Monday, 5 October 2020

Long answer test technique

Students tend to struggle with tackling written examinations. This only gets harder as we increase in education levels, as the complexity and quality of the thinking required also increases. In general with tests and examinations, controlled examinations do not require an essay: the marker wants to see that students are able to demonstrate their learning.

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

For example, if we are undertaking a 180 minute test of 100 marks, this allows us 1.8 minutes per mark, without any time for review. For a ten mark question, we allow 18 minutes; double it for a 20 mark question to 36 minutes. If we want to build in review time, then we could drop this down to 15 minutes per ten marks (30 for a 20 mark question), giving us half an hour for review at the end.

When tackling a long answer question - the types we are likely to be asked as a post-graduate student, I give the following advice for students in the Polytechnic sector, where learning needs to be applied. There are five aspects that we need to show the examiner: that we can analyse the situation, that we can select appropriate theory, 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. Those five steps are again are analyse, select, define, justify, apply:
  1. That we can appropriately and accurately analyse the situation in the case, linking to the materials we have been exposed to in our course work;
  2. That we can select appropriate tools, theories and frameworks to answer the question and meet the needs of the client in the case;
  3. That we understand the tools, theories and frameworks by defining them. That we can define it, explain what it does, and can break it down into its key components;
  4. That we can justify why those particular tools, theories and frameworks have been chosen;
  5. That we can apply those tools, theories and frameworks to the real case. In postgraduate education, students are most likely to be assigned a case, so we will need to ensure that our entire response is focused on the case we are being examined on. How the case has used it ourselves, or how we propose they use it in future. Clearly, clearly applied.
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.
Remember: analyse, select, define, demonstrate, apply. Work hard to master the material, and ALWAYS put an answer, even when you are stuck.

Good luck!


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