Exam Skills

Success in exams can be reduced to one thing - answering the question. That sounds simple, but in reality it takes effort and preparation to do well. This is often the reason for students not performing as well as they wish in exams. The ways students don’t answer an exam question vary, but the result is the same - a lower mark than expected. For more information please read our Exams document.

Exam Preparation

Revision for exams should start several weeks before the exams are due. When approaching exam revision it is useful to remember that there are two distinct elements that you should work on:

  1. memorising the knowledge that you will require for the exam

  2. manipulating that memorised knowledge to answer a specific question

This section discusses what to do to memorize knowledge for the exam

There are three things that can help inform what you revise.

All of these give you an indication of what might be in the exam and, from that, the things you should study.

Learning outcomes are in the module handbook and state what the module is trying to teach you. For example, the following is a learning outcome from a politics module.

Provide students with an understanding of the conceptual and theoretical debates surrounding political institutions and political behaviour;

It can be argued that the module leader will be looking for what they taught to come back through your exam answers so be aware of learning outcomes and what they mean. In the case of the learning outcome above, an exam would have questions that will ask students to review what understanding they have and put it down on paper to answer that question. For example, what are the theoretical debates and to which institutions do they apply?

Your exam questions will reflect the distinct areas taught in the modules and these areas will probably be seen in the lecture and seminar timetable. If you can establish what these areas are, that will be helpful for your revision.

Previous exam papers indicate the types of questions to be asked and you can use this in two ways. Firstly, it helps identify the areas covered in the exam and secondly, they allow you to practise understanding what is being asked and structuring an answer.


One method of recalling information in the exam can be achieved by reducing or ‘packing up’ information until it is an amount that is memorable, then once in the exam this information can be unpacked and restored to a larger form that is enough to use to answer a given question.

An example of packing up information would be taking three pages of notes and then reducing those three pages to three paragraphs, keeping the essential points made but reducing the detail. Then taking those three paragraphs and reducing them to a bullet point or sentence with three parts. If you repeat this process four or five times you end up with a revision card with a few bullet points which represents twelve to fifteen pages of notes and twelve to fifteen paragraphs that could form the answer to an exam question.

In terms of memorising, this means for one area of your module you can memorise all information to answer an exam question on one card.

Unpacking involves constructing sentences and paragraphs from the information the bullets points represent. When in the exam this should not be your first attempt to unpack the information into the form to answer the question. You must practise unpacking what you need to answer the question.

The more this is done, the easier it will become to build text that will answer any given question and build your ability to manipulate the knowledge you have to do that.

In addition, there are other benefits to this activity. If you work at constructing text, which is actively engaging with what you have learned, you are going through a learning process. As a result, you will increase your depth of understanding of the subject. The more your understanding increases the exam becomes less about memorising and more about showing the examiner that you understand. All of this is more productive than passive reading which students often do, in preparation for an exam.

This section discusses how you can rehearse using the knowledge you have acquired to answer the exam question.

One way to practice manipulating knowledge before an exam is to answer previous exam questions or parts of exam questions. This does not mean preparing an answer to take into an exam; in the hope the question asked is close enough to your prepared answer. Answering previous exam questions is all about the following:

At university, the ability to understand what you are being asked to do should not be underestimated and it is essential to take time to break down a question. As you will know questions can be complex and any misinterpretation can lead to an answer that is incomplete or has the wrong emphasis. Writing something that is not part of the expected answer will attract few marks, if any at all. Knowing what the question is asking is the foundation to a comprehensive exam answer. Likewise, if you do not understand what the examiner has asked for, you may inadvertently give an unsuitable answer. Once you understand what the question is asking, you can quickly work out what is required for an answer.

There is an expectation for a structure to all answers, so make sure you give your answers a logical flow. Giving some thought to the structure of any answer will avoid a rambling disjointed response which may lose you marks due to lack of clarity.

There are several things you can do before an exam.

When and Where:
The obvious one is to be sure of when and where the exams are. The consequences of missing an exam can be far reaching eg having to resit or repeat a module.

Exam Structure:
Are you familiar with the exam structure? What is involved? Will the exam comprise of all essay questions or be a mix of essay questions and short answer questions, or even multiple choice questions? How long is the exam - 2 hours, 3 hours? You should be aware of all of these elements and prepare for your exam with them in mind.

For example, work out how much time you have to write each answer (allowing time to plan and check your answer), then sit down and see how much you can write in that time. Just write anything at a steady pace for the time you have. Then you will know if you are a six page person, a two page person or a four page person. In other words, you know how many pages you have to make your answer. This, in turn, will influence how much detail you unpack in the exam to construct your answer. You should be far less likely to write excessively for your first answer, leaving insufficient time for you other answers.

Information on exam preparation techniques and exam arrangements at GCU can be found here.

Further information on revision and exam skills can be found at: