The final frontier – four exam myths busted

It’s that time of year again. Seminars are mainly over, ‘silence’ signs are appearing all over campus and there’s not a seat to be had in the library for love nor money. It can only be the exam period.

Students seem to see exams as a hurdle, a challenge, a horrible pain-filled Herculean labour that exist solely to cause the most amount of stress before the joy-filled days of post-exam frolics. I’m not about to suggest that anyone should really enjoy exams (although I suspect some people do get off on the drama of it all – flouncing round the library with water bottles & coloured pens, distracting everyone by talking about how little revision they’re doing and how they’ll definitely fail before doing annoyingly well). But I do think we can – and should – break down some of the myths about exams. Here’s my top four exam myths and some advice on how to bust them. 

Myth 1 – ‘bad at exams’

Every year, students tell me they’re either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ at exams. I suspect this harks back to school days, where performance is frequently measured in test formats. It can be a bit frustrating to hear people you’ve been working with for several weeks have plonked themselves into a mental box before they’ve even stepped into the exam room – well, before they’ve even started to revise.  For one thing, university exams are an entirely different set up to school exams – I’ve been an A level marker for several years, so I get to see both sides – so it doesn’t necessarily follow that people who’ve enjoyed one format will flourish with another.

Where the ‘bad at exams’ thing gets really frustrating is when people say “I’m so much better at essays”, because – for history at least – the principles for a good exam answer are pretty much identical to the principles for a good essay – solid argument, supported by evidence, with a structure that allows you to make and explore each point of that argument in sufficient detail.

How to deal with myth 1 – preparation is key. Use past papers to get a feel for what kind of questions might get asked, how they might be asked and plan how you’d answer these. Keep the focus on planning arguments, and thinking about what evidence you can use where to support that argument. Which brings us to myth number 2…

Myth 2 – I need to show I know every fact there is to know on this subject

Ah, exams, the ultimate memory test. Get everything vaguely related to the question down on paper – dates, names, places, if we’re really lucky a historian’s name or two – whack on a sweeping statement as a conclusion and job done. How well do you think that answer does? Not very. Because exams are not about everything you remember.

Exams are about showing what you understand.

History is about trying to understand what’s gone on in the past and why. It’s also about looking at how that understanding has changed over time, as different historians have contributed to the debate.

Reeling off date after date doesn’t show the examiner you’ve understood stuff – it shows them that you’ve memorised stuff. I’m pretty confident you will never get a question that asks “Write down all you know about the Russian Revolution/Norman government/the wars of Louis XIV”. There’s no element of critical thinking there – exams will always push you to evaluate and analyse, so the questions tend to be built around ideas of “how far did this affect x?”, “to what extent did y impact on z?”. So you need to have factual knowledge of this topics, but that factual knowledge is there as evidence – it’s there to support the analytical points you’re making, rather than telling a story or taking up space. Narrating what happened, particularly when you’re answering questions on political history, might seem like you’re demonstrating knowledge – but remember, knowledge needs to be paired with understanding, so keep the focus on analysis.

You might get a question that uses the dreaded word “discuss” – “The Reformation was good for women. Discuss”. If you get one of those, you do actually have to discuss the issues raised by the statement, and make some kind of overall judgement on the issue. And often the most effective way of doing that is by discussing what historians have said on a topic.

How to deal with myth 2 – get into doing practice questions early on in your revision. That will get you thinking about the kinds of evidence you need to bring in to support the points you want to make.

Myth 3 – if you can’t remember who worked on this, ‘some historians’ will cover you 

Having just said exams are not a memory test, there are some things you need to make an effort to remember, and which historian said what is pretty crucial. Nothing makes a marker’s heart sink more than seeing the dreaded ‘many historians believe/some historians argue’ formulation appear and then…. nothing. No historian is named, no school of thought referenced.

When you’re revising,focus just as much on the arguments historians have put forward about each topic as you do on the raw factual data. And think ability those arguments – which convince you? Why? If you’re not convinced, what is it that’s not sitting right? Remember these concerns as you plan and write your answer, and comment on the scholarship as you go through.

You don’t need the level of precision we’d expect if you were footnoting with the texts in front of you, but you do need to show you know who the main historians are in a given field, what they’ve said – and if you agree.

How to handle myth 3 – keep lists of who the main historians are in each topic, and notes on what their key arguments are. And think about who you find the most convincing and why.

Myth 4 – the examiners are out to get me and trip me up

This is a perennial one – that tutors set exam questions to be deliberately horrid and awful. That’s just not true. No examiner wants everyone to do badly. Apart from anything else, that wouldn’t make us look good, would it?

What we do have to do is meet certain criteria when setting the exams. We have to make sure the questions reflect what’s been in the course. This can can be quite tricky. Exams are usually set very early on in the year, often before teaching is really under way, so we’re working off what we think and plan is going to get discussed in class, rather than linking in to things we know each and every person has had a conversation about. But the questions will relate to the key concepts covered in class, set reading and probably seminar discussion work too. We have to make sure the exam questions don’t exactly mirror the essay questions, otherwise you could just repeat stuff. And the exams will be checked, probably internally and externally, so that other staff and scholars think they’re fair.

Busting myth 4 – Again, looking at past and sample papers will give you a good sense of what kinds of question will get asked. You can also see how much your tutor is willing to talk about the exam!

So there we go – four exam myth hopefully busted. You can read all the things about nutrition & getting a good night’s sleep and the best music to study to elsewhere – these should keep history students on the straight & narrow though.

Good luck with your exams!


About drskbarker

Lecturer in Early Modern History at the University of Leeds. Interested in all things early modern, European, news & print-culture and higher ed teaching related.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s