How does one improve exam-writing skills?

I’m a tutor at the university level, and I find myself often having difficulty giving tips on how to write exams, since it’s something with which I haven’t had a lot of difficulty since high school. Generally, these tests are multiple-choice, but problems (in Chemistry and physics, for example) often appear, too.

Here are some general problems I see. If any of you have suggestions on how to fix them (either from first- or second-hand experience), my tutorees and I would be very grateful!

  1. Panicking. This decreases performance no matter the testing style, and seems to appear regardless of how well-prepared the student is (or thinks she is).

  2. Misreading questions. For some reason, people always claim they “read each question twice,” and still misinterpret their intent. Any methods for either closer reading or ensuring that students do read questions twice?

  3. Ignoring details. This is especially problematic with problem questions, where students think they can do something one way, and bull through even if signs appear that they’re probably not doing it right. Often they’ll walk out and think "I did that question wrong! This is how you do it, but I ignored that way!

  4. Running out of time. This one’s pretty common, and it’s hard to tell people both to “be more careful” and “work faster.”

If anyone else has similar problems to which they’d like to suggest (or request) remedies, that’d be great, too!

This works for me: If your not sure of the answer, or not sure you even understand the question, don’t sit there and stew over it. Move to the next question, often questions later in the test will suggest the answer for you. Work through the entire test then go back to the beginning.

Re: 4

My exam-writing experience leans more to the essay question variety, but what I’d do was divide the available time by the number of points for the total exam, and then figure what amount of time I had for each question. For example, in a two hour exam with question values totalling 100 points, that’s 1.2 minutes per point so a 10 point question should take 12 minutes to answer. I could then tell whether I was on pace to finish on time, and if I should cut a few corners on the “80% on every question is better than 100% on half of them” principle or if I could relax and take my time to add in extra detail. Multiple guess tests in the sciences work a little different, but knowing what pace you’re on should still be helpful.

  1. Panicking.

I think it is difficult to fix this. It is a personality issue more than anything. I think probably the best way to really make sure you are prepared is to sit one or two practice exams under strict exam conditions. Also I think it is important to study under similar conditions as those you’ll face in the exam. Even if you find you study better with music playing in the background, you may ultimately do better if you learn to study in silence with some form of time pressure.

  1. Misreading questions.

Don’t know. As evidenced by some discussions on this board, some people are incredibly bad at reading comprehension. It seems that some people are incapable of picking a “most likely” meaning from an ambiguous phrase. All you can do is read it, read it again, pick the important points, discard the red hearings, work out the answer independently, even if it is multi-choice, and then look to see if your answer matches the given answers. If it doesn’t, you need to rework it.

You also need to do a gross error check. Estimate roughly in your head what you think the answer will be, then check that the answer you work out, is in the ball park of your estimate.

  1. Ignoring details.

Probably goes hand in hand with misreading the question. When you prepare well for an exam you soon recognise that there are a certain limited number of questions that can be asked. Each type of question is designed to test a certain aspect of your knowledge. It is then easy to have a quick read of a question, assume it is a certain type of question when in fact it is another. You then answer the question under a false assumption. I think if you can fix the problem of misreading the question, you’ll do away with any problems with ignoring details and doing questions the wrong way.

  1. Running out of time.

I agree with indecisive1. Read through the entire exam first, pick the easy questions. Go back and do them first, then start working on the harder questions.

Take note of how many marks are allocated to each question. This should give you an idea of how much time you should give it. If you are sitting a three hour exam and 10% of the marks are on one question, you should allow about 18 minutes to answer it. However, if you have already gone through and answered the easy ones, then you should find you have more time than expected for the harder ones, this should allow you to take some time for re-reading the question and possibly re-working the answer.

Or what Gorsnak said for #4.