Exam Technique – Time is not your biggest problem in exams

Students often complain that the time restraints in exams and tests are their biggest challenge. “If I had more time…” is a phrase I hear very often after students write exams.

Since we can’t change the time allocated in exams, we need to make sure we can change what we do have control over.

I often watch students write tests in class, to assess where their challenges are, and the results indicate that speed is not the biggest challenge. The question is where your time goes when you’re writing?

Common challenges

Here are the most frequent primary challenges:
– Students read the case study repeatedly. This takes away from the time they have to answer the question. For every point or calculation they write down, they refer back to the case study for details
– Students take a long time to formulate points. Although they have a picture in their head about what they want to say, it takes too long to put that in a coherent sentence, and they end up waffling instead of communicating briefly and with clarity.
– Although students generally know the technical theory by the time they sit for the exam, their application skills are lagging behind. In other words, they know the theory, but they can’t quite connect it to the information in the exam and use it in a different way, apply it, and the result is generally a knowledge dump
– As students read the case study, they battle to identify what the information means to them, and how it connects to the work they’ve studied, and how to use it in the solution
– Students battle to figure out where to start with their answers. They struggle to put pen to paper to get their solution started

After years of watching students and what they spend their time doing, I notice that there’s a LOT of time that students AREN’T writing, or noting issues from the case study… there’s a lot of time spent staring at the ceiling, hovering with the pen above the paper, and searching for information back in the detail of the case study.

What can you do about it?

When you’re studying and doing questions, do them under the relevant time pressure. Once your time is up, change your colour pen, and continue for another five or ten minutes. When you mark your attempt, identify just how many marks you got in those extra minutes. This will also indicate whether more time would actually get you more marks! In most cases, the majority of marks are obtained in the first few minutes of the solution, not the last! This often helps students REALLY see that they shouldn’t go overtime on questions. It’s not worth the marks you’ll get.

When we lecture exam courses, we talk students through HOW to read the case study, to get the maximum value out of the information in the minimum amount of time. This saves you time so you don’t have to go back to re-reading the case study all the time.

‘Gathering marks’ is a term I use to describe the skill of picking up marks along the way in an exam. Students often see mark allocations as ‘all or nothing’. There are easy marks in there… GET THEM… and GET THEM FAST! Formats, structures are crucial here, because it becomes habit to create a shell to slot information into.

COMMUNICATION. Sheesh… accounting students HATE this, but you have to be able to get your point across… QUICKLY. Especially in Auditing, or discussion questions. When you see a solution that looks far better than yours, look closely at the sentence structure, how they’ve saved words and time. Then leave it for a while. Go back and REWRITE that point, keeping in mind the stuff that you picked up from the solution. Not a parrot-fashion memory-dump, but training your brain to think about that sentence differently. Active versus passive learning. Your brain will not retain stuff if you don’t write it down and teach it how to do something differently.

Once you identify what your primary challenge is, work on that. Work on fixing the underlying issues, and by default, you will end up speeding up!


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