Structuring answers to exam questions

I’m sitting behind a mountain of study materials trying to work out an effective revision plan.  For me, revising is not the same as studying. It requires a very different attitude and awareness about what I want to accomplish. When I have a good understanding of those goals, I can then develop a plan to approach my materials.

My study materials include primary texts and essential reading, recommended reading, study guides for each module, and my notes. That’s a lot of material to collate and use together effectively. You can see why a clear goal about outcomes is very helpful. So how do I start?

Hmmmm.  First, you should know about my obsession with outlines.  There’s nothing more satisfying than a good outline. I’ve got notebooks and software that are full of them – can’t get enough of them, use them for everything from work to creative writing. They help me organize concepts and content for notes, undertake research and produce my final exam paper.

Sentence outlineTypically, I start with a topic outline then progress to a sentence outline. A topic outline allows me to organize my ideas. A sentence outline forces me to summarize.  One wonderful thing about this organization method is that I start with bare bones points – a hierarchy of ideas in a topic outline. My sentence outline comes next, which is how I prepare my argument. The sentence outline lets me consider my thesis and the information assembled to argue it point by point and record it in detail. Outlining also helps me write faster, which is incredibly important in timed, blind exams.

Now that you know how I organize, here’s how I approach my mountain of study materials while preparing to sit exams.  Starting with sample exam questions is my favorite way to begin. I like to read a good selection of sample questions (10 to 12 per module).  Jotting down a brief topic outline lets me do a little SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) analysis of where I stand.  After writing my topic outlines, I check all of them against my exam reports and study guide for accuracy and how comprehensive my answers are. This process shows me where I am confident and where I need remedial work.

Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, ThreatsNow that my strengths and weaknesses are identified, I can assess what I need to do to reach the level of proficiency required to succeed in exams. There is definitely going to be a great deal of personal growth in my revision process.

That said, at this point, I begin working on the set of questions from sample exam papers I used for my SWOT analysis. My corrected topic outlines are my starting point for in-depth sentence outlines. I like to use my primary sources at this stage and only rely on notes from materials I read at the library. I don’t want any mistakes – just clear, concise thinking with references and citations.  My library days give me a chance to double-check any ideas or notes that need more research.

During this process, I might be working on a dozen questions at a time from three or four different modules. One tip I learned revising for undergrad exams is to work on multiple courses at a time. I might work on questions and outlines from all of my modules over a day or two. For me, it helps to engage with a variety of materials and courses. I also learned not to try to write timed exam papers until I have demonstrated mastery of the course material. It doesn’t help to write timed papers if I cannot produce accurate, thoughtful, and compelling arguments.

Frog typingIt’s time to go on the record and say that I really, really, really, really like the assessment method in this program – blind, timed essays.  I want to be ready with the mountain of material on my study desk. For now, my goal is to engage with the content of my courses in a methodical, thorough and organized way. It boosts my confidence and helps solidify the knowledge gained as I studied away all year. It’s a mountain of work, so let’s get to it.

Caowrites is enrolled in the Postgraduate Laws Programme. She previously earned a BA English degree and blogged regularly about her experience. She studies by distance learning in the United States

7 thoughts on “Structuring answers to exam questions

  1. Interesting article! It is always helpful to know how others approach their exams. I usually follow the following 9-step procedure:

    Studying period

    1. In the beginning of the scholastic year draft a study plan – I start by drafting a plan which I occasionally review to ensure that I remain on target.
    2. Get a thorough understanding of each chapter in the subject guide and other necessary readings, highlighting elements, which are core to the ideas and arguments presented.
    3. Work some exercises from the subject guide or from the book – I am usually selective due to time constraints.

    Revision period

    4. Copy and paste the core ideas and arguments on a word document, to separate the core elements from the ‘noise’ such as examples, which I can always look for in the relevant book or reading – I prefer to do this rather than taking short notes in order to spend my time reflecting on the core elements rather than copying what is in the study material.
    5. Go through this shorter version of the notes for a number of times, again highlighting the core elements – I go through the short notes at least twice to make sure I capture the main ideas, jotting down notes where necessary.
    6. Work the remaining exercises from the subject guide or from the book.

    Exam preparation period

    7. Revise short notes on a particular chapter and work questions from past papers related to such chapter, also referring to the main readings where necessary – I find it useful to check my answers against the examiner’s report. At this stage, I do not time myself. I consider this part of the process essential in order to build confidence and to try to understand what the examiner expects.
    8. Prepare a snapshot of each chapter. These snapshots would contain the main ideas in a table, a very important figure and very short notes – I find these snapshots extremely helpful to look at ahead of the exam.
    9. Timing past papers – When confident enough that I am well prepared for the exam, I start to work out past papers, timing myself.

    So in summary, I start by dealing with the micro elements and as I progress with my studies, I aim to obtain a bird’s eye view of the subject with the ultimate target to be well prepared for exams.


  2. Hi, I really appreciate your sharing these tips. I do see that you say that there is much to collate due to having the guides, essential readings, supplementary readings and your own notes. I find it really useful to spend a good week or two to incorporate the guide, essential readings and supplementary readings into my notes so that that’s the only document I need to follow. Best of luck!


  3. Hi CaoWrites,

    Interesting tips. I have two questions for you and I would be grateful if you could share your thoughts on this.

    For me, the first hardest part is to commit all the revision notes into my memory I tried to compress all the answers to a Post-it notes. I write them in small, tiny font. I can only memorize about 10 -20 post it notes, plus some more information on different notes. Don’t you have to memorize all the answers?

    The second part is to find the Time. I always find myself late in revision. The clock just ticking by.I only have 4-5 hours to revise each day. If you attend a full-time course, by the time you go home, you only have a time slot between 9 -12 pm to revise. We do have a coursework to hand in. Sometimes, I slap on my face and pray to God to give me the focus and energy to concentrate in my study. How do you find your focus? If you are late in your revision and mentally tired, how do you get out from that situation?



  4. Hmmm. The best advice I got from our program director is not to try and memorize answers, etc. We have to answer the question at hand, and that’s challenging if we’ve memorized material. Writing an essay is like cooking, you need a basic recipe but really have to improvise. That said, it is helpful in exams if I have memorized short quotes and key phrases from critical essays, etc., that will support various arguments.

    As far as revising, the best advice I got is to study in small blocks of time. Maybe revising on the weekends? For me, making sure I know the material at the end of a study session is important. I summarize everyday, then revise on the weekends after having a chance to think about the information and for some questions and thoughts about it.

    Exercise helps me keep the stress down and a clear head so I can concentrate. Self Care is important.

    I don’t know what course you are studying on, but these acronyms helped me focus on what I need to while reading English. You can adapt them easily enough to your program of study.
    During study sessions and in the exam room these five little helpers are easy to keep in the front of my mind:
    1. How to approach an exam question: Select the questions to be attempted and note which texts to use.
    P.E.E.C.H. –
    Problem Identified in the Question
    Established Views
    Crucial Terms
    Historical Context
    2. How to approach a text for close reading and analysis: F.L.I.R.T.
    Form, Language, Imagery –
    Rhyme/Rhythm/Rhetoric –
    3. How to incorporate these points into an essay:
    P.E.E.L. – Point, Evidence, Expand, Link.
    4. Restate the question as a thesis statement for my essay. This is quite helpful since a good thesis statement should be debatable, and it also makes sure that I answer the question the examiners are asking.
    5. Rephrase and repeat the question/thesis in the essay to stay on target.

    Does that help? Let me know how your study process goes.

    Email anytime!


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