I’ve talked a lot recently about how not all exam revision techniques are created equal. There are strategies that are a waste of time, and strategies that are super valuable for achieving high grades.

Additionally, a large factor in how you choose HOW to study should be the type of exam you’re going to be taking.

Written exams can be distinguished in 3 different ways:
- the type of questions
- prior knowledge of the questions
- resources allowed in the exam.

This blog post will help you realise what these different types of written exam are. You’ll discover how each type impacts on your revision process, along with tips and strategies for how you should prepare for these exams.


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3 types of written exam question

Multiple choice
A multiple choice exam is one where you have to select the correct answer from a selection of incorrect answers.

Pros of multiple choice questions:
- The correct answer is there. If you don’t know you can guess (unless your exam penalises guessing/incorrect answers)
- There will be more questions, and lower marks per question so the risk of answering a few incorrectly is lower than with other types of exams
- The questions are normally simpler and require lower level thinking i.e. define, describe rather than analyse and evaluate.

Cons of multiple choice questions:
- A broad range of knowledge is needed
- A clear understanding of terms and details is needed to be able to distinguish between similar answers.

Tips for multiple choice exams:
- Focus on active revision techniques to ensure you understand the material (not just memorise it)
- Improve the encoding of your revision material to improve your recall e.g. create mnemonics, add pictures to your flashcards…etc.
- While using practice papers – try to think of the correct answer before you look at the options.

A short-answer exam is one where the questions range from around 200-800 words each with a focus on describing, explaining, applying or analysing the material.

Pros of short-answer questions:
- You won’t be expected to include all details and points around a topic
- You can use the number of marks per question to gauge the detail and length of your answer. For example, a 5 mark question will normally require 5 points or details.

Cons of short-answer questions:
- If your exam is also unseen, this mean you’ll need to revise a wide range of topics
- For essay-based exams, remember you’ll still be expected to write a coherent answer.

Tips for short-answer exams:
- Make sure you understand the question words you might be asked (e.g. describe, evaluate, analyse…etc.) so you are always answering the right question
- Use active revision techniques to boost your understanding as recall won’t be enough to allow you to apply the material.

An essay-based exam is made up of a smaller number of questions requiring longer, essay-style answers with more detail.

Pros of essay-based questions:
- Patterns may emerge over years of exams so you can anticipate possible questions or topic areas
- Your exam answer won’t be expected to be as polished, detailed or researched as a normal essay.

Cons of essay-based questions:
- If you don’t know an answer you risk losing a lot of marks
- Deeper understanding is needed to build a coherent, flowing argument with application, critical analysis and synthesis.

Tips for essay-based exams:
- Brush up on your essay writing skills: critical thinking, how to breakdown an essay question…etc.
- Use past papers to create skeleton-answers (outlines) for lots of possible exam questions
- Focus your note taking on adding your own commentary to the material – don’t just summarise.

Will you have prior knowledge of the questions?

Unseen exam
An unseen exam is one where you do not know the questions beforehand. You should, however, always know what range of material the exam could cover.

Pros of unseen exams:
- With solid revision focusing on active techniques you should be able to tackle what’s on that question paper.

Cons of unseen exams:
- Incomplete or ineffective revision could leave you struggling to tackle all the questions
- Not knowing what’s coming can add to exam stress.

Tips for unseen exams:
- Make sure you know all the topics that could come up in your exam
- Focus on the full spectrum of active revision techniques: mindmaps, flashcards, quizzes and past papers.

Seen exam
A seen exam is one where you are told in advance either the topics that will be tested, or the exact question(s), so you can plan your answer in advance.

This seems to defeat the point of an examination. But, for some subjects, a clearer understanding of a student’s ability and understanding of the material can be achieved through essays that allow time for exploration, research and analysis.

To combat the fact that it’s pretty easy to cheat in essays nowadays, some universities compromise with a seen exam by giving you time to prepare in advance but write the assignment in exam conditions.

Pros of seen exams:
- You know what the questions will be or cover so you can target your revision
- A lot less anxiety because you know what will be tested.

Cons of seen exams:
- You still have to revise! You will need a deep understanding of the material
- You will need to master your essay writing technique and ensure you can memorise your answer.

Tips for seen exams:
- Again, improve your essay writing skills: critical thinking, how to breakdown an essay question…etc.
- Prepare your answer in multiple formats: plan/outline; full answer; summary of points…etc.
- Practice writing out your full answer by memory, to time, to see if you need to remove material or you have time to add some more points.

What resources are you allowed to bring into the exam?

Closed book
A closed book exam is one where you have none of your materials with you and must rely on your memorisation and recall of the information.

Pros of closed book exams:
- Most universities won’t expect you to include all relevant details to achieve a high grade.

Cons of closed book exams:
- Your ability to recall concepts in the exam is super important.

Tips for closed book exams:
- Ensure you’re only revising with active techniques. Don’t waste time creating index cards with tons of bullet points or rereading notes over and over
- Improve the encoding of your material with pictures and mnemonics.

Open book
An open book exam is one where you’re allowed to bring some or all the course material into the exam with you.

For some exams this means you can have your textbooks, and for others you can bring notes in. You may even be allowed both.

Pros of open book exams:
- You have your material in front of you so you don’t have to panic about forgetting a key detail from your notes.

Cons of open book exams:
- Your understanding of the material needs to be deeper as the questions will ask for higher level thinking e.g. apply, evaluate and synthesise
- If your notes aren’t clear and organised you’ll struggle to find the information you need.

Tips for open book exams:
- If you’re allowed your textbook: underline and highlight important points; add your own thinking to the margins; mark key pages with sticky notes
- If you’re allowed your notes: make them clear/legible; always write in your own words; create a contents page and other lists to organise the material.

So now you know what these types are and how you can best prepare for them. Identify which three categories your exam falls into.

For example, is your exam a closed book, unseen exam with essay-based questions?

Or is it an open book, seen exam with a combination of short-answer and multiple-choice questions?

Get clear on the type of your exam so you can prepare in the best way possible.


How to Actually START Your Essay

Workbook + video training to take you from procrastination and overwhelm to understanding your question and mapping out your ideas with momentum. Easier, faster essay writing (and higher grades) await.

Start Your Essay

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