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  • Writer's pictureRich Dlin

Exam Writing - You've Got it All Backwards

In my decades of teaching, one of the themes that repeated the most frequently was students' coming into a test or exam feeling "totally prepared", and then either not finishing it, or finding themselves unable to demonstrate the things they felt they knew. Tears and/or anger often ensue, and the following comments can be heard echoing in the corridors:

"I don't know what happened! I just blanked."

"The test was too long! I couldn't even get to the last page, so I just wrote some BS to try and get part marks."

"We never learned this! The test was so unfair."

So Rare!

There are many things that can cause this. And yes, some exams are legitimately too long, and some teachers do end up putting questions on an exam that test concepts that were never covered. But guess what? Those events are extremely rare. Like, more rare than a 1999 Pokemon First Edition Charizard Card.

Which, I am told, are pretty darned rare.

So maybe - just possibly - there are other explanations. And of course, as you may have guessed, I will outline some here. There are a few common and very real reasons this happens: Test Anxiety, Poor Study Habits, Delusion, and Suboptimal Exam Writing Strategy.

Test Anxiety

This is a very real and growing concern for today's student. Given grade inflation which is driving up cutoffs for acceptance to post-secondary education institutions, there is more on the line now than ever when students are writing a test or exam. Programs that used to be able to accept students with averages in the mid-80's are now showing cutoffs in the high 90's. And to be clear, this is not because students are getting smarter - they are as smart now as they ever have been. Rather, over time, the demands of society have slowly reduced the value of a percent, so that the smarter students who used to live in the 85 and up range of grades are now, in many cases, all crowded into the 97 and up range. Which means every decimal counts, and that means every mistake can be the one that changes the email you receive from the university or college from "Come on over" to "Sorry, but we are unable to provide you with an offer this year." Given what is at stake, many students find themselves paralyzed with test anxiety in the moment. This has a ripple effect throughout their learning process, because it often shifts the student's focus from the learning to worrying about how they will manage to perform on their assessments, which of course exacerbates the issue.

Poor Study Habits

Many students operate under the false impression that studying for a test or exam is somehow different that learning material as classes progress. They have two student modes: "There is no test coming up" and "I HAVE A TEST TOMORROW!". The tendency for students who fall into this category is to defer their learning until they have to study, falsely believing that this is the correct student paradigm. These aren't bad students, or students without innate ability. Just misguided students who treat class time as a kind of information gathering and storage process, to be digested later when it is time to study. What happens is they miss many opportunities to discover their difficulties and ask for help from the teacher, discovering only during the day or two before the test that they have any difficulties at all. This causes a kind of curriculum triage process, where they decide what topics they need to focus on, based either on what they totally do not understand (neglecting the topics they feel "good" about), or else based on the topics they feel they "have a chance at getting", and then hoping/praying that the other topics are not emphasized on the test. In either case, any feelings of being prepared this creates are false, and often based more on how much time the student spent working and less on the efficacy of the work done. For students who behave this way, the exam becomes a sort of minefield they have to navigate, searching for the safe path of the questions they know how to do. Which, you can probably imagine, results in test anxiety.


There are a subset of students who legitimately don't know what they don't know. Sometimes this is due to a subconscious avoidance of difficult concepts, or concepts that require an effort they are not used to exerting. Sometimes it's due to a mismatch between perceived ability and actual ability, occasionally fostered by adults in their lives. Sometimes it's because a student is just in over their heads in a class not suited for them, but for which they have earned the minimum prerequisite. To see why this is problematic, consider for example that in Ontario, if you earn a 50% or greater in any course, you are awarded a credit and can then take any course that requires it as a prerequisite. This means that if you earned a 50% in grade 10 academic math, you are "allowed" to take grade 11 university-stream math. There is a very large chasm between the words "allowed to take" and "able to succeed in". These students often believe that they will work harder in grade 11, to overcome whatever it is that resulted in the poor performance in grade 10. Sometimes that does happen. More often, what results is that the foundation is so riddled with holes that the student can not see the grade 11 content clearly enough to know what it is they don't know. Which of course leads to poor exam performance. When combined with poor study habits, and quite possible test anxiety, this is a clear recipe for a miserable experience.

Suboptimal Exam Writing Strategy

And now I've come to the main reason I chose to write about this today. Almost every student I have ever taught never learned how to properly write a test or exam. Which is a shame, because in every case - whether it's test anxiety, poor study habits or delusion, optimal exam writing strategies will maximize performance and even potentially reverse some of the effects of those situations. Which is not to say that each of those can't be addressed directly, because they can and they should. It just means that if you want to feel like you did the best you could, then an optimal writing strategy is clearly the way to go. So how does that look?

Exam Writing - You've Got it All Backwards

See what I did there? It's the title of this blog. And now it's a subtitle. How clever. But in any case, there is a reason I phrased it that way. Here are my time-tested and repeatedly proven strategies for optimizing test/exam performance:

  1. Studying is not learning. Studying is reviewing and organizing what you have learned. Learn during class and by doing homework. Study to consolidate the learning.

  2. Do not study the day of the exam! Your brain needs time to process and organize thoughts. It's an amazing organ if you let it do what it does best. When you study right up to the moment you enter an exam, you are not giving your brain the chance to organize your knowledge and file it efficiently. Essentially, by studying until the last minute, you are taking every file out of the cabinet and strewing them about the floor, then expecting to be able to find what you need quickly when you need it. Instead, if you stop studying the night before, and get a good night's sleep, your brain will organize and file all your learning. You will be amazed at the difference this makes. And it will also force you to organize your study time more efficiently, so that you know you have completed what you need to do the night before. I promise you - you will not forget things you knew last night just because you didn't look at them again today.

  3. Read the entire exam before you start. In fact, don't even have a pencil or pen in your hand. If you want to write your name on it so you don't forget, great. But then put the pen or pencil down and read. Read the whole thing. Read it carefully. This is not wasted time. You're going to have to read each question at some point, and very likely more than once to fully understand what it's asking. So take this opportunity to read the whole thing. This way there will be no surprises lying in wait for you, and no mystery as to how much of the exam is left as you write.

  4. Do the exam in your order. There is no rule that you have to do an exam in the order of the questions that it comes in. In fact that is almost never the best order to write in. Instead, as you read through the exam, make a note of which questions you are certain you can do (but resist the temptation to do them until you have read everything!) Then, do the exam in the order of easiest to hardest. This will do many things for you, and all of them are good. For one, it will ensure you have the time to complete the questions you know you can do, as opposed to possible spinning your wheels on a harder question then suddenly realizing you are running out of time and panic-writing whatever you can for questions you really could have gotten correct. For another, as you are working on the easier questions, your subconscious will be processing the harder ones, while you are simultaneously gaining confidence about how you are doing. Combine this with the fact that the easier questions will often cue thoughts about how to approach the harder questions, and you will very often find that when you get to a question you thought you would struggle with, you actually know how to do it.

  5. Slow down I have told many a student that if they want to be sure they will have time to complete an exam, they should slow down. Of course that seems paradoxical but it is not. Speeding through your work is a recipe for careless error - either through not reading instructions or else just through the kind of sloppy mistakes that speed creates. This then results in answers that don't make sense, or else a seeming inability to continue with a solution, and both of those will cause you to waste time on the question, trying to find the error in speed more, all the while with increasing anxiety as the clock ticks. By methodically reading each question and completing your work, you avoid this trap, and ultimately spend less time on each question.

Ultimately your time as a student should be a time of learning, of personal growth, and of discovering how to translate your innate knowledge into demonstrations that other can acknowledge and understand. While "real life" has no tests or exams such as they are in school, the ability to write these effectively is actually a lifelong skill that will continue to serve you well. It deserves your attention for this and so many other reasons.

Thanks for reading,


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