Top Ten Ways to Do Better on Exams

sharp-pencilI am at that point in the semester when I am getting my exams ready for students to write. I am always unsatisfied with exams–and many of the ways that we evaluate students. In first-year religious studies overview courses, though, exams and papers work on multiple levels. Especially, they keep students focussed on the material throughout the semester, they help shape study skills students will need throughout their school life, and (in my exams) they give me multiple ways to assess students, and a number ways to help address student life issues that emerge, like sickness, the death of a loved one, a bad break up, an undiagnosed learning disability, or critical writing problems.

What exams and papers don’t always do is give space to the benefits of cultural diversity, match the great breadth of things a student needs after university, or make up for the typically terrible education they have had for the last 5-15 years. When students get to higher levels, I adjust papers and exams to do other things, but I  haven’t found a better way to run a first-year intro course.

Still, exams and papers do something. As I was thinking about how to get my students ready, I found this old file from the first time I taught first year students. It was also the moment I discovered for the first time how radical a student’s growth path is between September of year 1 and December of year 2.

Generalized, the list isn’t bad if you are preparing for exam writing. Here are my top ten ways to do better on exams–besides becoming an expert on the material, which is the long-term goal. What tips would you add?

  1. Always answer the Multiple Choice Questions–a bad guess is better than no guess at all, unless the exam penalizes. Doing some research into how “process of elimination” words would help reduce chances from 1:4 or 1:5 down to 1:3 or even 1:2. There is almost always a choice or two that is certainly wrong. By being clever you can increase your 20% chance to as high as a 50% chance.
  2. Give the essays a try. A blank answer is 0%, but at least sharing an uneducated opinion may get you 25%–still an F, but it will contribute to your overall mark. And if you accidentally add some facts in there, you may even get a D-. When you are writing, and those accidental facts flow, you may form an idea about the questions, and pretty soon you have a B-, which is a pretty decent mark for someone clearly unprepared. And writing only 4 sentences on an “up to one page” essay shows that there is room to grow, so fill the page with your intelligence.
  3. Make it up if you don’t know. While I might catch you in the act of filling in blank space with inferior knowledge, it is amazing how often a well-written response will be appreciated by a professor going through a stack of papers (or a boss going through a stack of reports). While I might call out your BS, as long as you don’t risk too much, you can shape what you know about the world into a pretty good essay more often than not.
  4. Do your best essays first. Often students will do poorly on the multiple choice, but nail the essays. Exams don’t always test the breadth of a person’s abilities, so you should highlight where you are strong. By doing your best essays first, you may find that a good essay will “leak” over into the marking of the other essays. Some of that is psychological–it can never hurt to make a good impression on a professor. But some of that is a discovery that takes place in playing to your strengths and potential overlap between the essay areas.
  5. Use outlines/telescopic style or visuals in essays. I know, I know, we all know how much fun it is to grade 168 first year essays written in gigantic paragraphs with no spaces. But there comes a time when a visually crafted essay can simply communicate more to your audience (which is always your professor: me, the guy with the red pen!). Honestly, it is a relief to see an essay that is shaped well, and professors will find their eye wants to fall on the good points in a visually clever response.
  6. Show critical thinking. A well-thought out critique is encouraging for a prof to read, and shows the student is engaging with the material and growing as a student in university. So put your mind and heart into the essay. Most professors in general science and humanities are thrilled when students show competency–even if it isn’t as precise as we might like.
  7. Use the textbook or resource materials. The top 10% of essays in any class will be by students who have read and integrated the textbook and supplementary material. How do I know? It isn’t that students will quote–though some will have memorized snatches of text that can work as signposts of learning to a professor. But I really know that a student is engaged because they accidentally put things in their answers that the text said, but I did not. This shows student investment outside the classroom, which I like to reward.
  8. Create for yourself a “Cheat Sheet. Often professors will do this for you with the headings, graphs, charts, lists, handouts, and sample exam questions they leak out throughout the semester. Take the time to gather those items and the course’s key points and distil them into a single double-sided sheet that you carry around with yourself for a few days. It is amazing how much downtime you might have to browse the sheet and make it even better. This is sort of like the “flash card” move that works in language study, maths, and some sciences.
  9. Learn how to take notes. Man, students are bad at this! There are resources throughout the web to help people learn how to do this very key indicator of university success. You may even find your local college or university has seminars throughout the year on note-taking.  Knowing what to record and how to use that record later is key to university success.
  10. Take an interest in the material. Peek around the web. Visit a place referenced in the class–in my case a church or mosque or synagogue. Read some of the links your professor put online. Watch a Simpson’s episode on the topic–there is likely more than one, whether your topic is conservation, multiculturalism, heaven, economics, or schoolyard bullying. Whatever works to hook you into the material–it doesn’t matter. But engage with the material in ways that make it personal, and you will excel.

Good luck!

red yellow green apple

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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10 Responses to Top Ten Ways to Do Better on Exams

  1. robstroud says:

    Why didn’t you write this forty years ago when I could have fully benefited from it?!?

    “While I might call out your BS…”
    Then again, it might just slip past you, your watchfulness.


    • When it comes to “faking it” that’s what I hope happens. Even if I do catch it, I will reward a robust and interesting discussion on an exam–even if it isn’t perfectly on point and the normal pattern of things.
      Yes, I wish I had something like this in school too!


  2. Pingback: Top Ten Ways to Do Better on Exams — A Pilgrim in Narnia | theBREAD

  3. My daughter says thanks for the tips! They were very helpful to her! 🙂


  4. Pingback: New Approaches to Academic Writing: An Unusual Marking Note for a Good Student | A Pilgrim in Narnia

  5. Dawn says:

    I love the cheat sheet idea. Brilliant.

    I actually had a nightmare last night about an impossible exam.

    Another one. Read the whole exam first! I go so far as to write in the margins how long each section should take to complete. Otherwise I get overwhelmed in minutiae.


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