One easy way to boost your exam results

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Exams are tough.  Too often students work really hard up to the exam only to find that the exam itself doesn’t go as well as they expected because of poor technique.  Of course there is no substitute for hard work but there are some small but very effective changes you can make which can help improve your exam grades, regardless of your subject. One important one is to change the order in which you approach the exam.

All exams are presented to the examinee in a particular order:  in Mathematics you are usually presented with 7 or 8 questions starting at 1 and continuing to the last one.  In Economics A-Level you are often given a multiple choice section followed by a data response.  And 90% of students will answer the questions in exactly the order they are presented.  Even though you don’t have to!  And even though there are good reasons to approach them in a different order!

Why do it in a different order?  Well the main reason is this:  questions that require the most energy and thought should be approached early on in the exam while the mind is still fresh and you are not pressured by time.  Most exams are structured so that the easiest questions with the fewest marks are given first and the hardest questions with the most marks are towards the end.  If you answer the questions in order what usually happens is that you are tackling the most difficult questions (which usually have the most marks) at the end of the exam when you are getting tired and flustered.  That is not a recipe for success.

So should we do exams backwards then?!  Well in general that’s not such a great idea either.  The reason is that if you start an exam with the hardest questions there is a chance that you will struggle and then lose confidence.  This could make you panic and also reduce your chances of doing well.  No, before you do the hardest questions you should first do a few easier questions you are confident with.

This is how I suggest you approach your exam:

1.  Flick through the exam making a note of a) easy questions to start with, b) hard questions with lots of marks.

2.  Tackle 1 or 2 easy questions which you can do quickly.  That will boost your confidence.

3. While you are on a roll and still fresh get stuck into the tough questions with lots of marks.

4.  Once you have done those go back and complete the rest.

Many of my students have tried this approach and it has improved their exam performance significantly.

Just a few caveats about it.  First, the important thing is to get as many marks as possible, so always focus on doing those questions second whether or not they are very difficult.  It is normal that they are the most difficult, but if not, you should go for where the marks are.  Second, sometimes you have to modify this approach slightly if doing a harder question depends on, or would be much easier, if you had first done the earlier, easier questions.  (This is why you don’t apply this within e.g. an A-level maths question where the earlier parts of a question almost always lead you towards the later, harder parts.)  Finally, do make sure to present your answers in the correct order for the examiner – usually this is just a matter of filling in the right places in the answer booklet.  Otherwise he will get confused and might mark you down!

But other than this, it’s an approach that is applicable to almost any exam and should help boost your grades immediately.  Let me know how you find it.