You’re listening to the Parents of Hardworking Teens Podcast, episode 50 - the 6 elements of exam technique, why they’re important and how each of them can increase your teen’s results.
Hello VIPs! I hope you and your teens are doing great. I was going to say that I can’t believe we’re at episode 50! But in some ways it feels like I’ve been doing the podcast forever, as in it just feels like a part of my life and a part of Rock Solid Study now. Not like - omg, this lesson feels like it’s going on forever. But also in some ways I’m like wow 50, really? I’ve talked about 50 things? It feels more like 20, maybe 30?
But it’s very cool.
And of course, when I realised as I was planning that this is number 50 - I did go and do a little bit of statistical research. (AKA productive procrastination before getting to work.) I do like a good stat.
Firstly, we’re up to 7,421 downloads, since launching the podcast, which I think is pretty awesome, but obviously - I’m like I don’t actually know if that’s good or not. Is that a lot, not a lot in the world of podcasts?
So, I checked out some of those stats.
I couldn’t find any numbers about the first 50 episodes, but because I typed in 50 into part of the Google search, I did find out that if you get over 145 downloads within your first 30 days, then you’re in the top 50% of all podcasts. So of course, I had to go check our stats and we had 330 - so nice tick in that box. Plus, did you know that only half of all podcasts make it past 14 episodes, so 50 is a win and I intend to stay with this for the long game.
In fact I’ve already decided what I want to do when we hit 100 episodes and have already started the project for it. I’m going to create a kind of ‘best of the podcast’ book, or maybe a workbook. It’s going to have the key take-aways, quotes and most important points all collated and curated.
I’ve actually had a couple of requests from listeners for this sort of thing, because we often listen to podcasts while we’re on the go.
I actually wanted to check that statistic about the number of episodes most podcasts stop at, and while I was looking for that, I also found that 59% of people tune into a podcast while doing something else simultaneously.
That’s definitely me. If I do listen to something particularly useful, I will then make myself sit down and take notes on it after, but I’m usually driving, walking or food prepping while I listen to podcasts, so I’m rarely with a notebook.
So, I already have a spreadsheet set up where the team and I are already inputting content for it so, I’m really looking forward to producing and then sharing that. Just another 50 to go!
So that’s what’s coming in the long term, and what we’re working on in the background.
And here’s what I have for you today.
One of my favourite topics and a really important concept for all students: exam technique.
Because, when we think about it – there’s only one mark in the cut off between an A and a B or a C and a D. Now, that can be either pretty depressing or hugely exciting, depending on how you think about it.
The exciting way to look at it is that one mark can easily come down to exam technique rather than subject skills or extra knowledge. Not that those aren’t important, they just aren’t the only important thing.
I went and found an online forum post from a real examiner which I copied and pasted a while back as part of an introduction to Catapult 6 in the 10WGT.
Because it reveals some of the most common mistakes examiners see students making in exams and I just want to share it so that you know it’s not just me saying these things!
This examiner wrote: “What I’ve found is that just because someone knows the topic inside out, it doesn’t mean they’ll do well in exams. Their technique might be really poor. For example,
- Not properly allocating time to each question
- Not reading the question carefully – such as students mis-reading the questions or making incorrect assumptions and then going off on a tangent.
- Not planning or checking their answers so their points end up everywhere and the answer is incoherent.”
Did you notice… how none of those issues even mentioned subject knowledge or revising?! And did you pick up on the first thing they said: that ‘just because someone knows the topic inside out, it doesn’t mean they’ll do well in exams’.
In fact, that examiner goes on to say in their post that…
“While I acknowledge exams are there to test people’s knowledge, the fact is, they also test people’s ability to do things the right way”
Now, of course, subject knowledge IS required for success. But when it comes to exams –When you think about it – one is fairly useless without the other. Great exam technique but no knowledge = A lot of blank spaces left on that exam paper.
Have ALLLLL the knowledge but no exam technique skills? Probably LOTS of writing in the answer spaces, maybe even a feel-good factor about how it went… until the result says otherwise because that info wasn’t given in the right way. Because, it doesn’t matter how much subject knowledge they have, even if they’re a total expert on a topic, if they don’t respond to a question or task in the right way, then they won’t be able to access the marks in the mark scheme or assessment criteria.
Amazing grades are achieved when BOTH of these are working together. When they have great subject knowledge AND excellent exam technique. And this even still happens at uni.
When I was Googling to try to find that quote,so I could properly reference it, I actually came across another examiner writing about this issue. A lecturer at York university in England.
He told the story of him and his friend Graham.
He said, throughout my time at school and University, I had a friend called Graham. We did exams in exactly the same subjects from the ages of 15 to 22. Despite the fact that Graham is quite a lot brighter than I am, as far as I can remember he never beat me in a single exam. Why? Well, mostly because he got interested in the subjects, and started exploring them. I was just trying to pass the exams. (Graham is now a professor at the University of Glasgow. I’m just a lecturer here at York. Which goes to show that being brighter pays off in the longer term. However, there’s no reason he shouldn’t have beaten me in at least a few of those exams.)
Since then I've seen the issue from the other side, having set hundreds of exam questions and marked thousands of exam scripts. And I must say that the standard of exam technique apparent from many students at York, supposedly one of the top universities in the UK, is, to be frank, awful. It's almost as if many of you have no idea what you're doing.
That last sentence sounds harsh - but it’s only because those of us who are both educators AND examiners find this so frustrating to see.
Which is why, in my opinion, exam technique is >>THE most important skill for any student to walk into the exam hall with.
And so that’s why, I want to spend this episode sharing with you exactly what exam technique is, AND the 6 elements or sub-skills that, over the years of training students to excel in it, I’ve broken it down into.
Exam technique is - and this is my personal definition that I’ve developed - is knowing how to give the best possible answer to a question (i.e. one that gains the most marks), as efficiently as possible, given the amount of knowledge you have on the topic in the question. So whatever the amount of subject knowledge your teen has, we want to focus on how they can get the most marks possible from it.
I’ve seen some students who aren’t really that knowledgable in a topic get higher marks in certain questions than those who are, just because they happened to write down relevant things that got marks on the mark scheme, as opposed to those who wrote lots of information, but not with the right focus or at the right level - basically, not in the right way.
In fact, I will say this - might be unpopular, but I’ve seen it happen many times - often it is the lazier students, those who want to do just the bare basics to get by, who actually have the best exam technique. I know that might not be great to hear, but here’s why. Because they are thinking - what exactly do I have to do here and how can I do it in the simplest, fastest way.
What’s the least I could write here to satisfy the question.
And that is what exam technique is about.
Putting the information asked for, across in the exact way it’s wanted, in the most succinct way. Most marks, least words. Most bang for their buck. Most marks for the knowledge they have and most marks for the words they write.
How do they do this?... By mastering the 6 elements of exam technique and becoming an expert in answering EXACTLY what any exam question, essay title or assignment task is asking in a way that meets the criteria on the mark scheme.
And these 6 elements are, in no particular order: Time, use of resources, including examples and Case studies, structure, QWC - quality of written communication, and Command words.
First, we have time - and if your teen’s ever either run out of time in an exam OR been left with lots of time at the end, then this is a really important element to master.
As a general rule, minutes can be converted into marks.
So, there is reading time at the start, then working time, then ideally, your teen also wants to keep some review time at the end. At least 5 minutes, ideally more like 10 to go back through and check everything.
So, let’s say it’s a 2 hour exam, 120 minutes, and they have 10 minutes reading, and keep 10 minutes for reviewing, then that leaves 100 minutes for working time. And lets say, for easy maths, the paper is out of 50, then as a guide, they should be allocating approximately 2 minutes per mark. So 4 minutes to complete a 2 mark question, 20 minutes for a 10 mark question. This isn’t exact, but if when they are doing a practice paper, they realise they’ve spent 10 minutes on a 2 mark response, then they know that they are writing too much - or if they aren’t actually writing for that time, then they are becoming perhaps distracted, or maybe don’t know the content well enough as they are sat just feeling stuck.
But for most students who are running out of time, it is usually because they are writing too much. For example repeating the question back as part of the answer, which is never required in an exam for short response questions, they just want to get straight to the answer, or by giving more information than is required, putting stuff in, just in case, or by repeating info, maybe just wording it differently, but making the same point over and over. Those are a few of the most common ways I see students writing more than they need to.
Next element, is use of resources provided. Explicitly using and referring anything they’re given along with the question in an exam. They absolutely need to use and integrate any kind of stimulus - it could be a graph, a data table, a photo, or a text extract. Any time they’re provided a resource of any kind, they’re expected to use it and refer to it explicitly in their answer. For example, one way is to refer to a specific point on a graph, using specific data points. If it’s a photo, they need to state that in the top right hand corner of photo 2, the man is wearing a red hat which symbolises… whatever, Not just that red is a symbol of x,y,z. State exactly where that has come from on the photo.
This ties in nicely with our next element - examples and case studies. Students often need to include these in extended response questions, sometimes even when the question doesn’t specifically tell them to. So if an English essay question asks about a theme like friendship from a text, then they will need to refer to some specific characters as examples, even if it doesn’t say to in the question. If an extended response business studies question asks about competition in business, the student will likely need to include an example of two competing companies to help explain their point.
Knowing exactly how and when to do this is a skill that will put them much higher on the exam success scale :)
Next we have Structure. Students definitely don’t want to miss out on marks because their points were in such a muddle that the marker missed one of them or couldn’t keep track of some of the links between them. Remember that examiners will read through answers carefully and often re-read them two or three times, but you don’t want to make it hard for the marker to find and give marks.
So, answers to extended responses in particular and - of course- essay questions, need to be clear and structured, not waffling. So that every mark possible is picked up, but also because it’s much more time efficient in terms of writing the response too. So making a plan for all extended response answers is key, and - before a student says ‘I don’t have time to write a plan’ - then go back and listen to what I said in the Time element just now. For every minute spent planning, double that time is saved in writing a clear and succinct response. So 2 minutes planning = 4 minutes saved. 5 minutes planning a full essay response is 10 minutes faster writing it.
I know it’s hard to get on board with, but what I tell all my Next Level students is - if you feel like you don’t have time to write a plan - that’s the exact time you MUST write a plan. If you’re that tight for time, that’s when it’s most important to be writing clearly, directly and succinctly.
So, as you can tell, there are certainly overlaps between these 6 elements of exam technique. That’s one, and there are many more as well.
This is why these things can make such a big difference. I talked about this back in episode 28 - the Skill Web. That was one of my personal favourite episodes and I had a few emails about it too from parents saying how much it made sense.
This is where fixing one element or developing one skill can have multiple flow on effects and have multiple benefits, can help boost other skills too. And I believe its why we have so many stories of students changing their results massively in a small amount of time.
So, go check that episode out right after we’ve covered elements 5 and 6 here. Our fifth element is QWC. Quality of Written Communication. Basically - how well your teen writes. How coherently and succinctly they put across the information. This includes their word choices, vocabulary and use of appropriate terminology or technical vocab. Basically, does their writing sound sophisticated but clear and succinct - high quality, but not overly waffle-y or wordy- and is it accurate in terms of spelling, punctuation and grammar? Now spelling is not as important for subjects outside of English. As long as we can read what’s intended, then it gets credited, but I have seen descriptors and marking criteria still specifically allocated to quality of written communication in subjects outside of English, even in subjects like Chemistry. It’s usually a small proportion of marks, but like we said at the start, one extra mark could be the difference of a whole grade.
Finally, we have - Command Words. Also known as cognitive verbs, directives, task words. I saved this for last because for me, it is THE most important of all the 6 elements. I know I said these are in no particular order, but for this one, I kind of am saving the best til last. Command words are the verbs in questions- the action words. Like Describe or analyse or calculate or justify and your teen needs to get REALLY good at a) identifying them, b) knowing precisely what they’re asking them to do and c) how to respond to them.
Now, I train students all 6 of those exam technique skills in detail in the 10 Week Grade Transformation program, but I have a whole module - Catapult 7 is just for command words - it has it’s whole own module, because it’s so important and frankly, has quite a bit to it.
But whether your teen is or isn’t in the 10WGT, have a chat with them about which of the 6 elements you both believe are currently their strongest skills - that they already do pretty well with. And which do you consider to be their weaker skills?
And - which would be the highest priority for them to work on?
And for now, just choose to develop that priority skill. If they can master the exam technique element that is most holding them back, then just doing that will likely make a huge difference to their exam results.
And if you’d like to get more insights and nitty-gritty how-to’s on exams, then I’m going to be hosting an exam performance webinar at the end of the month, on Tue 30th May. Registration isn’t open for it yet, but mark your calendars ready. 7.30pm AEST, Tuesday 30th May, exams webinar with me.
I’m going to keep sharing exam success tips and strategies for the next couple of weeks with you here on the podcast because I know that lots of students will have mid year exams, semester exams and trials coming up here in Australia and New Zealand and that in the UK and in the northern hemisphere students have their big final exams for GCSEs and A-Levels and the like coming up. So, stay tuned for all things exams.
Have a brilliant week and I’ll see you back here, on Tuesday, for another episode of Parents of Hardworking Teens podcast!