Time management during examinations

Wall clockHello readers!

I hope your studies are proceeding well and as expected. As we head toward exams, I’d like to share a few ideas with you.

In a previous post, we briefly discussed a plan of action to start our academic year.

However, that post looked at planning from a long-term perspective and focused on how to begin the study phase; that is, a phase of accumulation and selective storage of information or, borrowing from that very same post, the base of the pyramid.
But, you might ask, are those considerations valid if we had to plan the next two or three hours in a matter of minutes? In other words, can we apply the same logic to the ultimate phase of our annual project, to the top of the pyramid?

If so, how can we plan our time during an examination to make the most of it?

Make sure we have access to a clock. Be it the one big clock available to all candidates in the room, your own watch, or my old clock (although unlikely they’ll let you enter the room with such a gadget), it’s essential to take account of the time dimension throughout the examination. I wouldn’t think of it as a stressful activity and we don’t really need to constantly keep an eye on time. I’d rather think of it as a central component of a proper strategy.

Allocate time according to the questions’ value. What do I mean by value? Each question has a certain amount of marks available. So, once we know the structure of the exam, it’s just a matter of allocating minutes to questions. Of course, some equally-weighted problems may take different amounts of time depending on various reasons. Or, we may be given the number of marks for a set of questions, without exact reference to the weight of each sub-question. Nevertheless, we should be aware of the average time available to answer a specific set of questions. I’ll come back to this point below, with an example.

It’s worth noting, though, we should carry out such a preparatory activity before the examination day and we can do so because we have past exam papers to practise on. Speaking of which, check this old but still relevant post.

Have a quick look at the entire paper. Some students feel so comfortable with exam formats and subjects being examined that they orderly take one question at a time and walk their way to the last. Others, instead, prefer to look at each question first, then decide to follow a different order by prioritising easier or harder questions.
Irrespective of our habits, I’d suggest to quickly go through the paper just to make sure everything is as expected. I like to ensure the format is the one I practised on and safely proceed with my answers afterwards. Often, it only takes a couple of minutes to ‘absorb’ the paper and decide on how to proceed.

Sculpture of man thinkingThink. Obvious? Well, it’s not always easy to think of a pertinent solution. Sometimes, we fall into the trap of starting to write before determining whether our proposed solution is correct, or at least plausible. If it turns out we’re providing examiners with a shaky or irrelevant explanation, it’s going to be problematic as we might’ve just wasted precious time on ideas having zero, or close to zero, value in terms of marks. Therefore, it’s advisable to mentally sketch a route map before transforming our thoughts into ink. Alternatively, we may take brief notes to ensure we establish our case beforehand. I promise, it’s a rewarding activity!

‘Thinking time’ is subjective and depends on the question too. For example, I happened to spend between five and ten minutes preparing an answer to a thirty/forty-minute question last year. Moreover, sometimes, given a problem, further sub-questions offer us hints to solve opening sub-questions. By reading all of the sub-questions thoroughly, we’re forced to look at the big picture in advance, thereby restricting (hopefully correctly) the framework within which we’ll address the specific sub-questions via detailed arguments.

Keep going. Tricky questions pop up all the time, their solution temporarily escaping us. It’s indeed worthwhile to think hard about a reasonable solution for a few minutes. But we shouldn’t let such an unfortunate event compromise our overall performance. If we fail to see the light now, it’s still possible to find it later on.

Suppose it’s a ten-minute question. We don’t want to rack our brains on it for more than five minutes. This kind of question generally requires a concise and precise answer. Not retrieving the right tools to solve it signals we’d better skip it and return to it later. We want to make the most of the exam. So, let’s keep track of our objective without forgetting about the time dimension.

Guess what? Out of all the examinations taken so far, I’ve never completed a paper in one go. There may be several reasons. Once, I encountered a particularly tricky question at the very beginning and I wasn’t quite warmed up yet. So, I failed to score and skipped it. It turned out I just needed some stretching. Indeed, an hour and a half later, I tried it again and couldn’t believe I didn’t manage to solve it at first. This shows sometimes we simply need to acclimatise to the test.

Diagram of time allocated to questionsAt this point, an example could be useful. I talked about ten, thirty, forty-minute questions, … . But what do I mean by that?
Take a look at the picture with a schematic view of an exam I’ll be sitting for in May. As you can see, the sketch allocates minutes to questions. However, we’re talking about averages. That is, on average, one plans to spend nine minutes on each question in section A, say. It certainly happens to find certain problems easier than others, hence spend less time there. Nonetheless, averages help us control time and keep on track.

We may also realise – through practice – that a section takes us less than expected to complete. Thus, we decide to adjust our table. For instance, with respect to Macroeconomics, my adjusted view – at the moment – calls for seven minutes per question in section A and thirty-eight minutes per question in section B, leaving ten minutes for final checks, which is great as I always aim to perfect my pyramid at the end! Again, those are just average numbers: I won’t be actually timing myself at each question and say “boy, it took me nine minutes for this one, I’m late!”.  I just want to finish section A, say, in approximately one hour.

You will object, is it necessary to care about those minutiae? Isn’t it simpler to just do the exam? Isn’t it true that such temporal precision vanishes during exams?

Hmm… maybe you’re right. But this is exactly why we train before the match. By trying to follow set constraints while in comfortable and familiar environments, we develop a tendency to distribute time efficiently and, most importantly, unconsciously.
If our mind incorporates those constraints while practising, it’s likely to behave accordingly throughout the exam too. It will be ready to handle time restrictions in stressful scenarios.

Irrespective of our sound preparation, the exam day is not an ordinary day. We may need more time than expected to complete a paper due to stress, surprise effects, and time being ‘fixed for real’. Our full potential is then undermined. For this reason, learning how to manage time is a crucial, subjective, and beneficial activity. The good news? There’s still a lot of time!

A final note on possible spillover effects. The fabric of our answers partially reflects time management. I noticed that distributing time appropriately makes our exam booklet look better, much neater. This is all good as the way we present our work counts toward the final mark. Like a last minute presentation in class or at work, exams are critical circumstances. In spite of that, we want to present our ‘findings’ in the best possible way.

In conclusion, I hope my words convinced you of the usefulness of planning our time, especially in intensive and demanding contexts.

Exams test several qualities. How well we manage our time is one of them!

Oscar is studying for the BSc Economics independently in Italy.

6 thoughts on “Time management during examinations

  1. Very well said Oscar .. Grazie mille!
    Having finished all my exams last May I feel that I can add a few tips for students which I developed over the years. My experience is in essay questions which meant I had 4 essays to write having approximately 40 minutes per question.
    Before the exam we usually have a preferred topic with which we feel more capable and hope to be able to delve into it in the exam .. but often the type of question on our preferred topic turns out not what we expect and we would be challenged into answering a question from our second or third preferred topic : so I learnt to always prepare for many more topics than my preferred topic. Also I would take some time at the beginning of the exam to decide which four questions I would be best equipped to answer, in order to feel at ease during the exam so that I would not have to go through decision making in the middle of the exam as it may be disconcerting. So, at the commencement of the exam I would review ALL the question to decide which ones would give me a better “discussion” ability .. keeping in mind that examiners not only want to ensure our knowledge base but also want to hear genuinely new and exciting ideas we may have about a subject : they want to hear our perspective argued with reason and good support.

    Next I used the strategy to use a whole page to write in rough notes all the material which I want to include in the essay like a plan to which I refer while writing the essay: this would take 5-10 minutes but it is definitely worth it because it will help in producing a well developed argument.
    Usually I would start answering my best question first and found that writing in double space gave me better visibility and better chance for correcting mistakes if necessary.. I found that with a plan and having the main terms and names and dates written in the rough plan, the essay flows easily and takes less time to write.
    Remember to cross out the page of rough notes at the end of the exam!

    Good luck to all, and hope my thoughts are of help.


  2. Prego Lina!

    Thank you very much for commenting and enriching the discussion!

    I’m sure our fellow students – and other interested readers – will treasure your advice :-)


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