Wednesday, 29 July 2020

Test technique

Many students struggle with how to tackle examinations. In general with tests and examinations, I am not looking for an essay: I am simply wanting my students to demonstrate that they understand - own - the material that we have covered.

The advice I give my students is to divide the minutes available for the test by the marks (normally that ratio will come out at a little over two minutes per mark). We use the number our calculation gives us to budget our time against the marks for each question. 

  • For example, an 80 minute test of 40 marks would be very tight. We would need to budget 1.6 minutes per mark so we had a little over 15 minutes to review before the end of the test. For a ten mark question, we allow ourselves 16 minutes. 
  • On the other hand, a 120 minute test of 50 marks would allow us 2 minutes per mark with 20 minutes for review. For a ten mark question, we can safely allow 20 minutes. 
We should work our mark to time ratio out at the beginning of the test, and note how much time we should spend per question, against the question (or question title), to remind us of how we are trackingHaving a little time left over to proof and double-check at the end can make a huge difference to our performance.

There is also technique in answering certain types of questions:

Short/Medium Answer Questions:
When tackling a short to medium answer question, I give the following advice for students sitting examinations in the Polytechnic sector, where learning needs to be applied. There are three aspects that we need to show the examiner: that we understand the theory by defining it, that we can demonstrate what it means to ourselves, and that we can apply it to a real situation or case.
To show that we know the theory, we need to be able to define the theory, and explain what it does. We need to be able to break the theory down into its key components. Then we need to explain how that theory sits with us, personally. We are likely to be asked how we may use it ourselves, or if we have used it, or if we have seen it used, or if - or how - we have seen it demonstrated in a case.
Definition. Demonstration. Application.
Multiple Choice Questions:
A good general strategy for multiple choice is to go through them as quickly as we can, and answer each question we know the answer to. My general rule of thumb is to spend one minute per unknown question, and leave each one that we don’t know the answer to after that minute is up. We then simply note down any questions we don’t know the answers to, which we can come back to later, in our proofing time.  
Only when we have run out of questions do we go back to tackle the questions we didn't know how to answer.

I also have a strategy for when we run short of time, or are stuck:

Stuck: if we are stuck, define the theory we think we are being asked about, detail the components, then paraphrase what we think the examiner is asking us, and answer that question to the best of our ability, providing examples. Even if we are off track, other students too may have misread or not been able to interpret the question, and the examiner may give us marks for what we have answered.
Short of time: if we are running out of time, quickly define the theory we think we are being asked about, again, paraphrase what the examiner is asking us, then just list list where we were aiming to go with our answer in brief bullet points. It may not get us many marks, but some marks are better than none.
Another point that is worth noting is that open book exams can make us feel secure, because we can have as much information as we need. However, looking things up takes a lot of time. Knowing the information and studying ahead of time is much more useful, as retrieval from brain to keyboard is much faster if it isn't first diverted via several pdfs or textbooks.

Definition. Demonstration, Application. Good luck!



  1. Hi Sam,

    Thanks for the tips! They were helpful and will guide those of us who haven't studied in many years.

    Sarah Moffatt

    1. Thanks Sarah: glad you found it useful... and put it to good use!


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