Effective Question Practice is a critical part of exam preparation & essential if students wish to maximise their chances of passing.
Ultimately, practising questions is the best way to demonstrate to yourself how much of an understanding of the subject you actually have. However, a number of students practice questions in the wrong way and consequently do not learn or acquire understanding from their endeavours.
Question practice should be done in such a way that it simulates what the real exam scenario will be, i.e. no access to books, colleagues or the actual answer – individuals will be answering questions without any ‘safety net’. It is vital that students practice questions without referring to the answers before they fully complete their attempt. The more imaginative student may request their friends or partners to act as exam invigilators, though some may consider that excessive.
A significant number of students will start a question, get stuck – due to a number of reasons, ranging from trying to understand the question to ‘blank’ memory, whatever the reason; a brick- wall has been encountered. It is critical that students learn how to get over that brick wall if they are to be successful. This approach is initially a difficult one to adapt to (that temptation to look at the answer before completing the question is very strong). In my experience students learn at a faster rate using this technique and can more easily identify their areas of strength, and ones that need more work. A student of mine who used this approach for the first time said “My head did hurt! In fact it almost exploded, lol, but I persisted and I’m not doing that bad.”
Before we explore the technique in detail it is useful to take a look behind the scenes as to how the majority of examiners set exams and how they will be assessed and marked. Exam questions will (a) reflect the learning outcomes contained in the attendant subject syllabus; (b) the final answer in a question will require a student to complete a number of differing tasks/stages in order to get to the final answer; (c) the examiner will have produced a marking scheme for each question outlining the allocation of marks within that question; (d) most exams are not negatively marked, i.e. marks are not taken away for incorrect answers (medicine, thankfully is an exception); (e) marks are predominantly based on methodology and students own numbers; (g) the primary objective is to demonstrate understanding and not necessarily getting the correct answer.
To illustrate this technique let us use the example of a question which asks us to (say) calculate the gross profit of a product, compare it to last year and make suitable comments. This question will require the student to perform a number of individual tasks in order to get to the final answer. Gross profit is the difference between sales and cost of sales. In order to achieve the full marks the student will need to identify/calculate (1) the sales figure; (2) the cost of sales figure; (3) be able to calculate the difference between (1) and (2); (4) compare the gross profit to last year; (5) make suitable comments.
The examiner will have allocated marks for each of these aspects; the number of marks will be based on the complexity and difficulty of each task set. If the candidate incorrectly calculates the cost of sales then full marks will not be awarded for this part of the task; however if the student then subsequently uses their cost of sales figure in the correct manner, i.e. subtract their cost of sales figure and makes appropriate comments (on their own figure) then full marks can be awarded for that part of the task. As far as the examiner is concerned the student has demonstrated a correct understanding of how gross profit is calculated and how it is interpreted.
When practising this technique a student should attempt the question from start to finish, if the ‘brick wall’ is encountered then take an educated guess, and proceed accordingly. When the task is finished review your answer against the published answer as though you were a marker, tick the parts of the answer which are numerically correct and using own figures, circle or mark those which are incorrect.
Try to obtain past exam or exam styles questions and work through as many as possible, ultimately putting more pressure on yourself by timing yourself (In a 3 hour exam a question worth 10 marks has as matched time equivalence of 18 minutes!), not completing the paper and poor time management is another major reason for failure.
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