Thursday, November 13, 2014

11 tips for surviving exams (the Cranky Lecturer returns)

It's exam time round these parts and email after freaked-out-email has seen a return of the Cranky Lecturer. After getting tired of typing the same things over and over, I wrote up a list and pasted it on Moodle/Blackboard. Funnily enough, it's almost the same list I had on my powerpoint slides in the revision lecture a few weeks ago.

Exam survival really starts months before the actual event, so I've broken it down into time frames. If your exam's tomorrow, skip straight to the next part.

During semester

1. Build an awesome collection of exam revision material. This means:
  • Take good notes. There's nothing worse than looking back at your notes and not being able to understand a single thing. 
  • Summarise your lectures and tutorials as you go. Spend 20 minutes after class highlighting the highlights while they're fresh in your mind. Was there a key theory/theorist? Was there a phrase that really nailed it for you?  
  • Write a glossary of keyterms as you go, revising it each week as theories and/or your understanding develops. This is the best thing to take with you to the exam door, so you can just read down the list and keep the key points in mind. Mass notes will just make you panic. 
2. Ask for clarification of things you don't understand or don't feel you have a handle on. During class is the best time for this, not at 1am before a 9am exam. I also give my students an opportunity to test their handwriting legibility on me to make sure I can read it. Nothing worse than trying to interpret chicken scrawl.

3. Attend the review lecture. When I say that's an important one not to miss, I mean it. The last week of class is not the time to skive off. Not my class, anyway.  

Exam prep

4. Do practice exams. Most lecturers here release past exams to the library. These is helpful not just to revise content but also to see how much you can write within a set time frame. Can you write three good essays in two hours? Also, if you're lucky, your lecturer might reuse old exam questions.

5. Be aware of the rules and what support services are on offer. Can't handle being in a room full of people? Can't write with a pen or pencil? Have a physical issue that means you can't sit down for long periods of time? Most universities will offer a range of services to help you. It's also a good idea to check what you're allowed to take in with you. We don't allow language dictionaries in the exams anymore because of cheating issues. We also have a very limited amount of time to apply for a deferred exam if you miss the main one. Check out the rules and procedures so you know what to do, just in case.

6. Don't email me asking how many marks you need in the exam to pass the subject. Aim for 100%, or at least let me pretend that you are.

On the way to the exam

7. Have a backup plan for getting to the exam on time. Cars inevitably break down; trains are late. One year, my exam was scheduled on Melbourne Cup day and twenty students missed the exam because of public transport chaos. Have a backup plan (and $50 stashed somewhere in case you need to take a cab).

8. Don't get drunk. See previous experience of Melbourne Cup day exam. Also, don't drink a bucket load of water beforehand.


9. Use your reading time wisely, then write a plan. Use the 10 minutes reading time to think of everything and anything that might be appropriate for the questions you're seeing. As soon as you are able to pick up a pen, write down every single thing you remember from the frantic cramming you did. Use that mess to write a plan for each answer/essay. Write a timing schedule too, while you're at it, so you know exactly how long you have for each answer.

10. Attempt every single question, leaving a page or two blank between each one. If you made yourself a little schedule this won't be a problem, but if you get to the last five minutes and you realise you've missed one, put in a quick list of points that you would have talked about. You may get one or two marks from kind lecturers like me, which is better than a guaranteed zero. If you have the opposite problem and finish with time to spare, leaving ablank page gives you space to add extras if you want to.

11. Don't cheat. Invigilators have eagle eyes and, anyway, cheating kills rainbows.

I could add in all the usual advice about eating well and getting some sleep the night before but how many uni students do that normally? Perhaps a better piece of advice would be to just breathe.Take a minute, breathe... and then get stuck in.


  1. Where were you when I was struggling with exams! This is really good Lilybett.

    1. Probably muttering under a pile of marking, Lila :)

  2. This is actually really helpful for my 13 year old who is doing his exams this week... except the drunk one, I may skip that one when I got through these tips with him. Thanks lovely xx

    1. Gosh, I can't remember even having exams when I was 13. I hope he sails through, Sonia!

  3. I love this advice... all great tips


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