Index Unit Notes

Exam Technique

For those of you unused to written exams, especially in the UK education system, here are some notes to help you maximise the marks you get. Of course the basic rule is know the material but there are techniques which will give you the best marks for your level of understanding.

The notes are in no particular order and are mainly aimed at conventional, against-the-clock written papers.

Help the examiner give you marks

It may surprise you to know that examiners like giving marks! They find it easiest to do when they can see which parts of your answers match which parts of the questions. Start each answer on a new sheet. This not only helps the examiner, it gives you chance to insert additional sheets later if you think of something more to say. If the exam paper has sub-sections (1(a), 1(b), 1(c) for example) then use the same section numbers in your answer. Start each section on a new line, preferably with a blank line between. This makes it much clearer. If the sub-sections refer to brief topics, then use the topic as a heading, again on a line of its own. For example:
(i) Temporal compression
(your answer on this topic)

(ii) Spatial compression
(your answer on this topic)

Balance time against marks

The basic rule here is to allow an even amount of time for questions of the same value. Need to answer 3 questions in 2 hours? Allow a little under 40 minutes each, giving you time to read all the questions and to check your answers.

Some exam papers show the marks available for sub-sections, so write your answer accordingly. There is no point in writing three pages for a question which is worth very few marks; while a single sentence for one which is worth a lot is clearly not what was expected.

Answer the question

It is tempting to glance at the question, pick up the key words and then do a fast brain-dump of all you know on the topic. Never do this. Always read the question carefully, make sure you understand what is being asked and only then write about the topic. Stick to the point. If you think you may have missed something, leave a gap to make it easier to go back afterwards.
Question: Describe MPEG compression, as used for DVD movies.

Poor Answer: DVDs are the most successful home entertainment medium ever devised. There has been a phenomenal growth in sales. They can hold a complete movie and lots of other things besides. The picture quality is much higher than for video tape...

Good answer: MPEG exploits both spatial and temporal compression. I will describe each of these in turn....

Prepare your answers

It may be worth writing down some key words as soon as you have read each question, to remind you what to write about. This is especially valuable at the outset, when you are reading all the questions and deciding which ones to try. It is almost essential for essay questions, so you can present the material in a structured way. When you start a new question, you can check your list as a reminder of what to write. If you think of something important for question 3 while you are answering question 1, you can quickly add it to the list for question 3, without losing concentration or worrying about forgetting it.

Read all the questions

Read the whole paper before deciding which questions to answer. Even if you have to answer all of them you can usually choose the order in which to do them. Do the one you are most confident about first, so you can then feel happy that you have some good marks in the bank.

Complete the cover

Most exams have some kind of cover sheet. Provide the details it asks for. Tick the list of questions answered. Many markers will mark one question at a time (for consistency), not one script at a time. This involves a lot of paper shuffling, so a fully completed cover helps the examiner deal with it easily, making it easier to appreciate the quality of your answers. However, don't panic later if you forget, you won't be penalised!