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My Tutor Tips 1: Exam Technique

Monday, 25 December 2017

As well as revising for an exam it is important to prepare for an exam with good exam technique.  Below is a list of tips to remember before sitting, during and after an exam.  Hopefully the list will continue to grow.  If you have any advice please feel free to add your comments.


Go into the exam prepared making sure you know exactly what equipment you can take in to your exam (pens, pencils, calculators etc.) and be aware of what equipment you are entitled to ask for whilst sitting the exam (e.g. tracing paper).  If you can try to have two of everything (e.g. 2 pens, 2 pencils…).  This way if something breaks or someone forgets their equipment you have a spare. 

When I sat my exams (years ago!) a clear pencil case was required and it is worth finding out if this is still true.  That pencil case shaped like a stuffed toy may look cute but it could put your marks at risk.  A clear pencil case means your examiner knows you are not cheating

In addition, it's worth noting that most calculator GCSE papers now require a scientific calculator.  An ordinary one which is not scientific just will not do.  For example, you may be asked to work a calculation out using sine on your calculator.  Turning up with no calculator could be disastrous but remembering your calculator which is not scientific could be just as bad as it simply does not do what you want it to. 

This being said the exam boards usually now recommend specific scientific calculators and some are even band from being used in the exam.  This is because some calculators have extra memory to store information and calculations which mean some students can cheat (e.g. you could input a formula that is meant to be memorised).  So it is worthwhile finding out which calculator you are meant to have for the exam.  Usually the exam board has a recommendation and your teacher should be able to tell you which one to purchase.  Some schools even sell the calculators.

It is also worthwhile spending some time before your exam getting used to using your scientific calculator.  Nowadays most come with a set of instructions and reading these through and making sure you know how to operate it is really important.  Turning up to the exam and not knowing, for instance, how to calculate an angle using cosine could affect your result.

The other thing to note is where do you write if you run out of space for your working out?  Usually most papers leave space at the back of the paper.  Simply write at the bottom of the question 'please turn to back of paper'.  When you write your working out at the back clearly number the question.  There is nothing worse for an examiner marking the papers and seeing working out but not knowing which question it belongs to.  You can even separate answers by drawing a line between your extra working out.

Let's say you still don't have space for your working out.  What do you do then?  It is usually possible to ask for more paper when sitting an exam.  Simply raise your hand and ask.

Most exams are during the summer these days and this is fine for some.  If you are like me and you suffer from hayfever this is disastrous because you need tissues, have itchy eyes, banging headache and a sore throat.  You can't take your medication because it makes you drowsy and you can't take tissues into the exam.  However, here is the thing, you are entitled to ask for tissues.

Most exam rooms have a clock at the front so candidates are aware of how much time they have left when sitting their exam.  By all means use this clock but you may find it handy having a watch on your desk as well.  You may want to check this is allowed.

OK so your Mum bought you a good luck card and a lucky horse shoe to put on your desk when sitting your exam to know she is thinking of you.  Sweet yes…good idea no.  Don't bring in anything into the exam that you are not supposed to bring in.  This also goes for mobile phones.  I think these are now banned from exams but if you are allowed to have the phone in a bag at the front of the room make sure it is on silent.  There is nothing more annoying than a phone going off in the middle of an exam.  It may even be that your phone needs to be totally switched off.  The same goes for your laptop.

Bags and coats are usually not allowed next to you in the exam and must be placed in a designated area.  Additionally, food and water is usually not allowed.  There may be certain exceptional cases.  For example, a diabetic may need to take food at a certain time.  If you need to take medication, food or drink into the exam you want to confirm this with your teacher well before the exam.

Furthermore some exams require that you write in pen, others in pencil and some computer.  Make sure you know the format your exam will be in and be aware if you should write (and draw) in pencil or pen.  Certain pens are now band from exams.  For example the ones that you can rub out with.  It may be worth finding out if coloured pens and pencils are allowed because this can enable you to show shading and make working out more visual for you and the examiner.  Wherever possible I recommend, for Maths, writing in pencil or with the pens you can erase for exactly this reason; they are erasable.  However, in exam conditions I realise this is not always possible.


Before you sit an exam make sure you know where it is going to be.  Some schools, for example, don't host the exam and you have to go to a different location.  Some exams can even be on the computer and in some circumstances at home.

If you are unfamiliar with how to get to the examination centre it may be a good idea to make a practice run.  If you have to take public transport make sure you are familiar with how long the journey will take and still leave extra time in case something goes wrong.  If necessary write down the address, telephone number and print a map.

Leaving the extra time also gives you a chance to grab a drink, food and of course go to the toilet.  Go to the toilet before the exam not during if you can.  This wastes time.


How long is your exam?  You thought it was an hour and you have to pick the kids up.  It is actually 1.5 hours and you didn't know.  Timing in exams is essential.  Make sure your clear how much time is allowed for the paper and when your exam is.  There is nothing worse than turning up for the exam on Friday at 10:00 when it was on Thursday at 11:00.

Some students get extra time for example if you’re an SEND student.  If you're not sure ask your teacher well before the exam so you can be assessed.  Some students get a scribe and a reader.  Make sure you use them and know what they can and can't do in an exam.

When sitting the exam I recommend doing the easier questions first and then coming back and doing the harder questions.  The aim of an exam is to get the highest amount of marks in the time allotted.  If you could get six 1-mark questions whilst your struggling to get a 5-mark question it makes more sense to answer the 1-mark questions first and then go back to the question you were struggling with.

As a general rule allocate your time per question according to the number of marks given.  For example a 2-mark question should take you roughly 2 minutes, a 5-mark question 5 minutes.

You should leave 5-10 minutes at the end of the exam to check your paper through.  Look for mistakes.  Does it look accurate?  Are your answers sensible?  Use estimations to check your answers or if possible a calculator to confirm your working out.  Can you use an alternative method to check your answer and get the same result (e.g. inverse operations)?

Paper questions

So you have gone through the paper and answered every question you know the answer to.  You have even gone through again and attempted most of the trickier ones but there is at least one question on the page that you have no clue how to answer it.  What should you do?

My advice: don't leave any question blank.  You will get marks for your working out even if the answer is wrong and it is better to try than give up.  If you don't understand the question ask yourself can you apply it to a real-life situation?  Put yourself in that situation and it may suddenly click.  You could also underline words and figures to help you decide on what the question is asking.  What number operation is it getting at.  Ask yourself 'What Maths can I do that relates to the question?' and you could try this.

You may know how to answer part of the question but not all of it.  It is better to start and not finish than to not try.  Whatever happens go with your gut.  If it looks like an area question then find the area.

When answering questions you should always be asking yourself have I got enough working out to guarantee marks for the method.  I remember tutoring a student and describing the examiner like Paddington bear.  You don't want him to get lost on the journey so you give him exact directions to the end address.  Show the examiner every step to get to your answer so they know how you are thinking and can follow your working out.  If your using a calculator during your exam include exactly what appears on your calculator screen.  If it is a geometry question and drawing an image is going to help you or the examiner draw it in.

As a general rule if you can't read your handwriting then I guarantee your examiner can't.  You want your paper to be neat and for methods to follow on logically one part from another.  For example, if an examiner can read line by line what is written it is easier than jumping from the top of the page to the bottom and then to the middle.

Make sure you read the question thoroughly and try not to skim read.  When I sat my GCSE exam I skimmed read a geometry question by looking at the picture not the writing underneath and missed the length of one of the sides.  In the last 5 minutes I was scrambling to answer a question I would have found simple if I hadn't skim read.

Make sure you include units of measurement when answering (e.g. minutes, grams, kilometres).  Also watch out for conversions within questions.  It may be a question is only asking for an estimation and there may be a final mark for rounding to a significant figure, decimal place or truncating.  Be aware of this.  Some questions may require a reason as well as arithmetic (e.g. an angle question).  Make sure you include all working out.

Finally when in doubt - ask your teacher.  They are a fountain of knowledge and most teachers if they don't know the answer will find it out.


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