Exams – and how to pass them

You may have to take many examinations and whilst some students prefer exams to coursework, many find the experience stressful – we want to change that. The purpose of exams is to demonstrate that you have understood the material that you have studied - by applying it to new questions and contexts (the exam). Examiners are not trying to trick you, they want you to pass.

They expect you to answer the question set, NOT to write everything you know about the topic. You will be awarded better marks for focussed, relevant answers, which address all parts of the question and are written in clear English.


Useful things to do to pass exams

  • Have a revision folder for each topic in each exam.
  • Put relevant class, lecture and reading notes into each folder.
  • Answer assignment questions linked to exam topics.
  • Put assignment notes into the relevant folders.
  • Put the marked assignments into the folders – follow up on the tutor’s feedback – find extra information.
  • Put any extra work that you do in the folders.
  • Put in high-lighted press cuttings.
  • Start a revision cycle for each of the topics that you want to learn – from week one of each course!
  • Build a big picture, pattern note (see Notemaking section) for each topic – on your wall. Revise as you walk past.
  • Add information to your own ‘big picture’ every week.
  • Review the folder contents and summarise into key words, ideas, theories, concepts and examples.
  • Reduce the big picture to key information – summarise as key words on index cards.
  • Carry cards with you – learn them in a supermarket checkout queue, learn them on the bus, learn them in the lift.

Surviving Exams: SQP4

S= Survey
Q= Question
P= Predict
P= Plan
P= Prepare …
P= Practise


  • Module handbooks: Aims and Learning Outcomes (LO), which tell you what you will have to do and learn to pass the course?
  • LO that are tied to the exam indicate what topics are coming up and the questions which might be set
  • Your lecturers will also provide guidance.


  • Check when and where the exams will take place
  • ‘Shape’ of each exam: how long? Open or closed book? Essay or multiple choice? Seen or unseen?
  • Whether all the questions carry the same marks.
  • Looking at past exam papers will help.

Predict - your topics

  • Which topics you will be tackling in each exam - then
  • lan your whole course learning and revision strategy around your informed choice.
  • Prepare your revision materials.

Plan – your learning strategy; Prepare your revision notes:

When we were children we learned through repetition, rhythm, rhyme and other mnemonic systems. Mnemonics are memory strategies and triggers, for example, think how you remembered the colours of the rainbow or the alphabet. What we need to do as students is to (re)learn how to learn and become active learners and actively plan what and how we will be learning.

  • Do NOT rote learn handouts, lecture notes or PowerPoint slides, whole essays.
  • Do reduce information to its bare bones – key points, key ideas, key names and dates - and learn.
  • Do make this material your own by using it over time: talking to your friends, joining in class discussions, by - reading and talking about your reading, by listening to others and by writing.
  • Do carry revision cards with you and test yourself.

Use your learning styles: see, hear, say and do

When we were young we learned material by seeing it, hearing it, saying it and doing it. Do the same now:

See: Enjoy learning by reading and using visual aids (television, film or video). Make your revision notes as colourful as possible – and use visual triggers like cartoons and diagrams to remember.

Hear/say: Use discussion, explanation and audiotapes to help you to learn. Discuss material with other people – explain it to someone who is outside of the subject. Make jingles and songs of your key notes – use funny voices when recording. Listen to your tapes and sing along.

Feel/do: Build physical activity into your learning – don’t sit still - move about as you study. Act out or role play your learning. Make your revision collages or pattern notes.

Have some fun: Make revision games to help learning. Design Q&A cards for all possible topics and use them on a Snakes & Ladders board or in a Trivial Pursuits type game. Playing the games revises the course – and uses all your senses - see, hear, say and do!


- Design your own mnemonic systems for all the things that you need to remember.
- Use rhythm and rhyme.
- Use the bizarre.
- Reduce key information onto index cards, carry them about and revise in odd moments.



All through your module, you will be given anything from 1500 to 3000 or more words with which to answer a question. Suddenly in an exam you have just half an hour or an hour to plan and write a perfect answer.
You will not be able to do this unless you have practised doing it.

Practising for exams

  • Practise brainstorming and planning: develop the ten-minute brainstorm technique.
  • Brainstorm all the questions in your course handbook.
  • Brainstorm questions on past papers.
  • Practise turning a long assignment essay into a half-hour version of the same essay.
  • Practise writing something good in half an hour.
  • Practise preparing and writing ‘perfect’ answers with your study partner.

Examination Day!

Rest the night before – do not cram in new information – think positive thoughts – approach the exam in a winning frame of mind – leave afterwards –no post-mortems!

Essential Examination Day Tips

  • Take chocolate, a drink, working pens and a quiet clock with you. Take control!
  • Read the exam paper: Always read the questions carefully. This is another reason why it is important to see past papers; so that the actual wording of the question does not intimidate or confuse you.
  • Always plan before you write. Time spent planning is never wasted. Time spent writing without planning can be very wasted indeed.
  • Do not run out of time – give the same amount of time to each question. Time yourself.
  • Write something for each question.
  • Always start all the required questions…
  • Maximum marks are picked up at the beginning of your answers – better to start than finish!
  • Never answer more questions than you are asked – extra questions are just not marked.
  • Review what you have written. A few minutes checking your answer can make a phenomenal difference to your marks!
  • If you run out of time – refer marker to your plan and/or finish in note form. This allows you to pick up points for key facts.
  • Always cross out material that you do not want the examiner to mark
  • This all takes practice!

Think smart – think positive

Mentally prepare for exams and want to do well. See our Positive Thinking section – but here are a few tips for examination time:

  • Remember that fear is normal – it does not mean that you cannot do well.
  • Enjoy your fear – it means you are facing a new challenge.
  • Think positive thoughts – I can handle this! I’m looking forward to this exam! I’m so well prepared!
  • Act positive: find out what it would take to do well in your exam and then do it. Give 100%.
  • Have a positive study partner – encourage and support each other – no moaning!



Information, further research and reflection


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Explore the following websites and resources – see how useful they are. Blog or tweet about the good ones – saying why they are helpful.

BBC Scotland’s Brain Smart website has animations and information on the brain, memory, dealing with stress, successful learning strategies – and brain games…
How to revise
Positive Thinking site:
Preparing for Maths exams:
Revision tips for Maths students:
Maths tutorials & resources: