Life at Uni: Exams

By Gordon Rugg

How do you get good marks in an exam, with the minimum of stress and the minimum of wasted effort?

You probably already know the basics, such as reading each question carefully, planning your answers, budgeting your time, writing at least something for each question, etc, so I won’t go into those. Instead, I’ll focus in this article on points that many students don’t know, and which can make a significant difference for comparatively little effort.

First, some quick clarification and disclaimers. I’m writing this article in my personal capacity, as opposed to my Keele University capacity. Also, since every university, discipline, department and module in the British university system is stubbornly independent, you’ll probably find that some parts of this article don’t correspond exactly with your situation. If in doubt, find out what does correspond exactly with your situation (there’s more about this later in this article).

Know your environment: The university’s generic marking criteria

Most universities have written criteria for marking schemes that outline what will get you a mark in a particular range. For instance, they might say that for a distinction, you need to show critical understanding of the key issues, and independent reading.

It’s a good idea to look at your university’s criteria, if you haven’t already done so, and to find out what any obscurely-worded criteria mean (this is where your personal tutor, or a friendly lecturer, can be invaluable).

This is useful both positively, in terms of what will get you into a higher marking category, and negatively, in terms of learning which things to avoid because they’re indicators of low marks.

Showing knowledge and understanding

An exam assesses your knowledge of the topic in question, and also your understanding of it. The two overlap, but they’re not the same. Here’s an extreme example. If you’ve memorised every handout from every lecture on the topic being examined, and your exam answer consists only of quotes, with proper attribution, from the handouts, then you’ve shown knowledge, but you haven’t shown that you understand anything that you’ve quoted.

This can be an issue for students who come from cultures where learning the words of the textbook authorities is highly valued. It’s part of the reason that plagiarism is treated as such a big issue in the Western academic system; again, it shows no understanding of the topic involved.

Why does this matter anyway? Imagine that you’re in an aircraft at thirty thousand feet, and you discover that the aircraft’s autopilot software was written by someone who didn’t actually understand how to do programming, and who got through the exams by quoting large chunks of the textbook. Would you feel reassured by this discovery? The understanding is important; it has real-world consequences. That’s why it’s treated as important in exam marking. I’ll return to this theme in the section on use of examples.

Showing knowledge: The advantages of being boring

As a rough rule of thumb, you get marks for showing relevant knowledge that’s come from the module being examined, and that an intelligent person in the street wouldn’t know. Yes, you might get some marks for stuff that the intelligent person in the street would know, but usually you won’t get many marks for it; the good marks come from the specialist knowledge.

Specialist knowledge often looks dense and boring; things like technical terms, names of relevant researchers, facts, and suchlike. That’s fine. You get marks for knowledge, not for telling a thrilling story, and not for writing a simple account that is clear but that shows no specialist knowledge of anything from the module.

A surprising number of students answer questions as if they were giving an explanation to someone on the street, with simplified language and with few or no signs of specialist knowledge. This usually doesn’t end well.

A handy tip is to imagine that you’re going through your answer, highlighting any words or phrases that couldn’t have been written by an intelligent person on the street who has never studied the module being examined. The more highlighter, the better the chances of a good mark.

You can also apply this principle to your revision: Which are the key concepts, facts, etc, that a person on the street wouldn’t know?

Knowledge-rich answers in exams are usually shorter than weak answers padded with irrelevancies. Careful planning can be invaluable here, both in terms of time and marks.

Showing understanding: Use of examples

Knowledge is good, but it’s usually also important to show that you understand the topic.

One effective way of doing this is by using examples, where you show how a particular concept applies in a specific case.

Examples can come from a wide range of places. There’s a rough pecking order. As usual, different disciplines have different opinions about this. As a broad guide, here are some types of examples, starting with the best, and ending with the not-so-good.

  • Applying the concept to a case from the specialist literature
  • Quoting an example from independent reading of specialist literature (e.g. describing an example from a journal article you’ve read)
  • Applying the concept to a relevant case from the non-specialist literature (e.g. a case that’s in the news at the moment)
  • Applying the concept to an example from the lectures, and analysing this example in an original way
  • Quoting an example from a textbook
  • Quoting an example that was used in the lectures, without any further discussion or insight

The general principle above is that applying the concept to an example usually shows understanding clearly and unambiguously, whereas quoting an example doesn’t usually show understanding so strongly. I’ve made an exception for quoting from independent reading of the specialist literature, because that type of reading shows that academic strength. I’ve also not mentioned using examples from personal experience, because these can vary widely. At their best, they can be excellent; more often, though, they come across as shallow anecdotes, unless you make a real effort to spell out just how the specialist concepts apply to the personal experience.

Resisting temptation: Just because it’s true and relevant, that doesn’t mean it will get you any marks

A surprising number of students focus on giving a personal answer to the question, as opposed to answering the question in a way that shows knowledge and understanding.

Here’s an example. Suppose the lectures showed you how to use graph theory to calculate the best route between two places. You now see an exam question about how to calculate the best route between Keele University and Milton Keynes. What you should do is demonstrate your knowledge of graph theory as applied to this particular example (for instance, showing how graph colouring can be used to take account of slow sections on the route). What you should not do is write only about the route that you personally like, with no reference to graph theory. Your reasons for liking that might route might be true and relevant – for instance, it might in fact be the shortest route – but that answer wouldn’t show any knowledge that would get you a mark.

Closing, positive, thoughts

If you’re stressed by exams, which a lot of students are, then there are things you can do about it.

An obvious, and good, approach is to use your university’s support service for exam stress. It’s free in every university that I know of, and it can make a huge, positive difference; it’s also a surprisingly pleasant experience.

Another thing you can do is to look at the examination process from the examiner’s viewpoint. When you do this, and treat the exam process as an intellectual puzzle, then the emotional associations are likely to dwindle. This should also help you understand exams better, and help you to give better answers.

For instance, a surprising number of students worry about trick questions in an exam. Now imagine yourself as an examiner. What would you expect to gain by setting a trick question? You wouldn’t gain anything; you wouldn’t even be able to get it through the exam scrutiny process that every exam paper has to go through. The scrutiny board would have some hard things to say about anyone idiotic enough to try setting a question that would result in lots of failing answers, and that made the department look bad when the results came out.

When you look at the issue this way round, you can see that trick questions aren’t likely to be a serious concern; more importantly, you can understand why they aren’t likely to be a serious concern. Most exam questions are designed as an opportunity for you to show as much knowledge and understanding as possible. The more students who show knowledge and understanding in their answers, the better the lecturer looks to the university system; everyone wins.

Finally, following on from that encouraging thought, remember that exams aren’t everything. There are more important things. Yes, good exam results help, but they’re not the only thing in life. Compared to good health, love, and happiness, they’re low on the scale.

On which positive note, I’ll end.


There’s more about university life in my books with Marian Petre:

The Unwritten Rules of PhD Research:

Rugg & Petre, A Gentle Guide to Research Methods:

Related articles:

There are a lot of other articles on this site about academic life and education, including topics that students often have trouble with, such as the differences between academic writing and other types of writing. They’re tagged under “education” and/or “craft skills”. We hope you’ll find them useful; if you’d like to see more on some particular topic, let us know via the comments section, and we’ll see what we can do.

Overviews of the articles on this blog:




2 thoughts on “Life at Uni: Exams

  1. Pingback: Life at Uni: Will the world end if I fail my exams? | hyde and rugg

  2. Pingback: Life at uni, revisited | hyde and rugg

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