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Passing exams

This book will look at a few key strategies which make the whole experience of preparing for and taking your exams much more satisfying and productive.

Site: Solent Online Learning
Course: Succeed@Solent
Book: Passing exams
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Date: Monday, 25 June 2018, 5:21 AM

Passing exams

Passing examsExams bring with them lots of revision and stress. However, if you pick up a few key strategies, you can make the whole experience of preparing for and taking your exams much more successful.

How can you influence your performance in exams?

  • Learn good exam techniques
  • Make your revision count
  • Have a positive attitude
  • Lead a healthy lifestyle
  • Reward yourself


What can affect your performance?

Consider the key factors below. How can they affect you personally when you approach your exams?:

Your attitude

  • List ways in which taking the exam can contribute positively to your learning.
  • Repeat a positive message, ‘I can pass this exam’,  whilst revising, preparing and taking your exams.
  • Develop a positive attitude

Subject knowledge

  • Do your revision.
  • Discuss the subject with fellow students.
  • Do plenty of practice with past papers.
  • Make your revision count

Your exam techniques

  • Learn good exam techniques
  • Do lots of practice with past papers
  • Be conscious about developing your exam skills.

Your past experience of exams

  • Develop the knowledge and skills to pass exams even if you found exams difficult in the past or have had a bad experience.
  • Give yourself a positive message: ‘I can pass exams’.

Your writing skills

  • Develop your writing skills with knowledge and practice.
  • Pay close attention to any feedback you get from tutors.
  • Practise, practise, practise.

Learn good exam techniques

Before the exam

Passing exams

  • Prepare everything you need – pen, calculator, student card, etc. – the night before the exam;
  • Go to bed and get some rest;
  • Know where the exam hall is – visit it beforehand if you’re not sure;
  • Know what time the exam starts;
  • Allow plenty of time to get there;
  • Arrive early;
  • Wear suitable clothing - several thin layers that you can remove as required if the room becomes too hot;
  • If you are allowed, bring a small bottle of water;
  • Eat well beforehand.

Remember: don’t forget the simple things

  • Make sure you have a spare pen
  • Is your calculator working properly?

When the exam starts

Arriving at the examination:

  • take slow, deep breaths to calm your nerves.
  • Repeat this when you feel you are getting anxious.

When the examination paper is in front of you:

  • read the instructions carefully.
  • check if the format is the same as the past papers or if there have been any changes
  • Ask yourself: How many questions must you answer?
  • Ask yourself: How many questions per section must you answer?
  • Ask yourself: How are the marks distributed? How much time will you allocate per question?

At the beginning of the examination:

  • Read the questions carefully, underline the key words.
  • Identify the topic, the limits and (importantly) the process so that you can answer the question as it is set.

Prioritise the questions you will answer by:

  • Ticking all the questions you could attempt.
  • Double ticking the questions you can answer best.
  • Answering one of the more difficult questions first.

Remember: make sure you leave plenty of time for all of the questions.

Keep a close eye on the clock, or make a point of putting your watch on the table in front of you, and writing down the time you started, and finished, your first question. Continue this process for each question you complete.


Set aside 5-6 minutes planning the answer before you start writing it. Consider using a mind map or another visual representation of your ideas.

A plan should:

  • provide a structure and coherence to your answer;
  • help you to build your argument and bring it to a conclusion;
  • reduce the likelihood that you will miss obvious points.
  • include notes on an introduction and conclusion with your main body.
  • reflect the process in the question.
  • be written in the answer book and labelled as rough work


Never cross out any of your plans: examiners like signs of planning.

Writing your answers

  • Don’t base your answers on the assumption that the examiner will know what you're talking about. Express yourself clearly and simply, even to the point of "stating the obvious".
  • Write legibly. Incomplete but readable answers will receive more marks than complete but illegible ones.
  • If you run out of time for one question, simply leave a space and move on to the next question.
  • If you do find that you have missed out an important point, write it in a box and indicate clearly where it should have gone.
  • Should you run out of time, give a brief outline of what you were planning to write and the conclusions you would have reached: "If I had the time to develop my argument fully I would have shown that..."
  • Never cross out your plans or rough work.

Make your revision count

Top revision tips are:

Revise selectively

  • research which topics come up frequently – from past papers and by talking to tutors
  • give yourself enough options to answer enough questions.

Plan your revision

  • Plan and stick to your plan as much as possible.
  • Make a timetable for your weeks of study
  • Prioritise the most important revision for you
  • Plan each week.
  • Set revision tasks for each module or topic you are studying.

Use active learning strategies

  • mind-mapping;
  • summarising;
  • building charts;
  • pictures.
Study planners (Word doc)

Revision techniques

Revision Technique Examples


Link what you need to remember with something you already know.

Imagine walking around your home, where each room has different flags hung on the wall - to help you remember nautical flags.


Use auditory memory to remember things.

Create new lyrics to a favourite song, to help you remember the structure of an essay plan.
Talk through the key ideas of a topic with a friend.
Record yourself saying quotes from a Shakespeare play, listen back to them as you wash up or go jogging.


A mnemonic is a memory aid. A common one is taking the letters from a word to help you remember something else. Or you can create 'non-word' or phrases to help you remember something.

Rhythm Helps Your Two Hips Move - to spell rhythm.
Never Eat Shredded Wheat - the order of North, East, South, West.


Associate movements with learning something. Can you remember what you were thinking about when you were tidying your bedroom or walking to university?

Create a prompt sheet of formula to learn. Read through them before you leave for university and then try to recall them as you walk in.

Personalise it

Make the learning relevant to you.

To remember the four steps of Kolb's Learning Cycle, relate it to something you did:
Experience - low grades for an assignment; Observation - your reading was limited; Ideas - next time you'll read wider and look at the reading list; Testing ideas - next assignment to have a broader bibliography.


Have fun with the information. Can you link it to jokes, a funny film, music or happy memories?

When reading about a particular author you always have the same band's music playing. You start to associate their work with the music. Just humming a song brings back memories.


Repeat going over something at least three times. Try learning something using different ways, e.g. reading about it, writing about it and then talking about it.

Read about and then practise using a tool in Photoshop. Then write some of your own instructions on how to use the tool.

Teach someone else

The best way of learning something can be to try and teach it to someone else.

You and a friend each pick a theorist to study. Then take it in turns teaching the theorist's key thinking to each other. You can teach anyway you like - talking through some notes, a presentation or even sing them a song.


Associate something with an item of clothing, or parts of your body.

Use your hands and fingers to remember 10 key facts about a topic. Each finger or thumb is a different fact.

Writing things down

Write things out in your own words. Use colour and diagrams to help you visually remember something and show how information links together. Break down information into smaller chunks, use headings or write lists.

Write formula on post-it notes and put them all over your fridge.
Draw a time line of the key events during the impressionist period.
Write a numbered sequence for the health and safety checks to carry out before recording a studio based radio interview.
Read through course notes and create summaries of topics on index cards.
Work through past exam papers.
Learn the format of the exam Practice with past papers or ask your tutor to provide specimen questions and to outline the proposed format.

Get started on your revision

Try and get started on your revision early in the academic year and develop a revision programme that runs in tandem with your normal study programme and lecture schedule.

Remember: Revision begins when you take your first set of lecture notes.

Continually condense your course material throughout the year, extracting the main points and arguments. Ten pages of concise notes are a lot easier to read than fifty pages.

  • Revise little and often. Regular revision in small doses - say half hour slots - is  more productive than working for hours on end.
  • Revise with a purpose by asking yourself questions: ‘What was the main point of that lecture/tutorial/book/discussion?’
  • Aim at summarising or highlighting certain topics or areas of knowledge.
  • Create revision sheets of  main points, ideas and arguments.
  • Use coloured paper to make different study areas stand out.
  • Use boxes, stars, arrows or coloured pens to highlight important points and make connections.
  • Learn by understanding, not by rote. This will help you with the what-if type of question.
  • Write difficult formulae, important references etc on postcards and place them in prominent positions. Move them around frequently.
  • Take every opportunity you can to discuss your study areas with your tutors and classmates to get an idea that you are revising the right things.

Know what to revise

Avoid wasting time on revising what you already know quite well. Decide instead to:

  • Look at past papers or ask your tutors for specimen questions. Try to notice trends – what topics are most likely to be covered? Ask 2nd and 3rd years what to expect.
  • Learn to read between the lines. Comments such as "this is important" during lectures are often good pointers.
  • Look at the assignment questions you have already been given. There are likely to be similar questions in the exams.
  • Use your tutors` feedback to help focus your revision.
  • Answer the questions you avoided previously.Did you have a choice of assignment question? 

Remember: what you have covered in the course is what you are going to be examined on.

Plan your revision

 Take the time to examine the material you have to revise and decide:

  • What is priority material?
  • What material am I least familiar with?
  • What material do I need to go into in more depth?
  • What material do I realistically have time to learn before the exam?

Use your answers to these questions to help you draw up a revision schedule.

Remember: Be realistic about how long it will take you to learn each topic.

Make sure you don’t get stuck for too long in one topic area.

Study planners (Word doc)

Cover all the main points

As a general rule, you will have about 30 to 40 minutes per question in an examination on average. As you revise, ensure that you cover the main points by looking for the broader issues, arguments, relationships and ideas.

Remember: find one good example that illustrates or supports each main point or broader issue that you are learning.

Revision strategies:

  • Practice outlining- quickly plan out your answers to a set of exam questions as often as the practice of writing full answers.
  • Create bullet point lists.
  • Develop spider diagrams.
  • Find out what you are permitted to take into the exam with you. There is no point in learning complicated formulae if you are provided with formula sheets, or if the examination is going to be open book.

Have a positive attitude

If you have a positive attitude towards your exams, you increase your chances of performing well.

Which of the statements below are true for you?

  • Exams hold no fear for me.
  • I prefer exams to other forms of assessment.
  • I see exams as a constructive part of my learning.
  • Exams are a difficult but necessary hurdle to getting my degree.
  • Exams are pointless and painful.
  • Other people find exams really easy. I don’t.
  • I dread taking exams.

If your answers are in the top of the list: you have a positive attitude towards exams.Try to keep those positive thoughts in mind as you prepare for and take your exams.If your answers are in the bottom of the list: exams worry you and this feeling may make it more difficult for you to take and pass your exams.

Strategies to get positive about your exams

1.Visualisation- repeating a positive visualisation will improve your attitude towards taking your exams.Find a nice quiet, comfortable place to sit or lie down. Close your eyes and picture the following in your head:

  • See yourself arriving at the exam hall. You are on time, well-prepared and calm.
  • You sit down at your desk and place your pens and everything else you need on the table.
  • The exam starts and you read through the paper for the first time. There are plenty of questions that you can answer. You are confident that your revision has given you the knowledge you need.
  • Picture yourself beginning to write, confidently and knowledgeably. The answers come easily.
  • You work through the paper, answering all the questions with good timing.
  • You have time at the end to reread your answers and make some corrections.
  • When the exam finishes, you have completed all of your answers. You are happy with the exam and confident that you have done well.
  • Congratulate yourself.

2. Positive affirmation -Change the message inside your head from, ‘I can’t pass exams’ to ‘I can pass exams’ and ‘I am going to pass this exam’. Repeat this message to yourself regularly while you are studying, on the day of your exam and while you are taking your exam.

3. Recognise the positive aspects of taking exams- Take time to list things that can make exam taking a positive experience:

  • focussed study
  • a clear summarising of your years learning
  • a chance to display your knowledge, etc.

4. Talk to other students who feel positively about exams.

5. Revision
If you have studied and learned a lot about the subject, you can approach it positively, knowing you're going to do well.

6. Lots of practice
The best way to avoid the fear of the unknown is to do lots of practise with past papers. Practise will make the unknown known.

7. Exam day nerves
Repeating steps 1 and 2 can help you with nerves on exam day. It is also a good technique to take 3 or 4 long, slow, deep breaths to slow down your heart rate.

Lead a healthy lifestyle

Do you want...

  • An active brain that can soak up information and retain it
  • A body that has the energy to get through your days of study
  • A mind that can be focussed when you have to write your exams?

These are the benefits that come from keeping a healthy lifestyle while you are preparing for your exams. What can you do to improve your exam regime and have a healthy lifestyle?

Have a go at our 2 minute quiz to see what can help to keep you healthy throughout the exam revision period.

Reward yourself

Why do you deserve a reward?

  • Because you worked hard on your exams.
  • Because you did the best you could.
  • Because taking exams is stressful.
  • Because they’re done now, and there’s nothing you can do to change them
  • Because the final exam was the end of your university year.

How will you reward yourself when you finish all of your exams?

  • Go out for a meal.
  • Go out for a few drinks.
  • Dance in a nightclub.
  • Go to the cinema.
  • Go to a party at a friends house.
  • Have a night in with friends.
  • Have a weekend away.
  • Go to a sports match.
  • Buy a new piece of clothing.
  • Buy some new music.
  • Do something creative.
  • Do nothing for a while.
  • Exercise

Which of these would be suitable reward for you?

  • Cook yourself a nice meal.
  • Persuade a friend to cook you a nice meal.
  • Read a good (non-study) book.
  • Call a friend or family member for a long chat.
  • Watch a movie or listen to music.
  • Take a long walk, bike ride or session at the gym.

Keep your reward in mind while you study, and save it for a  celebration after all your hard work.

Passing exams checklist

Try and achieve the following when revising for your exams:

Passing exams

  • Have a positive attitude towards the exams;
  • Get into a healthy lifestyle – sleep, eating well, exercise;
  • Don’t overdo it- avoid excessive studying and take breaks;
  • Revise selectively – research the best spread of topics to cover;
  • Revise actively – mind-maps, charts, posters, whatever suits you best;
  • Prepare yourself – exam location, time, stationary etc the day before;
  • Calm your nerves;
  • Read the instructions carefully;
  • Read the question thoroughly before starting to write;
  • Prioritise your preferred answers;
  • Allocate time for each – stick to it;
  • Plan your answer in the answer book;
  • Write and structure clearly;
  • Abbreviate your answer if you run out of time;
  • Reward yourself when it’s all over.
Passing exams summary (PDF opens in new window)

More help

If you'd like some more help with Passing exams you can:

  • Ask your lecturer for guidance.
  • If you are a disabled student you can also contact Access Solent for guidance and support.
  • View the glossary to help you understand the words used.
  • Read a book or ebook from the reading list found in Extra resources.
  • Visit recommended websites in Extra resources for further guidance on Passing exams.

If you have any feedback about this book or additional material you'd like to see in the course, please email us at

Thank you to all staff and students at Southampton Solent University who contributed to this course.

Extra resources

Reading List

Read a book or ebook from the Passing Exams reading list.

The following titles are available from the library:

Recommended websites.
This is currently being updated.


Documents used in this resource

Passing exams summary (PDF opens in new window)
Study planners (Word doc)