Past exam papers and examiners’ commentaries

University of London sample exam paperOver the last few weeks, I had some nice conversations with fellow students. The hottest topics turned out to be May’s exams and how to get prepared for them. In addition, some first-year students asked me about examiners’ commentaries and how to make best use of these. Therefore, I thought I’d post something on the Blog to share my views with a larger audience.

Well, we’ve got four months left before examinations. According to my year-wise objectives, this period marks a shift from short-term routine to mid-/long-term planning, which involves practice and perfection of acquired techniques until May. Now, we won’t necessarily agree on the best way to approach exams or when to start revising. However, we should at least concur on the following: practice with past exam papers should take most of our study time.

I briefly discussed the matter in our first talk (see tip 7). Although I was specifically referring to EC1002, the same reasoning holds for other modules as well. On this basis, I’ll explore further my line of action within this post.

If I had to mention one single most important booklet on how to prepare for examinations, I’d say Strategies for success. This is the handbook purposely written by LSE staff for University of London International Programmes students. I studied it last year but am rereading it now to plan my revision and adjust the latter to my current needs (i.e. new subjects). It’s really useful and an entire section of it – roughly 40 pages – is devoted to examinations. Being available to registered students, it can be downloaded from the VLE. I’m about to quote from this document but make sure you read it thoroughly!

To the question what do examinations test?, they suggest the following answers – I’ll just report some excerpts:

  1. How much you can remember and understand: “you are awarded marks if you use the remembered information properly and apply it to the question asked. […] You must demonstrate that you understand the question by answering it directly”.
  2. The quality of your reasoning: “demonstrate that you can choose appropriate theories, examples, […] and use them to support your knowledge”.
  3. Your familiarity with the techniques of answering examination questions.
  4. Analytical skills: “[customise your learning] to suit the question asked”.
  5. How well you are able to manage your time: “practise writing quickly and legibly in set times. […] It will increase your stamina, […] speed of thought and speed of recall. […] Remember quantity does not necessarily mean quality”.
  6. Critical skills: “competency of your argument […] together with the breadth of [knowledge] and clarity of expression”.
  7. How well you have chosen the most relevant material and argument.

They then refer to a funny aspect, which I noticed too by “reading” some students’ grumbling on the VLE discussion forums: “every year we [UoL] receive complaints that they [students] feel badly treated because their examination was more difficult than, or bore little resemblance to, past papers”.

I’ve said this is funny because UoL makes it crystal clear that we must be prepared to be surprised, especially in quantitative modules! Despite only those topics presented in the subject guides are examinable, we’re told examiners can deliberately set questions that are unlike past examination ones. I believe this must be the case, as it would otherwise make no sense to sit for an examination in the first place. I heard someone maintaining they were unlucky because the questions they were asked in the exam didn’t appear for the last five or six years. This is not being unlucky, this is just ignoring examiners’ warnings, which promptly caution against a common practice: exclusively relying on what appeared in previous papers. In fact, a question may not materialise for years but pop up one day because it’s part of the subject guide or essential readings. Pay attention not to make such mistakes. After all, what would be the point of answering questions we’re used to? It’s not even stimulating! Suppose you’re a young employee. One day, the company you work for incurs a problem and you’re asked to provide a solution. If the problem sounded unfamiliar, would you ever file a complaint against your company for not incurring a problem you expected? Be prepared to be examined on the entire syllabus!

Finally, again quoting from Strategies for success, we should consider the following piece of advice:

The purpose of successful revision is to become good at answering such [examination] questions. Unsuccessful revision is the accumulation of information with no organising principle. […You should organise revision notes] into plans to answer the kinds of exam question you’ll face. […Use the latter] to guide your note taking and basic planning.

Now, back to the core of our discussion, the next few paragraphs contain my personal suggestions on how to use past exam papers. As I said, these are simply personal opinions; indeed, other strategies may be as much effective. I can only say last year my approach worked quite well and eventually translated into high marks. Also, note that my degree is mostly technical; thus, as for mainly qualitative, essay-based questions, you might look for extra tips elsewhere (e.g. Strategies for success). Plus, I’ll assume one has already completed subject guide, relative learning activities, and essential readings.

First, make sure you go through as many papers as possible. Since we’re provided with a pair of exams for each academic year – namely Zone A and Zone B  – we can, for instance, use Zone A papers to practise on and Zone B papers to test ourselves under examination conditions (i.e. limited time and closed books), or vice versa.

As far as mere practice is concerned, I advise to focus on precision and attention to detail in order to refine your technique. Whenever you feel unsatisfied with your answer, go back to the subject guides, notes, books, and ensure you completely absorb their content. This will allow you to resort to such information at any time, even after the examination – hopefully not the ultimate purpose of your studies. So, given the absence of any time constraint, take advantage of this opportunity to revise the main concepts and models, become proficient in applying them, and strengthen your long-term memory. By doing so, you should be able to build a solid, structured knowledge of the subject, which will serve as a drawer from which to select the exact information needed to solve each question.

ClockOnce this is done, I suggest to transition into rehearsing under exam conditions. Here, one should aim to develop what I call “intuitive skills”: being able to read a question carefully and retrieve exclusively the relevant, specific information stored in our brain to solve it. I believe this is probably the most important step during an examination. An excellent performance usually requires us to visualise a condensed but hopefully complete plan of action, before actually writing down our proposed solution. Succeeding at this stage almost guarantees the rest follows as a consequence. In fact, we’ll then just need to transfer the solution from our mind onto the examination booklet.

I can’t stress enough that testing ourselves under exam conditions is extremely important.
Here’s more or less what I do. I usually stay in a silent room for two or three hours (depending on the type of examination) with a pen, some ruled paper (which is the kind we’re given on the day of the exam), some water, a non-scientific calculator (if allowed to do so in the exam), and, most importantly, a clock. For several reasons, it’s not always easy to simulate the perfect exam environment. Nevertheless, my point is that we should do our best to replicate those conditions. Training both physically and psychologically to perform well under stressing circumstances substantially increases our probability of success.

In conclusion, as your time runs out (or the alarm you set rings), just stop writing, no matter what! Time management is another key ingredient for success. For this reason, you need to objectively realise what you’re able to do when time constraints play into the equation. You might be able to answer all of the questions, but what if you don’t manage to do it in time? At this point, you may realise you need to work hard on point 5 above. Therefore, always critically evaluate your performance by comparing your answers with those of the examiners. Through their commentaries, they basically tell us what they expect to find in our work. If you aim at a high mark, then try and turn into an examiner yourself. Highlight your mistakes and redo those questions you failed to understand properly. Practice until you become an expert, who can solve problems relatively easily. It may seem an impossible task, but it’s instead feasible.

The primary goal of all this timed practising is to boost our self-confidence and help us stay calm during the examination. There’s nothing more gratifying than being in That room while feeling serene, aware of your potential (and limits, of course), and ready to solve unusual questions thanks to your hard-earned expertise. We can only achieve this inner peace by getting used to exam situations. Last year, for example, I had been doing timed tests for a couple of weeks preceding the day of the exams. The result? I felt at home inside the examination room because the scenario was very familiar.

Practice makes perfect signIn the end, I neither expect you to blindly follow my instructions nor do I intend to change your habits. I just want to instil something in you that I deem essential: massive practice makes perfect.

By the way, those readers who cannot access the VLE due to their non-student status, but wanting to get an idea on the kind of examinations we sit for, will find the most recent examination papers and relative examiners’ commentaries here.

Since I don’t expect to write about exams again in the next few months, I’ll take this opportunity to wish you good luck with them!

Oscar is studying for the BSc Economics and Finance independently in Italy.

2 thoughts on “Past exam papers and examiners’ commentaries

  1. From my side I can recommend to acquire the books which are recommended in the section of the “Strategies to success” on writing the essays. They address specifically the expectations of the UK/English/LSE system on the students on how to approach essay-based questions. This skill must not be neglected as it might have serious impact on final results.

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