Good exam technique explained

In my work as a consultant, and particularly when helping define training plans and strategies with clients, I’m often asked about learning styles and exam techniques. For example, what method of learning works best and gets best results? Is there a right way or a wrong way to prepare for exams? 

I’m not an expert in education techniques, but I do know what works well, and what doesn’t work, for me. That is, I know what learning style suits me best. 

Some people are very comfortable with self-study, with reading text books, watching online lessons etc. I’m not one of that group. I prefer a blend of learning in a classroom, with a mix of theory and hands on, practical work. I’m reasonably ok with reading notes afterwards, but only once I’ve got my hands dirty, so to speak. The best advice I can give on this topic is for you to find and attend courses which match your best learning style. If, like me, self study isn’t a good option, don’t sign up for a course which requires that. If you learn best working on your own and not in a classroom, look for options which allow you work that way. 

Exam technique is something which is a bit more nuanced I think. Since leaving college and starting work I’ve not failed an exam or test, so I think I must do something right. 

Multiple choice exams

Here are my top tips, starting with multiple choice exams:

  1. Read the first question.
  2. Read it again, slowly.
  3. Read the answers.
  4. Read the answers again, slowly.
  5. Read the question again.
  6. Read the answers, and if you know the right answer, mark it on your answer sheet and move on to the next question. 
  7. If you don’t know the answer, discount those you know to be wrong then remind yourself who sets the questions. If for example you’re doing an ISACA exam, bear in mind that they are mostly taken by (and set by) risk and audit professionals, so the answer is likely to be weighted towards risk or audit. You can then choose the best option based on those remaining, and move on to the next question.
  8. If you don’t know the right answer after the first few read throughs, it’s unlikely you will know it after staring at the screen for five minutes, so choose the answer which is the best fit for you, the lest wrong, and move on.
  9. Repeat the above till the end of the exam.

Here’s the most important bit – don’t skip any questions, and don’t go back to reread them. In the majority of cases, your initial instinct will be correct. You can see this phenomenon in pub quizzes, on TV quiz shows etc – how many times does the first answer you thought of turn out to be right (or at least more right) than what you changed your answer to? I believe that going back, rereading and perhaps changing some answers actually loses you marks. The one time this isn’t the case is on the rare occasions when an answer turns up as the question later on.

For longer exams – CISSP and CISM are good examples – plan to take breaks regularly, every 15 or 20 questions. Stop, put your pen, pencil or keyboard down. Stretch your arms, legs, and shoulders, rotate your head on your neck, close your eyes and take 3 or 5 deep breaths. Relax. When you open your eyes, make sure you refocus them away from the paper or screen. Then start again. With CISSP I planned and took a fifteen minute coffee break half way through, had some food, walked around for a bit, got some fresh air, and felt the benefit when I got back in. 

When you’ve finished the test, double check that you have answered every question, complete the exit process and leave if allowed. There’s nothing to be gained from sitting rereading questions because as I mentioned earlier, you’ll only end up costing yourself marks if you do. 

Written exams

That’s all well and good for multiple choice, but what about written papers? Typically you’ll get a time limit a number of questions to do and a particular number of marks per question. All of this is stuff your tutor should brief you on before you sit the exam, but if not, make sure you ask them. There are fewer tips for this type of exam, and here they are:

  1. Before starting know how many marks per minute you need to get (allow 15 or 30 minutes at the end of the exam because you will think of stuff as you go on) and make sure that you only write for the amount of time each question is worth. For example, if a question is worth 10 marks, and you know you need to write 1 mark a minute, allow yourself no more than 10 minutes on that question. 
  2. Start each answer to each question on a fresh sheet of paper. 
  3. You should finish writing (in this example) 15 or 30 minutes before the end
  4. Use this buffer period at the end of the exam to add detail to any questions you feel you need to
  5. Reread your answers and make sure you add all the detail you can, even if it’s just a bulleted list of items
  6. You should only stop when time is up

A last word

The one other tip I’d give is to do as many past papers as possible, so you’re familiar with the language used, the way questions are phrased, the subtle ways that you can get caught out. Who knows, maybe some of the past questions will come up in your assessment? It’s been known to happen! 

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