Exam strategies

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MOHAN DHALL on how students as well as parents can cope better

Examinations and tests can be stressful for students and also for their families. At this time of the year, most students are exposed to the need by schools and teachers to measure, test and assess through the use of exams. Examinations can be a source of stress but there are some fairly basic strategies that students can apply to manage and do their best.


Students will normally be given plenty of notice for forthcoming exams. This means that they will know in advance what exams will be on what day, how much time there is between exams and the order or sequence of the exams.

Many students find it very useful to have a visual depiction of the examination period with the exams clearly highlighted through the use of colour or a symbol. A chart or calendar can be a very useful external visual aid to assist in helping students to get a sense of the placement and sequence of exams. It also allows for judicious planning around revision.

If exams are paced with a couple of days between them, it is common for students to leave the study for the exam to the period just before it. However, this may not be the wisest strategy. If students have a couple of weeks prior to their first exam, it is important for them to plan to isolate which subjects they would like to, or need to, spend the most time on. In this way plenty of time can be devoted to those concepts, issues and ideas of a course that may be most difficult and which can affect a student’s perception of their ability to understand the subject.

Detail matters

The detail of each course matters. It is common for students to ask teachers, “Is this in the exam?” If the answer is “No” then students tend to ignore that aspect of a course. It is important for students to remember that learning matters, and that detail matters too. Whilst they may not wish to emphasise aspects of the course that are not the subject of examination, a student may find it helpful to be aware of the content as it may be foundational to other aspects of the course.

When planning a program of study it is important for students to list all the topics that may be covered and also the relevant chapters of any texts that cover the subject matter. In this way, the list can guide the preparation and all of the detail that needs to be covered can be accounted for. Students need to remember that detail is the basis for writing excellent responses and also for distinguishing their answers from the cohort.

Taking ownership: What’s my learning style?

How a student learns is central to how they will study. Parents need to be very careful and aware in this regard. What a parent did as a child might not be what their own child needs to do. It is common for students to prefer any of these study strategies:

* Writing the detail of the course out by hand

* Using colour in summaries so that particular concepts are colour-coded

* Using visual symbols to assist in memorising

* Creating palm cards and summary notes, some of which are hung on walls

* Talking out loud and repeating content so that it has an aural component

* Working in a space where they have control over what is where

Recently a young man said to me that he preferred to work in the library rather than at home, as his parents’ expectations though well-meaning, were a barrier to his studying. In the library he felt that he could really focus and not need to manage his parents as well.

Students need to know that they are supported in their endeavours, rather than judged.

Discipline: Rigour before reward

Study requires discipline and it can be tiring. However, students need to be able to allocate time to study prior to allocating time for friends and other activities. They need to know that the rewards come after the rigour. Rigour may mean following a timetable that allocates time during school, at lunchtime for example. It may also take the form of time out from Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and the like, maybe ensuring that all music is off.

Students will value the reward of a break from study when they feel like they have been productive in their efforts and when they have exercised their minds and their thinking.


There is an important place for repetition in study, particularly for exams. Repetition anchors information in long-term thinking such that it can be readily recalled when required. Many students will claim that repetition is ‘boring’, and in this regard it must be seen as a discipline. Repetition can be viewed as necessary for familiarity with content and also as the basis for higher order thinking that comes with application of ideas and content to solving problems.

Cramming and more cramming is often frowned upon, but is the reality of exam preparation. Thus whilst not an ideal measure, short-term cramming may feature in the preparation. It is however, not a wise long-term strategy.

Problem solving and practice, practice, practice

Doing past problems and practice problems is an excellent way for students to familiarise themselves with how to apply what they know.

Many students will feel very affirmed with doing practice papers, especially if there are model answers provided. Indeed really well written resources can help students to teach themselves and can build self-confidence as students realise they know more than they thought they did.

A further aspect to answering practice problems is that students will notice that themes emerge. Particular concepts tend to be asked more often and the breadth of a concept can become clear as various aspects of it may be tested. In the case of particular subjects such as mathematics, practice can help a student learn how best to approach particular types of problems.

Practice papers will help students to understand how to analyse different types of questions so that they can see what is important in a problem. In this way they will not be distracted by things that may not be important. Similarly, practice helps students with issues of ‘identity’. That is, quickly identifying what is required of them and thus honing in on the relevant method and level of detail to apply.

Time management and ‘sprint training’

Whilst all exams are timed, the first thing a student needs to do is become familiar with all of the content and concepts which will be the subject of the test. The second thing is to practice past questions without timing in order to learn the format and approach to problem solving. The third step is to work on speed. Thus, speed training is the last of the tasks and should not be done from the outset. Rather, speed will actually automatically arise as a student’s confidence increases and can be worked on as a particular skill as a final strategy once mastery of the subject has been achieved.

If it’s hard, great! The playing field is level

Sometimes students are confronted with a particularly difficult question during an exam. At this point they may freeze or even panic.

It is crucial for students to know that if they have prepared really well, they can take a degree of confidence into the exam room. If they are confronted with a tough question the first thing they need to tell themselves is, “The playing field is level. I have studied well and know my work. If I find this question tough, so will everybody else. I can therefore give it my best attempt and that should stand me in good stead.”

In summary, examinations can be daunting and stressful, but with great planning and some discipline the lesson of exams will become a life lesson. Preparation matters, and doing your best will be rewarded.

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