How to write an exam---EXAM101.
Alan Robert Clark
August 25, 2004
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This document basically stems from my frustration at people doing stupid
things that are very easy to avoid, but lose a lot of marks in the
process. The other side of the same coin, a similar frustration occurs
when I am asked ``why I lost one mark, but the answer is right''. This
particular frustration can have a fairly violent expression. :-)
1 Basic Premise
Much of what I have to say on this topic stems from the following basic
premise as to the purpose of an examination:
It is your job to convince me that you know what you
are doing. It is NOT my job to extract some thread of quirky logic
from a morass of random scribblings.1
2 Before the Exam.
ENSURE that you know where and when the
examination will take place, and even what is being
- Get to 'varsity at least 25 minutes before the due time, and to the
venue at least 15 minutes before the due time. If you are late, it
simply adds to the general panic. The rule is that latecomers are
only allowed into the venue during the first half an hour, and
officially, no extra time is given! 3
- Bring two pens and two pencils, with spare lead/ink
etc. Make sure that the pencil is a dark one (HB) and that you have
an eraser. This is particularly important for Multiple Choice
- For ELEN302, bring a ruler, a compass (for Smith charts), and
differently coloured pens/pencils as this assists in
differentiating points on the Chart, for example.
- Bring two calculators, or spare batteries!!!
- If allowed (check your Course Outline), bring a handwritten
formula sheet. Generally, printed or photocopied sheets are not
- Check and re-check your allocated seat number, and sit
- Bring your student card, or an ID document. In the rare event that
a lecturer does not know you (where have you been?), bring
some form of ID.
3 Whilst in the venue, before the Exam begins.
Fill in the Attendance Register. Pay particular attention
to the Row and Seat Number.
- Fill in the Exam Script info. Pay very particular
attention to the Row and Seat Number.
The reason for all this emphasis on seat numbers etc is that the
fold-down flap on the answer books covers the name. At the end of
the exam session, we have to prove that everyone has handed in a
paper. (Or you might get 0 :-)5
The purpose of the flap is to discourage bias in the marking of the
paper, and to provide entertainment when it comes to opening them.
Its the best glue I've seen.6
- Check the staples of your answer book. If they are not adequate,
and pages fall out, it will be a Sad Day for England. Get a new one
before the exam starts.
- Once the question papers have been handed out, check that it has
all its pages, and that there are no blank photocopying blapses.
Generally, page numbers are indicated as ``Page 1 of 8''
- In a multi-exam session, check that you have the right
- Write down the starting time of the exam, and pace yourself
accordingly. In general, but with some exceptions, the amount of
effort required is proportional to the number of allocated marks.
- READ THE INSTRUCTIONS. Especially how many questions you
need to answer, and which ones are compulsory! 8
- Ask yourself why things are emphasized or bold, or
even Emphasized bold. Don't look for the ``hidden
meaning''---look for the overt meaning.
- Try to calm down. An exam is a rather stressful time :-) Pray,
4 The Writing.
READ THE ENTIRE PAPER. What I mean by this, is that you
should read the entire paper. This is best accomplished by reading
the entire paper.
You have 5 ``free'' minutes to do so9.
- Plan what you are going to answer, and in what order. Do
NOT attempt to answer something that you really don't know
as the first question you attempt. It tends to ``throw'' the exam
somewhat :-). Generally, you may answer any question, or
sub-question in any order.
- If you DO answer 5(a),4(b),3(c),5(b),2(a)...for heaven's
sake number the pages, and say things like ``Q5 continued on
- Start each new question on a new page.
- READ THE QUESTION. PROPERLY.
- Draw a pretty picture, ie Sketch the circuit, transmission
line, phasor diagram, etc as appropriate even if its on the
question paper anyway. It sorts it out in your mind, and the
lecturer can easily refer to the variables that you have chosen.
- Make a summary of what is required. This is important, as far to
often, various ``bits'' of the question are not answered. Tick off
what you have answered against this checklist.
- Start each new question with a clear ``Question 1'' type statement,
not just an obscure numeral tucked away somewhere.
- Fill in the question number answered on each page at the top. This
is not a sufficient indication of a question, though, see previous
- Do NOT write in the margins marked ``Do not write in these
margins''!!!!!!!! I am sorely tempted not to mark the material in
the margins. Where am I supposed to write?
- Write absolutely legibly.
- Do not ``go over'' penned text. The end result is completely
illegible. People that do this also tend to use the most hideous
pens!!! Buy a good old fashioned Bic, orange fine point, el cheapo,
that does not blotch!
- Rule off non-considered sections. Do Not use Tippex to erase a full
page. (This has happened :-) Don't forget that most lecturers will
give some consideration in a tight squeeze for a correct, well worked
answer, that has been ruled off. Its a wee bit more difficult after
- By all means, use a pencil. Do be aware that if you use pencil
during a test (which you get back), though, that you may
forfeit the ability to get it re-marked. Do not erase more than
once or twice. Rule it off, and start afresh. Mondi is not likely
to strain for a few more pages.
- Use point form. Make the ``answers'' stand out. Don't embed answers
within a paragraph of explanation. Summarize
- Don't write reams and reams of waffle. Do put in all reasoning.
Balance these two.
- If a part (b) question says ``If the program in part (a) doesn't
terminate, explain why'' for 5 marks, rest assured it
doesn't terminate!! Wragies...
- In general, most numbers in exam situations are well cooked. You
should be expecting transmission lines that are l/4 or
l/2 multiples. If you do get a transmission line to be
1.234567321l long, take another look.10
- If a question says ``In 5 lines, explain...'' DO NOT write
- DO NOT write down the answer only. It will NOT attract marks. I
want the reasoning, the development, the understanding. Very often,
the answer is wrong, and then zero is the only option I have. If
you at least give me some reasoning...
- Answer the question. Do NOT answer your own question!!!
- Write something. Anything. It is extremely difficult to manufacture
the required ``extra two marks'' needed for a scrape from blank
paper. At least summarize the question, and attempt
STOP WRITING. You are not going to change much by your
illegible scrawl in the last 30 seconds. It is unfair on everyone
else, and makes getting and checking papers hazardous. If your
paper is lost in this procedure, its your baby.
- There are some idiotic Chief invigilators in this University that
bow to ``student pressure'' when the collection of scripts is
occurring, and publicly announce that students can leave the venue.
Do yourself and your fellow students a favour...If you can see
that all the papers have not yet been collected, remain
seated! If a paper goes missing in this turmoil, it is truly a Sad
Day for England...
Remember that it is a simple fact of life that a pleasantly laid out, neat,
logically presented examination paper will gain a higher mark than
the one where the information is not explicit and clear.
There is a ``mythconception'' that ``we are out to get them''. Please note
that the School only gets decent credit (funding) for completed
The online version is http://ytdp.ee.wits.ac.za/ExamWritingSkills.html
- Given the amount of time
that I can devote to reading the answer, you need to get the maximum
amount across in the clearest possible manner! (100 Students, 5 questions
each, at only 5 minutes per question, that translates to over a week of
full-time marking, doing nothing else!!, but often takes more than 5
- I do not think that I have ever seen a paler
face, and a more contemplative expression than the chap who
realized that he was writing Signal Processing, not High Frequency
Techniques only when I handed him the question paper. I believe his
words were: ``But...''
- Do NOT try to
do a last-minute conflab with your fellow students. It does not
- I was once asked by student A whether he could
ask student B for an explanation of a finer point on the sheet.
E=mc2 ensued :-)
- I once assisted in
invigilating a first year economics course, with over 1200 students in
Hall 29 (ONE paper). A good 10% of the class was mis-seated. There
were, I think, about 30 invigilators all calling student numbers
out to each other. The JSE had nothing on it.
- Rumour has it that a senior
academic opposed them in the Senate, since it would no longer allow
him to mark affirmatively :-)
- Not too difficult for us engineers, but I was in a
venue where they switched Philosophy I and II. This was brought to
light one hour after the start :-)
- One of the
reasons I have moved away from the 5 out of 7 question format, is
that in EVERY exam, I had two or three bleary-eyed chaps
after the exam that answered all 7!
- I suppose that most
of you have forgotten, but in the 80's, the SRC battled to get that
concession out of the 11th floor...Use It
- On the other
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