The single most important piece of advice for anyone sitting an exam is to practice questions, and where possible, past exam questions. It has been a consistent message for over 20 years, and although we have evidence to show its effectiveness, it also has a common-sense logic. Would you for example go on a driving test having only read about driving in a book but never practiced in a car beforehand?
Although the process of practising questions provides insight not just about the exam but also how well you perform under timed conditions, there is another important and valuable lesson. What does comparing your answer to the model answer tell you about how well you understand the subject and what you need to do to get it right next time, effectively to close the gap?
Closing the gap
Checking if your answer is right or wrong is important for obvious reasons but there is a rich seam of learning to be found by looking at the detail in the answer and comparing it with yours. For numerical questions consider reworking the calculations, noting each iteration to help gain a better understanding of the answer. Although this will help should a similar question be asked again, that’s not the main objective. Focusing on one subject, one topic and a specific question helps direct your efforts to a problem that needs to be solved, and the brain loves to solve problems. It also adds context and purpose to what you have been learning.
Written answers are far more difficult to review as there is often a degree of interpretation. However, when you find a statement or section of narrative that is different to yours or perhaps didn’t appear in your answer, ask, why didn’t I put that? Was it that you knew what to say but didn’t think it relevant, was your answer similar but not as clearly expressed, has it exposed your level of knowledge or lack of it? It’s this process of reflection together with the guidance as to what you need to do to 'close the gap' that makes doing it so worthwhile.
Different types of exam
There are different types of exam so in order to offer more specific advice, let’s look at two extremes.
Objective tests – these types of questions are the easiest to review because they are relatively short, but even if you passed don’t be satisfied, look at the questions you failed and learn from the answers. You may of course find your knowledge lacking, but going back to the textbook with a specific problem in mind is a very efficient way to learn. Also remember to add some comments to your notes as to what you have now learned, this will help you avoid making the same mistake again. And if you didn’t pass you obviously have even more work to do.
Case Study – looking at past questions for case studies is a very different learning experience. If the case study requires you to demonstrate application of knowledge, which is a common objective, reviewing the answer can provide excellent guidance as to how this can be done. Application is something many students find difficult, largely because their head is full of rules and not how those rules could be used in the context of a real-world problem.
In addition, you will get a feel for the required standard and how the right headings, phrases and structure can help give order to the random thoughts that will come to mind when in the exam. Equally don’t be afraid to effectively steal some of the set phrases or tricks of good writing, for example notice when making a series of points, firstly, secondly, thirdly can help the answer feel structured and yet not repetitive.
Reviewing past exam questions is learning from someone who has got the answer right, which sounds terribly logical when you think of it like that.