Friday, April 20, 2012

Examination Don’ts

cover story

How to avoid the most common mistakes that students make while taking exams

While serving time studying at business school, I was fairly certain that the endless barrage of quizzes and exams was the ultimate form of torture, and that making silly mistakes in said exams was the very definition of frustration. It was only after working as a teaching assistant that I encountered something that was infinitely more frustrating: marking that endless barrage of quizzes and exams and seeing students make those same mistakes over and over and over again.

Whether it’s the stress of the process or fatigue induced carelessness, examinations can fluster the best of us and lead us into making mistakes that defy common sense. This is highlighted by the fact that there are several common mistakes that students generally make while taking a test, all of which become painfully obvious to the person who has to sift through a few hundred papers in a semester, burdened with the responsibility of awarding grades to the frazzled, hapless learners.

So - if not for your own advantage then at least for the sanity of the person who will have to check your papers - you might want to avoid the following mistakes the next time you take an exam:

Not writing your name/roll number on the answer sheet
If you have ever made this mistake, then you are not alone. As obvious as it may sound, it still isn’t uncommon for students to forget to put their identification details on the answer booklet, mostly because they’re in a hurry to start answering the questions. If multiple students make this mistake, especially if the exams aren’t being marked by your instructor (and even worse if the answer sheet is just a grid for marking MCQ answers with no handwriting identification), then it becomes very hard to figure out which paper belongs to which student. And in the worst case scenario, if you can’t be identified, then you can’t be awarded your score.
What you should do: Make it a habit to write down your name/roll number on each separate sheet (in case some of them come loose) as soon as it is handed to you. Make sure you don’t proceed with the exam until your name is on the paper. Recheck when handing in your exam that your name is on it.

Not reading the question properly
Every teacher that I have discussed the topic of exam mistakes with has highlighted this as the most common mistake made by students: not reading the question properly. Under time constraints and in a hurry to get to the question, especially when they are used to looking at a certain type of problem, the response is almost automatic: see the words or digits, and start solving. As a result, students are prone to misinterpret a question, leave parts of the question unanswered, or not follow some vital directions/instructions that could lead to a penalty.
While marking papers, it was almost heartbreaking to see students make this mistake; on numerous occasions they had come up with a perfectly logical answer, only it answered a completely different question than the one that had been posed to them. And unfortunately, answering the question you would like to have been asked or presumed you were asked does not win you points.
What you should do: Don’t rush into answering the question straight away. Spend the required time for reading the question statement and understanding what it says; rephrasing the given statement might help. And don’t presume that the question says what you think it does when you can actually read it and find out for sure.

Lack of proper planning
Jumping straight into the exam as soon as the questionnaire is handed to you might seem like a good idea, and it might be, except it really isn’t, especially not for detailed subjective sections. Plunging ahead without paying attention to the marks and importance of questions can ultimately cost you important points, and answering a difficult, confusing, time consuming problem first can fluster you on the next, easier question.
What you should do: If the length of the questionnaire allows it, go through the entire thing at the start of exam before attempting the questions and take a little time to plan the order in which your should attempt the questions. See which ones you know best and which ones carry the most weightage, and mark the ones you are iffy about while noting down all the points you can remember for each; by the time you come back to these questions later, your mind will have had a chance to process the problems and you might be able to handle them better. And clearly mark the questions that you have answered as you finish working on each of them so that you don’t inadvertently leave something unanswered.

The wall of text syndrome
Whether you know too much about the topic and want to communicate all your knowledge instead of precisely what the question demands, or if you don’t know the exact answer and therefore go ahead and list everything you can think of, in either case it might be tempting to regurgitate all the information you have. Unless you have a teacher who marks based on the number of pages you use instead of their content, this is not a very good idea. Offering unnecessary information instead of a precise answer is simply a waste of your time, and it might be tempting to show off and offer all the information you have on the topic, but remember that it isn’t the examiner’s job to locate the answer in your wall of text!
What you should do: Take a moment to plan what you will write. It might help to jot down some of the main points and see how you should construct the answer. Make your answer as clear as possible, show your step-by-step working, and help the reader follow your logic and train of thought. Use an easy to follow layout, and make use of gaps and headings where suitable.

Poor time management
Either by forgetting to keep an eye on the clock, or by simply ignoring the clock and spending too much time on certain problems, especially those that have fewer marks, many students struggle with time management and fail to finish the whole questionnaire in the given time. And as the time runs out, thoughts become hurried and muddled, handwriting illegible, and chances of making careless mistakes exponentially greater. But failing to allocate time for each question isn’t the only mistake. Students can catch some of their own slip-ups if they leave themselves some time to go over their answers. So remember that you don’t only need time to answer the questions; it is also vital to allocate time to recheck your work afterwards.
What you should do: First of all, don’t panic! Assess the approximate time required for each question, and try your best to wind up each part during the allotted time. If despite your best efforts you find yourself almost out of time and with still a couple of questions left to answer, then summarise the answers in the form of bullet points; this might not lead to full marks, but it is still better than leaving some questions completely unanswered. And, try your best to save some time to recheck your work. Nerves can lead you to silly mistakes, so it helps to double check your answers (and verify that you’re lining up your questions and answers correctly) after every test.

Using txt-speak
Wen u hav 2 go thru an ansr ritn in a languig tht is not ez 2 decifer, let alone make sense of, then u’re seriously left 2 1der wat da student wuz thinking! It is completely inacceptable to use improper spellings or texting lingo in any examination, no matter how lenient the marking will be, because even when your inability to spell “through” or “easy” isn’t overtly costing you marks, it is still grating the person reading your answers. And you don’t want to irritate the person who controls your grade. (The only thing more annoying is wh3n p30pl3 wr1t3 1ik3 th15 and th1nk 1ts sup3r c00l! News flash: it really isn’t!)
What you should do: Never use txt-speak. Ever. Not even in texts, and especially not in tests. Seriously. No.

Not planning for contingencies
Mr. Murphy summed it up best: whatever can go wrong, will. Ok, so chances are that everything won’t go wrong, but what if something does? What if your pen runs out of ink? What if you get to the exam location and realise you forgot to bring your calculator with you? Not bringing required stationary/material, and not carrying spares are a common problem for students, and few instructors are likely to allow you to borrow stationary or shuffle calculators back and forth. And, what if you get stuck in a traffic jam on your way to the exam hall or have trouble finding its location? Arriving late is just a bad start to the exam; you might not even be allowed to enter the exam hall, and even if you are allowed to sit for the exam, you have already lost precious time.
What you should do: Prepare the night before the exam instead of shuffling to put everything together at the last moment. Carry a spare pen (and extra items of other essential stationary) in case one decides to bail on you. Know the location of the exam hall, plan the journey, and make allowances for traffic jams and vehicular problems when leaving for the exam hall to get there on time.

And no matter what happens, don’t let yourself get flustered. Just stay calm and carry on. May the force be with you!

- S.A.
Us Magazine, The News - 20th April, 2012

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