Life at Uni: Some tips on exam technique

By Gordon Rugg

Standard disclaimer: This article is as usual written in my personal capacity, not in my Keele University capacity.

Sometimes, the acronyms that fit best are not the ones that produce the most encouraging words. That’s what happened when I tried to create an acronym to help with exam technique. It ended up as “FEAR FEAR”. This was not the most encouraging start. So, I’ll move swiftly on from the acronym itself to what it stands for, which is more encouraging, and should be more helpful.

A lot of people find exams mentally overwhelming. This often leads to answers that aren’t as good as they could be. When you’re in that situation, it’s useful to have a short, simple mental checklist that helps you focus on the key points that you want to get across. That’s where the acronym comes in.

F is for Facts, and F is for Frameworks

E is for Examples, and E is for Excellence

A is for Advanced, and A is for Application

R is for Reading, and R is for Relevance

In the rest of this article, I’ll work through each of the items, unpacking what they’re about, and how to handle them efficiently.

There’s another standard disclaimer at this point: Different fields have different ways of doing things, so it’s a good idea to find some guidelines that are specific to your field; wherever they’re different from the ones below, then go with the specific ones.

A couple of points before we get into the mnemonic:

First, general marking principles. Most disciplines have marking guidelines which say what skills and knowledge an answer should demonstrate in order to reach a particular grade, such as a distinction or a medium pass or a bare minimum pass. If you haven’t seen these guidelines for your field, then it’s a good idea to sweet-talk a knowledgeable member of staff into going through the guidelines with you, and explaining exactlying what is meant by wording such as “evidence of advanced critical thinking”.

Second, the problem of the Sinful Student. Quite a few of the marking guidelines exist because in the past, sinful or clueless students have done something outrageously bad, such as claiming to have read things that they’ve never even seen. Good and virtuous students are often completely unaware of this, so it never occurs to them that they might need to demonstrate that they have actually read the article that they’re quoting, etc. A common example is good students not bothering to mention technical terms, etc, because they take it for granted that the marker knows that they know those terms, and have never dreamt that anyone would try to bluff their way through the exam without ever studying the topic. The marker can only give marks to what’s written on the page, so if in doubt, err on the side of demonstrating your knowledge on the page. You get marks for demonstrating knowledge, even if the result is boring and heavy writing. In exams, boring and heavy are your friends.

On to the acronym…

F is for Facts

The facts should be specific pieces of information that people on the street don’t know; for instance, technical terms, names of key researchers, technical concepts, etc. These show that you’ve been on the course, and learned things. However, they’re a basic starting point, rather than the whole story.

F is for Frameworks

Facts only make sense in a bigger framework. In most fields, you show more advanced knowledge, which can get higher marks, by demonstrating your knowledge of the relevant frameworks. In computing, for example, there are various frameworks for developing software, such as the waterfall model or the spiral model or non-functional iterative prototyping. It’s a good idea to show that you know what the frameworks are that relate to the question you’re answering.

E is for Examples

Examples show that you understand the concept you’re writing about, and can show how it applies to the world. Examples can come from everyday life, or from the lectures, or from independent reading. Usually, any example is better than no example.

E is for Excellence

It’s a good idea to learn about the indicators of excellence in your field, and to make sure to include them in your answers where possible. I’ve blogged about this previously, in this article. Some signs of excellence are low level, and don’t require much knowledge or brainpower (for instance, sustained attention to detail in formatting, etc). Other signs of excellence are higher level, and require more effort, but don’t necessarily involve advanced knowledge (e.g. laying out your answers in a clear, systematic and thorough way). Others do require advanced knowledge, which is the topic of the next section.

A is for Advanced

The lectures and textbooks typically focus on the expected average level of student understanding. It’s difficult to cover a decent-sized academic topic properly in a single module, so the content that students receive is usually a stripped-down version rather than the full story. If you want to get marks at a distinction level, you’ll need to demonstrate advanced knowledge as well as the standard knowledge. If that sounds depressing, don’t worry; you don’t need to demonstrate astounding knowledge of everything. It’s like adding spice to a meal; it doesn’t take much spice to go from bland to delicious, but that bit of spice makes all the difference. I’ve blogged here about how to learn about advanced concepts swiftly and efficiently.

A is for Application

In most fields, it’s good to show that you can take concepts from your course and apply them to problems. I’ve dealt with students who could memorise vast quantities of material from textbooks and module handbooks, and then regurgitate them practically word for word in exams. This was impressive at one level, but it left me with no idea whether the student understood anything of what they were reciting. I’ve also dealt with students who were very good at using formal notations, but had no idea what the purpose of those formal notations was. Academics in applied disciplines get twitchy about such situations, for very practical reasons; for instance, would you be happy to fly in an aircraft which had been designed by someone who had passed their exams by regurgitating the words from the handbooks, with no evidence of understanding how to use the concepts involved? So, some disciplines and/or modules make a big deal of students demonstrating that they know how to apply what they have learnt.

R is for Reading

This is one of the ways of showing advanced skills and knowledge, and getting into the frame for a distinction. Nobody’s likely to give you a distinction for doing the bare minimum possible. For high marks, you need to show that you’ve done relevant reading on your own initiative. You won’t usually be expected to remember the full bibliographic references for that reading in an exam; that would be a waste of your memory. (Coursework is a different matter; there, you will normally be expected to give the full bibliographic reference for each piece of reading, and you’ll getmarks for each one you give.) In an exam, just remembering the concepts, and maybe the authors’ names, will be enough. As with advanced knowledge, this is like spice; you only need a bit to lift what you produce from bland to excellent.

R is for Relevance

In case you’re wondering whether anyone would actually be silly enough to write answers that aren’t relevant: Yes, quite a lot of exam candidates do just that. It’s usually not because of silliness; more often, it’s because of misunderstanding, or desperation. Misunderstandings can happen, and if it’s a reasonable misunderstanding, then markers normally go along with the misunderstanding. If you’re not sure what a question actually means, then one good strategy is to write down why you’re not sure what it means, and to write down which meaning you’re going to run with in your answer. That makes you look more like an honest student grappling with an unclear phrasing than like a clueless, desperate student doing a brain dump. (A gentle tip: It’s wise to be tactful in your explanation of why you’re not sure what the question means…)

Closing thoughts

There are a lot of good guidelines for general exam strategy, available online and in books and via student support services (who are usually very happy to help with exam nerves, exam technique, etc).

I’ve deliberately not gone into issues that are well covered in those sources, such as how to budget your time, or how to handle questions where you don’t know very much. This article is intended to complement those sources, not to replace them.

If you’re struggling to remember anything about exam technique, then one simple guideline that should help is the cabinet making metaphor. Exams and coursework are just like the way that apprentices in the old days learned to be cabinet makers. At the end of their apprenticeship, they had to make a cabinet to demonstrate that they had the skills needed to become a master cabinet maker (which is where the phrase masterpiece comes from; it was the piece of work which showed that you were ready to become a master).

So, if you were an apprentice making that cabinet, you’d make sure that your cabinet demonstrated every skill you had ever learnt, from sawing to polishing, and with every complicated joint that you’d ever encountered, so that there was no doubt whatever in the examiners’ minds about your excellence. It’s just the same with exams and coursework today.

On which inspiring note, I’ll end. If you’re reading this in preparation for an exam, then I hope you find it useful. You might also find other articles in this series useful; there’s an overview of them on the URL below.


You’re welcome to use Hyde & Rugg copyleft images for any non-commercial purpose, including lectures, provided that you state that they’re copyleft Hyde & Rugg.

There’s more about the theory behind this article in Gordon’s latest book:

Blind Spot, by Gordon Rugg with Joseph D’Agnese

There’s more about academic writing in The Unwritten Rules of PhD Research, by myself and Marian Petre.

Although it’s mainly intended for PhD students, there are chapters on academic writing which are highly relevant to undergraduate and taught postgraduate students. It’s written in the same style as this article, if that’s any encouragement…

The Unwritten Rules of PhD Research, 2nd edition (Marian Petre & Gordon Rugg)




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