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How to Pass Exams (and How to Get Your Students to)

Passing written exams with a good grade does not only require knowledge of English, it also involves careful analysis of the question(s) being asked, planning your answer and structured practice. Find out how Nick Franklin tackles EFL exam preparation in his latest post.

So, you go into your exam with a mixture of nervousness and excitement. After an agonizing wait, you are finally allowed to turn over the question paper. You spot a term in the first question that you know something about; you grab your pen and start to write; you repeat this process with subsequent questions until the exam finishes. In relief and self-admiration you look at the reams of paper you’ve covered in handwriting. You did it!

Quality, Not Quantity
If the above describes you or your students’ approach to exams, you clearly missed the class on exam strategy. Serious academic exams are not marked in relation to the total word count. It’s quality, not quantity that matters. This means that you should never start writing the moment you finish reading the question.

The Fundamental Factor for Success
The fundamental factor that determines the grade you get is whether you answered the question or not. So, your first job is to analyse what the question is really asking. Can the question be broken into constituent parts? Once you are sure what they are asking for, think about what information is essential for a full or at least adequate answer to that question; an approach that is a world away from writing everything you know on a topic.

Then, once you are clear about what answering the specific question requires, think about structure: you want to make your point but also express the caveats in your argument. Keep linking your points back to the question. This ensures that your answer remains relevant and focused.

Additional Factors
With the best will in the world, the examiner cannot pass your answer unless you’ve addressed the questions asked. But what else will he or she be looking for. Well, clear reasoning, a good selection of evidence, a good use of examples, a balanced view, a good knowledge of the key concepts, and a correct usage of the keywords.

You will also help the examiner (and therefore yourself) if you express yourself well, create continuity (using linking words) and punctuate well. Avoid long sentences. The best way to do all this is to know how the sentence is going to end before you start to write it.

How to Achieve Top Marks
Answers that achieve top marks demonstrate analytical skills. In other words, you demonstrate how you have used critical thinking to come up with an original idea about the topic.

The Teacher’s Role: Preparing Students for Exams
So, what can we as teachers do to help students pass exams (apart from passing on the information given above)? Well, one very useful practice is to give students past papers and walk them through what is really being asked for. Tell your students what questions you would ask yourself at each stage of answering the paper. This is very different from providing a model answer. If you analyse the questions systematically and describe what is required – without actually answering the question – the students can then put the method into practice. They will learn to answer exams following the optimal system you have taught them.

I’m sure you’ll agree, this metacognitive process is far more useful in the long run than simply giving your students a model answer!



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