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Helping students revise effectively and perform well in exams

23 March 2012

CALT Teaching Fellow Dr Rosalind Duhs offers advice on how staff can help reduce students' pre-exam nerves and ensure that they perform as well as possible on the day.

Two UCL students doing a written examination
Luke, a UCL Human Sciences student

Luke, Human Sciences

"This is the last term now, and it's exams o'clock! I have eight of them to endure over the coming month, including four in a row one week. The Easter holiday was really relaxed - I didn't do any revision and just caught up with friends and family."

Taken from UCL Transitions' student blogs

UCL students have managed to get into UCL because they’re good at exams. Many actually like exams because they’re successful in them.

But it’s not as simple as that for all of our students. One in three come from outside the UK, where approaches may differ in their educational context. And it’s definitely difficult to write in a language that’s not your mother tongue.

So how can tutors help all their students to prepare for exams? Here’s a quick checklist:

1. Check for disabilities in good time

Ensure that students who have dyslexia or any other disability have been in touch with Disability Services. They may be entitled to extra time in the exam.

2. Help students to plan their revision

The opportunity to revise the entire course is a good argument for retaining synoptic assessment as it enables students to deepen their understanding of the content, provided their approach is carefully planned. Students who do well are both strategic (i.e. selective; they know where they need to focus) and good at making links. They develop a holistic sense of their area of study. Careful time management and planning is essential.

Entwistle & Entwistle (2003) have done a fascinating study into the way students revise for exams. The researchers use the concept of ‘knowledge objects’ to describe students’ approaches to pre-exam revision. These consist of a series of mind maps which are retained in the mind’s eye. They can be created in different ways depending on the learner’s preference. They are based on the creation of a network of issues, related to each other, ranging from a top level of overarching concepts down to detailed examples to illustrate points.

A good way of revising, then, is to summarise notes and summarise them again until the essential concepts of a course can be condensed on a few index cards. The content of these cards might include anything from sets of equations or design guidelines to different aspects of genetics or perspectives on history or literature.

3. Let students know what you're looking for in a good exam answer

UCL guidelines recommend that all students should know the criteria for assessment (see 4.6.3, page 20).

If students need to show that they can analyse a problem or theory and evaluate or critique a text or design, then they should practise analysing, evaluating, or critiquing before the exam. Give them an example of a good piece of analysis in your subject.

4. Offer students the opportunity to practise writing time-limited answers

Book a space for this and run a mock exam. It doesn’t need to be a full paper, as long as the proportion of questions to time is what they’ll get in the real exam. Students can help each other with feedback on the answers. Peer review of exam papers is a useful exercise. Tutors don’t necessarily need to mark mocks, although students would undoubtedly appreciate some encouraging and constructive feedback.

5. Promote the avoidance of the 'scatter gun' approach

If students get nervous in exams, they tend to write answers which are partly irrelevant, simply showing all they know. This type of factual knowledge is a useful basis but it is not what we want students to achieve at university level. Let students know that we hope they will form some sort of argument if they are writing an essay-type exam answer.

6. Encourage students to plan their answers

It’s extremely important to take the time to plan essay-type answers. Students benefit from the quite simple structure of ‘say what you’re going to say; say it; say what you’ve said’, whereby an introduction presents an outline of the argument, the argument is made in the form of a series of logically linked, well-illustrated points, and a conclusion is then drawn in relation to those points. 

Answers cannot be planned until the question is thoroughly understood. Many questions can be interpreted in different ways so it’s helpful for students to make it clear what their understanding of the question is. They need to underline key words on the exam paper to promote focus, and then make sure that their plan reflects what they have been asked to do. It might sound obvious, but if they’re asked to ‘compare and contrast’, they have to be sure that they really do compare and contrast in their answer. 

7. Short answers and multiple choice questions (MCQs)

There may be quite a lot of these for some subjects. Encourage students to do what they can do best first. They should study the tricky questions but then leave them until later. Even though students will be focusing on another topic in the meantime, if they return to the tricky area later, they may find that answering the question is easier once they've 'warmed up'.

8. Timing

Remind students that it’s vital to time all exams carefully. They should never omit any questions: if a student is a slow writer, encourage them to write a short answer for everything rather than leaving some of the questions out. Remind them that if they find a number of the MCQs difficult to answer, it’s better to select a random answer than to leave a blank. There’s always a chance they may guess right. It has been suggested that it’s best for students to select the same number option for all the questions they can’t answer, i.e. if undecided, always select response two (or three) for example.

9. Nerves

Some students find exams challenging. Nervousness is normal and may even improve performance - but excessive nervousness can affect performance negatively. Personal tutors can refer students who are very anxious to UCL Student Psychological Services.

See the Examination Stress webpages for more information. 

10. Enjoyment

If students have managed to prepare carefully and revise in a structured way, they will gain a sense of satisfaction from performing at their best at exams. Although they may never need to write a lot of text by hand in a limited time from memory in their working lives, they will have gained a good overview of their subject through the revision process.

Cutting down on unseen written examinations

UCL guidelines recommend that a variety of approaches to assessing student knowledge should be used (see point 14, page 7).

The UCL Centre for the Advancement of Learning and Teaching (CALT) has six Schools-Facing Teaching Fellows (two per school) who can provide guidance and advice on all areas of teaching and learning. If you would like to find out about reducing the amount of written examinations on your course and developing alternative forms of assessment, contact one of the Teaching Fellows for your school.

Page last modified on 23 mar 12 11:17

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