Types of Exams

There are a variety of types of exam questions that can be included in one exam. These include:

Multiple choice exam questions are usually more concerned with your understanding of terms and definitions. They are sometime negatively marked in order to prevent you guessing rather than answering based on your learning. Tips for success:

  • Read the directions very carefully before you start.
  • When looking at the questions, always try to work out what the answer is before you look at the possibilities.
  • Use a ruler to make it easier to see where to enter each answer.
  • Answer the questions you know first, mark the ones you are fairly sure of and go back to them – leave the difficult ones till last.
  • Remember that with multiple choice exams you could get 100% – pretty much impossible in an essay-type exam! So don’t dwell on a question – move on and come back to it if you have time.
  • If you finish before the time is up, go back over your questions and answers to check for errors.

Short answer questions usually require a briefer and more descriptive answer than essay questions, which ask you to discuss and expand on a topic. Tips for success:

  • If your questions all ask for short answers with an equal number of marks for each, divide your time up equally for the total number of questions. Otherwise allocate your time according to the proportion of marks each question attracts.
  • If you have questions which are a mix of short and essay answers, check the rubric carefully so you don’t miss answering part of the question.
  • Each part of the question should show the maximum marks you can get for answering it. Don’t waste  a lot of time worrying about a part  of the question that only attracts  a very few marks
  • Use parts of questions that ask for definitions or explanations to inform the longer, more discursive part of your answer. Don’t repeat the information you give in one part of the question in the other.
  • If a question asks you to “briefly comment”, treat it as a mini-essay – have a sentence or two to introduce your topic; select a few points to discuss with a sentence or two about each; add a concluding sentence that sums up your overall view.
  • If you have trouble working out how to start answering a question that asks you to “explain”, imagine you are telling a friend about the topic.

Essay exam questions require in-depth answers and follow the format of essays and assignments that you write for assessed coursework. Tips for success:

  • Read the question carefully – highlight the words which tell you the approach to take e.g. ‘describe’ or ‘explain’ and highlight the words that guide you on the selection of the subject matter e.g. ‘give 2 examples’
  • Consider why the question has been asked – what does the marker want from you? How does this question relate to the themes of your course as a whole?
  • Plan your answer by using a mind-map and then check your mind-map against the question before you start
  • In the introduction (around 10% of your overall essay) refer directly to the title and how you interpret it. State the issues that you will explore and the order in which you will deal with them.
  • In the main body write in paragraphs that flow together. The first sentence in a paragraph should introduce the main idea of that paragraph and the other sentences should develop the ideas further e.g. give examples and evidence. The final paragraph should sum up the argument and link to the next paragraph.
  • Consider whether your argument is persuasive by thinking about the validity of the claims you make, the evidence you use to support them and their relation to opposing views.
  • You conclusion (around 10% of your overall essay) should summarise the argument and the main points and state your general conclusions and make it clear why these are important or significant.
  • Plan your time carefully and stick to it – if you have 1 hour for each essay, write for 50 minutes and leave 5 minutes for planning and 5 minutes for checking.

Other types of exams include:

Open book exams are those where you are allowed to take and consult texts into the exam room. These may feel less stressful because you know you won’t need to remember facts. However, this means the marks you can get will depend on your ability to use this information to build an argument, so be careful to avoid just giving a list of quotes. Tips for success:

  • Don’t forget to take the text to the exam room! You won’t be able to borrow someone else’s.
  • Don’t be tempted to waste time in the exam searching the text for new information. Use it only for quick reference or confirming information you already know.
  • Plan your essays without referring to the text – otherwise you may be tempted to use a previously planned but irrelevant answer. Remember that what’s being assessed is your understanding of the topic.

Oral exams such as a ‘Viva voce’ can provoke similar anxieties to giving presentations. The more prepared you feel, the less anxious you will be. Tips for success:

  • Act confident even if you aren’t. Smile when you enter the room and shake hands with the examiner. Make eye contact during the exam. Ask questions as well as responding to them. Thank the examiner when you leave.
  • Breathe deeply and regularly to calm nerves. Take a bottle of water in case your mouth is dry.
  • Take your time! Don’t rush into giving an answer before you’ve thought about what you want to say – you will get confused and make mistakes. Take a breath and think before you speak.
  • Listen to the whole question carefully before you start constructing your answer. It’s tempting to latch on to one word that you recognise and start thinking of your answer, but don’t- you may miss an important part of the question.
  • Know how to say “Could you repeat that please?” in the language you are being examined in. If you missed part of a question or didn’t understand it, ask for it to be repeated.
  • Some people deal with public speaking best by putting on a ‘disguise’ e.g. by dressing more smartly than usual. Others feel better if they are more casual and can pretend it’s an ordinary situation.

Don’t just write the answer that you want e.g. by putting in something interesting just because you have revised it. If it isn’t relevant to the question it can lose you marks.

Don’t repeat the essay you memorised just because it seems to be on a similar topic. The question may be asking for a different approach and the examiner is looking for your interpretation, rather than just a series of loosely related information.

Don’t use text speak or colloquialisms. A formal academic style is expected throughout.

Don’t say “I think” or “in my opinion”. Instead have ideas that are supported or opposed by your evidence. This can include referencing to sources.

University of Manchester glossary of exam terms

University of Reading guide to answering exam question

Student advice about preparing for exams from the University of Nottingham