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How to answer an exam question you don't know

By Charlie Hale on 16 May 2018Exam adviceUKblog

Ok, so you’ve reached a question that you really don’t know how to answer. Maybe there was a hole in your revision or you’re having a complete mind-blank. Maybe it’s the type of question designed to catch you out. Whatever it is, chances are you’re going to experience some sort of “what the actual #$@&%!” moment over the course of this A-level malarkey. So we’ve come up with a step by step guide to get the most out of what you do know.

Step 1: Take a deep breath

When you come across a question that totally baffles you, it’s more than understandable to start panicking, but trust us, added stress is not your friend in this situation. When you’re under a lot of pressure, your brain kicks off a whole load of adrenaline and cortisol production, which is going to get your heart pumping and your hands clamming. So take a moment to pause, breathe deeply for 30 seconds (you’ve got 30 seconds, we promise 😌) and break that cycle to get back to a clear and focussed mind.

Step 2: Read the question twice – without holding your pen

Okay, hear us out. One of the most common mistakes in an exam is misreading the question. Pressure does funny things to us, it plays tricks on our minds!! Re-reading a question sounds so simple, but with a calmer state of mind and without the urge to rush and write down an answer immediately, it’s amazing how this simple step can take you from WHAAATT to OHHHHH💡💡💡.

Step 3: Think back to your revision, have you answered similar questions before?

Even if you haven’t seen a question like this before, picking out a familiar keyword and remembering a successful thought process can help get you started. If you’ve answered a relatively similar question before, think about the effective way you tackled that one and the thought process you used to get there. If we’re going to get fancy here, thinking about your thinking it known as metacognition. You don’t have to worry about that, but you should know that it has been found to be one of the most effective strategies for improving self-regulation.

Step 4: What would your teacher say?

Bets on that over the last few months, your teacher will have repeatedly given advice on how to best go about answering a question. Put yourself in their knowledgeable shoes and think about how they would advise you to answer this difficult question, it might give you that lightbulb moment you’re searching for.

Step 5: Use the right strategy for each type of question

When knowledge lacks, strategy is your best friend. Obviously different types of questions require different tactics, so let’s cover the more common ones:

Short Answers

  • Have a jab, keep it clear and concise (no need to waste time over marks that don’t exist) and take note of the marks: two marks = two points you need to make.

Long responses/essays

  • Write down any quotes or facts you remember on a planning page straight away so you have something to work around.
  • Make a vague plan and identify the gaps in your knowledge; try to fill these gaps by extending the stuff you do know to make some really great points.
  • Come up with an argument/thesis for your response (this will really help your marks).
  • Try and refer to what you remember of the mark scheme for a really good answer.

Maths questions

  • Always attempt a question because you could get marks for your working out even if you can’t find the answer.
  • Check your work – it’s often easy to know whether you’ve got the right answer, so check and keep trying, always showing your working out.

Multiple Choice

  • Rule out the ones you know are obviously wrong to narrow down your options.
  • Even if you have no clue, always make a guess. A small chance of being right is better than no chance.
  • You want to be efficient but don’t blitz through so quickly you fall for the trick option.
  • Use the facts from the multiple choice as evidence in other answers in your exam.

Step 6: Come back to it

If you’re really struggling to make a start on a question, skip past it and complete the ones you do know. You might find that a pair of fresh eyes and a boost of confidence gained from completing the rest of the paper will help reboot your thought process.

Step 7: Better to guess the answer than leave it blank

Fact of life: write nothing at all and you are guaranteed to get zero.

You really have nothing to lose, so take a wild guess and jot it down if all the other steps are alluding you.

Last but not least: Don’t put too much pressure on yourself

A good, healthy dose of stress can help aid performance, but excessive pressure is likely to cloud your judgment. If your line of thought is going something like this: “I have to get full marks” or: “I must write at least four pages for this question,” then that’s a code red for over-stress. This kind of all-or-nothing thinking isn’t good for A) you and B) getting the best results you can.

Quit the negative self-talk and put the mean monkey-brain to bed. Instead, think along the lines of: “I’m going to do the best that I can do” and “If I don’t know something, I will give it my best shot and then move on.”

Your best is all you’ve got so be good to it!

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