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Durham University

Department of Physics

Advice on examination techniques

Level 1 examiners have often observed that many first-year students do not seem to demonstrate their full ability in the examinations because of deficient examination techniques. Since the format of university examinations differs from school examinations, what "worked" well at school might not work here, and a change of tack is worth considering. Here is some advice in regards to tackling papers:

  1. Read all questions in advance of trying any, decide which questions you think you are most capable of picking up marks on, and prioritise these questions before the ones you think are harder. (There is no point doing the questions in the order they are presented in the paper: this is not required, and questions are not ordered by increasing difficulty.)
  2. Try and allocate a set amount of time for each question, and if you are spending too long on one question leave it and go on to another. (You can always come back to it if there is time.)
  3. Read the question and answer precisely what it asks. In particular:
    • make sure that you answer all its parts, without forgetting any;
    • do not shy away from using words, and whole sentences, when asked to describe things;
    • if you really do not know what to answer, do not write about vaguely related topics on the off chance you may get some marks. ("Brain dumps" are wasteful of your time and of the examiner's time.)
  4. Show your working; explain the terms and the notation you introduce; draw a diagram, with labels, where appropriate; and try and lay out your answers in a neat fashion. You may confuse yourself if your answer randomly zigzags across the pages. It is fine to cross out rough work, but make sure there is no ambiguity about what is crossed out.
  5. Remember to include the units, and don't quote too many significant figures.
  6. Ensure that you don't lose marks simply because the examiner cannot work out which question you're answering. In particular:
    • when answering a multi-part question label each bit of the solution so as to make it clear which part of the question you are answering;
    • try not to scatter answers mixed with others all over the answer book (e.g. avoid writing part (d) of one question in isolation between parts (a) and (b) of another, or writing random scraps of answers at the end of the booklet without saying which question they're associated with).