Study Skills in Mathematics – Exams

Good exam technique will help you present what you know in the best way.

Exams are stressful, but if you are properly prepared, that stress will act in your favour. See the Revision section on how to handle that stress. Come the exam, just remember your examiners are not ‘out to get you!’ but rather to reward what you know. Apart from obvious pre-requisite knowledge (ask if unsure what this comprises) examiners will not ask you anything that is not in the syllabus and has been taught.

Make sure you check your exam timetable as soon as it is released. If there are any clashes, inform your course director. Exam dates/times often change so be available (don’t book any holidays during the exam period!). If you do miss an exam for any reason, tell your tutor.

Here are a selection of exam tips to help minimize your stress levels

Before the Exam

  • On the night before the exam, prepare everything you will need: University ID Card (or other proof of identity), pen, pencil, calculator.
  • Get a good night’s sleep: get to bed at your normal time and do not stay up late trying to read your notes. If you do go to the pub, don’t drink much and leave early.
  • Remember to set your alarm clock AND get someone to wake you. Eat some breakfast.
  • If you do not feel well enough to sit the exam, seek advice from your tutor or Course Director as soon as possible. Your university will have rules about necessary documentation and time limits for submitting extenuating circumstances.
  • Set off in time to reach the exam hall without rushing and aim to get there about 10 minutes before the exam starts. If you are late, even by seconds, you may not be allowed into the exam at all. Seek advice from your tutor or Course Director immediately, but just don’t be late in the first place!

In the Exam Hall

  • Listen to the invigilator’s instructions: you will usually be asked to put your name, date, possibly candidate number and subject on the cover page of your answer booklet. Fill in the attendance slip.
  • Do not look at the question paper until told to do so by the invigilator.
  • When you’re told you can begin, check all of the question paper is there and read it all. Start with the instructions at the top. Note how many questions you will have to answer, how many sections there are in the paper and whether there are questions which are compulsory. Note the number of marks available for each section and note especially the amount of time you are allowed for the exam. Is a formula sheet (or any other material) appended to the exam paper or available to you on request?
  • Don’t panic – and don’t start answering any of the questions until you have read all of them.
  • Note which questions are compulsory.
  • Note which questions have several parts which must all be done.
  • Note the marks for each question and for each part of a question: if one section carries more marks than the others, you should spend more time on it.
  • Don’t panic if things do not work out as you expect. Whilst accuracy is important, anyone can make a ‘silly slip’. If you have explained what you are doing clearly, you will still get method marks for demonstrating your understanding.
    Read the instructions again to make sure you have chosen the correct number of questions and included all compulsory ones.
  • CHECK ALL SIDES OF THE EXAM PAPER TO MAKE SURE YOU HAVEN’T MISSED ANYTHING, especially items like formula sheets.
  • You should take five to ten minutes to read the exam paper and decide on the questions you will answer. You may get reading time for this, during which you should make brief notes and underline key words on the exam paper. If you are not given reading time, still spend 5-10 mins reading the paper jotting down the main points or formulae and/or underlining key words. Don’t worry that some genius sitting near you has already started!
  • Allow another ten to fifteen minutes at the end for checking your answers. After that divide up the time you have left by the number of questions you need to answer, allocating more time for any question or section that carries more marks. Aim to use ALL of the time and do not leave early – people who do usually fail.
  • Answer ALL the questions you should. It is very much easier to get satisfactory marks on incomplete or partially wrong answers to all questions required, than it is to perfect or fully complete a few questions and fail to attempt all questions required by the rubric.

Answering Questions

  • Do your best question first. This will unfreeze you. Don’t spend more time on it that you should – it’s easier to score a pass on a short answer than to score well with a longer one.
  • Analyse each question carefully and plan your answer before you start to write. This means abstracting the essence of the question and understanding why it was set and which skills/techniques it is designed to test. Jot down the main points or strategy you will adopt. Make sure you answer the question actually set, not one you wanted to be set!
  • Watch the time.
  • Don’t worry about finding the best way of expressing yourself. As long as your answer is clear, coherent and accurate it will be fine.
  • Leave a blank space when you can’t remember a term or a name – it will probably come back to you later.
  • Don’t waste time writing down material which is not relevant to the answer simply to provide some padding. You will get no marks for it!
  • Check your answer really is a solution of the question. For example, multiply matrix A by its inverse, substitute your solution into the given differential equation, differentiate your indefinite integral etc. If this works out, well and good; if not and you cannot easily see where you are wrong, leave it and go back to it at the end of the exam if time allows.

exam hall

To Gain Marks

  • When answering your question put in some illustrations or diagrams when appropriate. Label the axes, give a title and refer to them in the text of your answer.
  • When using a general result, formula or theorem, state it in full first. This will get you some marks and you will be less likely to make a mistake when applying it.
  • Always quote the units in your answer, using standard S.I. units only.
  • For mathematical problems, show all steps clearly and explain them in short, but complete, English sentences. This will often gain you many of the marks even if your answer is wrong.
  • Do not get stuck on algebra. For example with an integration using partial fractions, if you cannot calculate the coefficients you will still be able to get the marks for doing the integration. Continue the question using symbols. Similarly for a matrix question, state how you would e.g. use the inverse matrix if you had been able to find it. Use any results stated on the paper, even if you can’t prove them first.
  • Don’t cross anything out unless you are absolutely certain that it is wrong or you have replaced your solution with a better effort. Let the marker decide whether it is worth any marks; if it’s wrong, it will simply be ignored. If you cross out correct work, you cannot get any marks for it.
  • Your answers do not have to be long, but they do have to be legible so write clearly.
    If it does happen that you run out of time or cannot finish a question, jot down the main points you want to make or quickly outline a strategy for solving the problem.

After the Exam

When the exam is over, forget it and concentrate on the next one. Don’t brood over what might have been! It is possible that you might get a viva. Don’t panic – this is your chance to justify why you should be moved above a borderline, so prepare for it as for an exam.

About the Study Skills for Mathematics pages

These pages were originally created by Martin Greenhow.

Creative Commons Licence
Study Skills in Mathematics by Martin Greenhow is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Study Skills in Mathematics – Introduction

Study Skills in Mathematics – Time Management

Study Skills in Mathematics – Lectures

Study Skills in Mathematics – Reading

Study Skills in Mathematics – Projects and Essays

Study Skills in Mathematics – Using Charts and Graphs

Study Skills in Mathematics – Problem Sheets

Study Skills in Mathematics – Experiments

Study Skills in Mathematics -Presentations

Study Skills in Mathematics – Revision

Study Skills in Mathematics – Exams

Study Skills in Mathematics – Help

Study Skills in Mathematics – Postgraduate Research

Image Credits
Opp. Exams” (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) by Cushing Memorial Library and Archives, Texas A&M
final exam” (CC BY 2.0) by dcJohn