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Monday, 21 May 2012

How not to be eaten by a lion (or how to pass sneaky exams)

-By Chelsea

There are three types of exam which students most commonly underestimate for difficulty:

  • The Multiple-choice Question Exam
  • The Take Home Exam
  • The Open Book Exam                                                                    

You need to think of all exams as lions who are well trained in telling the difference between the weak and the strong.  As students, you can either be the unsuspecting Gazelle (or buffalo) that gets picked off or you can be the prepared Gazelle who survives another day.  While all exam formats can be equally hard in their own way, they do require different strategies to succeed.  This post will give you a few tips on how to prepare for the most commonly underestimated exams. 

Multiple-choice Question Exams (MCQ)  - Know your details 

MCQ Exams actually give you the answer on the exam paper – how stupid are these lecturers?  That has to be the easiest exam to take right?  Unfortunately this is one big lie usually manufactured by students trying to justify one more beer in the bar before going home to study (or letting you go home to study).  Just like a well-fed lion, a good MCQ exam is designed to separate the weak students (who rely on multi-guess) from the strong.  So when studying for this type of exam, do pay attention to the details; it won’t be enough to understand the general gist of a topic.  Also you need to make sure you read the question carefully as often MCQs have a few of the following tricks:

  • Double negatives – Watch out for these as two negatives make a positive which will completely change the context of the question.
  • ‘Not true’ questions – Make sure you don’t select the first answer you see that is ‘correct’ when the questions wants you to choose the answer that is ‘not correct’
  • ‘Best answer’ questions – these questions are mean because usually a few of the answers are ‘almost’ right but the correct answer is ‘the most’ right – know your details!
  •  50/50 – often the question is designed so most students can eliminate some of the responses immediately and are left with two responses that appear right.  The problem here is that there are no options for ½ marks on MCQs (or phoning a friend) - so you again - know your details! 


Take Home Exams – Know your content

Another exam which sounds promising – is the lecturer serious?  Doesn’t he/she know you have the text book and google at home?  Definitely time for another beer in the pub when you have a take home exam… Put down that glass now!  This form of exam usually makes me shudder, I would rather take on a lion than do another take home exam.  You need to imagine doing a complex assignment in 3 days instead of 6 weeks. However rather than giving up on uni and becoming a lion tamer, here are a few hints:
  • Take home exams don’t usually require additional research, so concentrate on keeping up to date with class readings and lectures.  You won’t have time to read articles, text chapters or listen to lectures when you get the exam and a take home exam is usually about applying the knowledge that you have acquired.  So the best way to prepare is to acquire all the knowledge in the lead up to the take home exam and then focus on applying it correctly when you get the exam.
  • Schedule your life to allow the maximum time possible to work on the exam.  This is not an exam that will take 2 hours to complete or maybe 3 if you watch TV at the same time.  This is an assignment troops and you will need discipline and focus to succeed!

Open Book Exams – Know your notes

Hopefully by now you can see a theme here:  exams that lull you into a false sense of security only to kick (or bite) the bottom of any unprepared student.  Open book exams are no different.  Usually these types of exams are used in subjects like Law where it is less important to “know” the answer and more important to “know how to find and apply” the answer.  This usually means that there is a massive amount of information that you will need to sort through … without the help of Google… then you have to apply the information correctly.  SO! Don’t expect that you can just turn up to your exam with the text book and check the index – you will spend most of the exam finding the answer and run out of time to actually write anything.  My final helpful hints are:
  • Make your own notes of the important content from the course – this will mean that you have less to sort through in the exam and it will help you get familiar with the content as you go, so you will have more chance of remembering where to find it. 
  • Once you have your notes you need to practise finding the answers. The best way to do this is to use practise questions – old exams if available, tutorial questions, study guide questions or at worst – make up your own questions. Have a crack at finding the right answer and applying it in the time limit you would be allowed in your exam. You may find the first couple of times you try that you run out of time, but you will get faster – and better to learn that you grossly overestimated your ability when studying than in the exam itself. Nerdy? Sure! But here is a little African Proverb to get you motivated ...


  1. I love this analogy Chelsea, and you are so right about the false sense of security, sometimes I wish they were as simple as committing facts to memory!

  2. A good explanation about exams Chelsea. I remember that I panic in one of my MCQ exams, when I did not study good enough and had to guess for about 60% of the MCQ. I consider I am lucky for getting around 60% for that exam.

    For the open book exam, I think you give some good hints to prepare for the actual exams. However, I would suggest that using sticky notes on some important key points/theories in textbooks would help to find the right answer too.