Exam Skills

See also: What is Learning?

Exams have been a fact of life for many years, and for almost all of us. After a brief period favouring coursework, the pendulum has swung firmly back in favour of exams in many countries. You now need to be able to pass exams to get through school, to graduate from college (and in some cases, to enter it), and to enter many professions.

It is, therefore, essential to develop the skills you need to prepare for, take and pass exams. Fortunately, like any others, these can be learned. This section of Skills You Need provides help and advice to enable you to do so.

Preparing for Exams: Revision Skills

Revision literally means ‘looking again’.

It is, therefore, the process of going over your previous work, as a way to remind yourself of what you have covered.

The Importance of Putting in the Groundwork

It follows from the definition of ‘revision’ that you cannot simply start your studying at the point of starting revision.

The process of passing exams actually starts with your first step into a classroom or lecture theatre, or the first time you open a textbook.

You have to put in the groundwork throughout your course if you are to do well in exams. Unfortunately, there are no shortcuts.

There is more about how to study effectively, including setting up your study space and carving out time for studying, in our pages on Study Skills.

Perhaps the most important part of revision—and often also the most difficult—is simply getting started.

It is easy to allow yourself to get distracted, to decide that you just don’t feel good enough today, or that there’s plenty of time. The best thing to do is just to get on with it. Just getting started will be a huge boost to your confidence.

Once started, the main keys to revision for most people are doing little and often, and making sure you give your brain plenty of variety to keep yourself engaged. In practice, this means:

  • Not focusing on any subject for too long. Instead, consider changing subjects after 30 minutes or an hour.

  • Having regular breaks in your studying. Give yourself a five-minute break after 30 minutes, or ten minutes if you have managed to work for an hour. However, be honest with yourself, and don’t let that five minutes stretch into 20 minutes!

  • Doing plenty of different activities. Don’t just spend all your time reading over your notes. Try lots of different activities and mix them up during your study time. Possible activities include writing down ten bullet points about each topic you have revised, having discussions with friends about particular issues, doing some practice essays or questions, and drawing a mindmap of everything you can remember about a particular topic.

There are more ideas about different ways to revise in our page on Revision Skills.

Remember your Learning Style—and use it when revising

Our page on Learning Styles describes some different models of learning, including Honey and Mumford’s model, and the Visual–Auditory–Kinaesthetic Model based on neuro-linguistic programming.

There is very little strong evidence about the effect of learning styles in education—though this is mostly because it is very hard to design randomised trials.

However, there is little doubt that we all like to learn in slightly different ways. Finding out more about different models, and different ways of learning, will give you more ideas about alternative ways to revise—and that can only be good.

There is more about this in our page on Revisions Skills and Learning Style.

Avoiding Distractions

It is also important to avoid getting distracted while revising.

There are no hard and fast rules about how to manage this, but some useful tips include:

  • Have a specific place where you work, which is free from the obvious distractions.

  • Limit your access to technology. If you need your phone or computer to revise, then turn off notifications and disable social media for a few hours.

  • Keep your revision time limited. It is much easier to keep concentrating if you know that your revision period will last a set time.

There are more ideas for this in our page on Avoiding Distractions while Revising.

Leading Up to Exams: Final Preparations

It is ideal to use the last 24 hours before your exam to consolidate your revision.

Ideally, aim to go over summaries and mindmaps, rather than looking at your full notes again. Concentrate on consolidating your learning: check and confirm what you have learned, rather than trying to cram in anymore information.

It’s still not too late

What if you have left all your revision to the last minute? Or perhaps you got the date of your exam wrong, and you are desperately trying to catch up?

Don’t panic.

There is still time to do some work.

If you are facing this situation, it is probably best to focus on just three or four main areas of work. Focus on summarising and learning them—and then hope that they come up in the exam.

Of course if they don’t, you will struggle—but there will almost certainly be an opportunity to retake if necessary, and/or it will be a useful lesson not to leave things to the last minute.

Above all, whether or not you have left your revision to the last minute, DON’T PANIC. You will get more done if you stay calm. Try to avoid anyone else who is getting stressed too—which may mean NOT being in touch with your friends at this stage.

There are more useful tips for the last 24 hours before your exam in our page on Last Minute Exam Revision Tips.

Top Tip!

All the advice on this page is summed up in our page on Top Exam Preparation Tips. You may therefore find it a helpful aide memoire to ensure that there is nothing that you have forgotten.

Finally, before you go to bed the night before your exam, make sure that you are fully ready to leave in the morning—and that you know where you are going and when.

Check the location and time of your exam. Get all your pens and any other equipment ready (in a clear pencil case or plastic bag if that is required). Make sure that you have a timer that is NOT your phone, and find your lucky mascot, if you have one. If you need to wear a uniform or any special clothes, get them out and ready.

If you have to drive or cycle, check your car or bike is ready, and has enough fuel/no punctures. If you are using public transport, have you got your travelcard/other means of paying?

Make your own life easy, because you really don’t need to be stressed in the morning.

Taking Exams

The day of your exam has finally arrived. The preparation is over, and the time has come.

The most important thing to remember is STAY CALM.

No matter what happens, nothing will be improved if you panic.

It doesn’t matter whether the car won’t start, the exam hall is struck by lightning, or you can’t answer any questions—none of these situations will be improved by panic. What, after all, is the worst thing that can happen? You might fail. If so, there will almost certainly be a chance to retake, or a different door will open.

Here’s a little secret: nobody actually wants anyone to fail an exam.

It’s not good for your school or university, or for the exam boards. They actually want everyone to pass, because then everyone is happy.

Case study: The nightmare finals paper, or when NOT to panic

Jenny entered the exam hall on the second day of her university finals feeling reasonably confident. She had done one exam out of five now, and it had been OK. She knew where the exam room was, and how the process worked. Surely things could only get better?

“You may begin now,” the examiner said, at 9.30 on the dot.

There was a rustle of paper as everyone uncovered their exam paper and started to read the questions. Jenny read through the first page without finding any questions she felt confident about answering, and turned over the paper to read the rest—only to discover that there were no more.

She felt rising panic. She genuinely couldn’t answer any questions! What was she going to do? Should she just leave?

She quelled the panic firmly and reread the questions. This time, she found one that she could write something about. She settled down to plan, and then write, her essay.

After 40 minutes, she had written everything she knew about that topic, regardless of whether it was relevant. She could see other people shaking their heads, and not writing very much. Grimly, she turned to the paper again to identify another question. One student left after an hour, but most of the rest stayed for the full three hours, and kept writing. Afterwards, comparing notes, they all agreed that it had been awful.

However, it turned out that low marks are not a problem when everyone gets them. Zero marks—such as you get if you leave the room without writing anything—are more of an issue.

How to Succeed at Exams

One of the best ways to learn how to manage during exams is to look at what NOT to do: the common mistakes made in exams. Apart from panicking, these include:

  • Not answering the question

    This is usually because you have misread the question, or have prepared a slightly different essay. Always make sure that you read the questions several times, and check your answer back against the question at the end.

  • Failing to notice the obvious clues

    This might include both clues in the question itself (for example, ignoring words like ‘Analyse…’ or ‘illustrating your answer with evidence from x’. However, it also includes the mark scheme or the number of questions. If you have a question worth 15 points, you will need to give more than a one-sentence answer.

  • Failing to plan ahead

    You need to plan both your time and any essays that you have to write. Take a moment to work out how long you have for each question before you start—and make sure that you don’t take more time than this. If you are writing essays, plan them briefly before you start, to make sure that you have a sensible argument and structure. This will also mean that you might get some credit for your ideas even if you don’t have time to finish your essay.

There are more common mistakes to avoid in our page on Avoiding Common Exam Mistakes. You may also find it helpful to look at our page on Taking Exams, which explains what you should do, as well as what to avoid.

The Importance of Looking After Yourself

During both revision and exams, it is vital that you do not neglect your health.

You will NOT be able to perform at your best unless you look after your mental and physical health.

That means, in particular:

  • Getting enough sleep;
  • Making sure that you eat well and healthily—which means not living on junk food; and
  • Getting at least some fresh air and exercise each day, even if it is only a walk around the block.
There is more about this in our page on Staying Healthy During Exams. You may also find some useful ideas on our page Tips to Boost your Confidence in Exams.

Further Reading from Skills You Need

The Skills You Need Guide for Students

The Skills You Need Guide for Students

Skills You Need

Develop the skills you need to make the most of your time as a student.

Our eBooks are ideal for students at all stages of education, school, college and university. They are full of easy-to-follow practical information that will help you to learn more effectively and get better grades.

A Final Thought

Exam skills, including revising and taking exams, can be learned.

Unfortunately, however, we do not all learn the same way. It is therefore important to try many different approaches to find out what works for you.