How to answer exam questions to succeed?

May 1, 2016

As a PhD qualified University Lecturer of 14 years teaching experience, I consistently saw excellent students hand in average exam papers because they failed to read the questions carefully.

To excel at exam questions you need to :-

  1. Read questions carefully – Take your time to make sure that you have fully understood what the question is asking. Underline or highlight key words in the question to help you ensure that the answer that you write has the right pitch.

Lets have a look at the following example:-

Example : What happens to your blood pressure immediately after you change posture from laying to standing?

Answer 1 - Immediately after you change posture from laying to standing your systolic, diastolic and main arterial pressure decrease.

Answer 2 - Immediately after standing up, blood will pool in your lower limbs due to the distensible nature of veins and gravity. This results in less blood returning to the right atrium of the heart. That is, your venous return will be reduced which will lead to a reduction in the end diastolic volume (EDV). The decreased EDV will result in a decrease in force of contraction because of the Frank-Starling law of the heart. The decreased force of contraction will then pump less blood into the aorta resulting in a decreased stroke volume (SV). Because less blood has entered the arteries there is a decrease systolic blood pressure (SP) which in turn results in a decreased diastolic blood pressure (DP). Since both SP and DP are decreased the mean arterial pressure (MAP) will also decrease (MAP = DP + 1/3 (SP-DP).

Answer 3 – Some individuals faint when they suddenly stand up because blood flow to the brain is reduced and their body is not able to compensate for this blood pressure change fast enough. The blood pressure will drop when you change posture from laying to standing.

Lets look at the example and then read the question carefully noting important key words.

“What”, “blood pressure”, “immediately” and “laying to standing”.

The word “what” is critical because it is letting you know to simply state what happens to your blood pressure immediately after you stand up (answer 1) and it is not asking you to explain or show the reasoning behind it as can be seen in answer 2. In this case answer 1 is sufficient to get full marks. So don’t waste your time adding unnecessary content to your answer when you could be using this time more effectively to answer the next question.

Keep the answer concise and to the point – It is much easier to mark a clear, precise and to the point answer than a convoluted one. A confusing answer can be frustrating to markers as they have to hunt and search for the answer. They have hundreds of papers to mark so think of ways which might make it easier for them to mark your questions. Sometimes including a clear diagram or concept map can send the message across much more clearly than a page of text.  The example above is asking you about what happens to blood pressure, so in this case, don’t talk about other cardiovascular variables. You would only write about other variable if the question had asked you to explain the reasoning behind the blood pressure change. Answer 3 is an example where they included unnecessary and irrelevant information. They talked about fainting and blood flow to the brain which is not related to the question. The also did not write specifically enough about each of the three different blood pressures. 

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