s useful to know what to do if you feel that there was a problem with the exams or examining process. You can find out more about Appeals from Student Progress or talk to the Student Union Advice Centre.
If you have a disability, you can talk to Student Wellbeing to find out more about any reasonable adjustments or concessions which can be made to the exams process to make sure you can achieve your best.
Things you might find helpful:
Your lecturers and personal tutor are of course a first point of call if you have specific questions about exams in your subject. They can also be a useful source of hints, tips and reassurance more generally through.
If you have a disability, including a Specific Learning Difficulty, you can also talk to the advisers in Student Wellbeing about exam tips and revision strategies which will work for you.
The Student Union are running a Stressed Out Student campaign to help you bust your stress levels with fun, calming activities. Get in touch with your inner child, or cuddle a puppy! They also have a handy planner to help you stay on top of all your deadlines and exams.
The University Chaplains will be available in the Robinson Library for you to chat in confidence to about exams, study, or any wider issues for which you’d appreciate a friendly listening ear. Ask at the Robinson Library reception desk for further details.
Exams is a busy period for everyone, and study space is at a premium. If you’re struggling to find a seat in the library, remember there’s additional space available throughout the exams period in the Pop-up Library at the King’s Road centre!
There are study skills books, including on revision and exams, in the library on Level 3.
let us know if there are any other sources of support you’re aware of, and we’ll update this post!