9 Tips for understanding Assessment and Exam Questions

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You’ve just been handed your first assignment/essay of the year; you read the question. You thought you understood the topic, but the question in front of you leaves you feeling confused and you start to panic. I can confirm that this is a common experience and you are not alone.

My years of teaching tell me that every year students will struggle to understand the questions set. It must feel to them that the qualification authorities use their own language. As a lecturer, my role is to help students decipher this language. Today I’m going to outline 9 tips to help students navigate the assessment/essay and exam questions they face.

Turn your Question into a Checklist

Usually your questions will ask you to do various things. Often work can be returned for resubmission or as a fail because the student has not answered all parts of the question. You need to take the time to read the question and identify all the different things you are being asked to do.

Break your question down by identifying all those different elements. Are you being asked to simply describe something – or is there an additional element to your question? For example:

Compare and Contrast Best Practice and Best Fit approaches to HR Strategy. Assess the effectiveness of one of these theories for your own organisation and make recommendations regarding improvements that could be made.

The above question requires you to do 3 different things:

  • Compare and Contrast Best Practice and Best Fit
  • Assess the effectiveness of one in respect of your own organisation
  • make recommendations for improvements

Breaking the question down like this helps you to think about what you are being asked to do, and by creating yourself a checklist, you can ensure that you cover everything that you are being asked to do.

Use Highlighters

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An easy way to analyse your question(s) to help you understand them and to create the checklist discussed above is to use highlighters to pick out they key words and phrases. This allows you to focus on what’s really important and you should be able to identify what you are being asked to do. Using the example above, I’ll underline the words I would highlight:

Compare and Contrast Best Practice and Best Fit approaches to HR Strategy. Assess the effectiveness of one of these theories for your own organisation and make recommendations regarding improvements that could be made.

Once you have highlighted all the key words you will have clues about what you need to do to answer the question and it will help you to understand how to focus your response.

Assessment/Essay Question Language

Assessors will use a range of different assessment instruction words to indicate how they want you to approach your work. I used 4 in the question I created above as our example (compare, contrast, assess and recommend.)

You need to know if you are being asked to describe, explain, analyse etc and it is important that you understand what each different term means and what your assessor will be expecting from you. This Oxbridgeessays blog provides a detailed explanation for each of the different words and what we, as lecturers and assessors, are looking for. Its really important that you write appropriately for the instructions given – you may fail your assessment if you describe when you have been asked to explain or analyse, so understanding these words is really important.

Reword the Questions

Sometimes in class, when we’re working on question interpretation, I will task my students with rewriting the question. You would find it useful to put the question into your own words. It helps you to understand what you are being asked to do, and if you get stuck, you should ask your lecturer/tutor.

Analyse Past Exam Papers

If you are studying for an exam rather than working on an assessment/essay, I would recommend reviewing past papers. Over time you will find you can identify trends. As you are being assessed on the content of your course syllabus, there is a limit as to what you can be assessed on. This means the same themes will recur, but the questions may be phrased differently. By studying the questions in past papers you will become familiar with the different ways the same question can be asked which means when it comes to the exam you are more familiar with the examiner’s writing style and more likely to be able to interpret your questions correctly in your own exam.

Write your own Questions

To help get you in the mindset of your examiner/assessor, you would find it insightful to write your own questions. Again, this is a technique I use with my own students. It takes you out of your comfort zone, but it will help focus your studies and aid with interpreting the questions you will face too.

I usually develop this activity and have my students answer each other’s questions and then the authors of the questions mark the answers. This can be an interesting exercise as not only are the students thinking about their marking criteria – what constitutes a pass/fail etc but they also discover that their peers may not interpret the question as expected, which demonstrates the need to be clear in writing and interpreting the questions.

Peer Marking

I’ve referred to this above, but if its not an activity done in class; working with your classmates you could practice marking each other’s activities/practice assessments. Putting you in the mindset of the assessor makes you more critical which should mean when you return to your own work you should have a better understanding of what you need to do to meet your assessor’s expectations.

If you need to work on your own, you could set aside some answers you have written for at least 4 days, then mark them (get a red pen). It may feel strange marking your own work but the time gap should give you enough distance to be more objective.

Practice Writing Answers to Mock Questions

The more you practice writing you will become more familiar with the content of your course/studies. Reading a book or articles etc gives you a lot of information, but you need to consolidate your learning. Answering questions allows you to take the learning from your reading and really make sense of it. Turn your knowledge into understanding. Answering questions allows you to develop and check your understanding. You will also identify any gaps in your knowledge or if there is something you don’t understand. It will also help you develop your academic writing and exam techniques.

Answer the question set

If you have followed my tips above you should be on track and less likely to tell me/your assessor everything you know on the topic, and stay focused on the question(s) set. I do have one final tip for you though. Keep a note of the question(s) you are answering in sight as you work (I’ve even been doing this drafting this post) and keep asking yourself how does what you’re writing answer the question. If you can answer that question and haven’t included the explanation in your answer, you should add it.

If, however, you find you can’t answer it, they you have possibly got side-tracked. Often I read information and ideas that are really interesting, but don’t score the student any marks as its irrelevant to the question posed, plus you’re using up your word count. When this happens you need to be ruthless and remove the irrelevant material. It is hard to do, but I guarantee it will be worth it.

Good luck with your assessment/essay writing and exams when the time comes.

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Now over to you …

What words in assessment/essay questions do you struggle with?

What things about assessment/essay questions cause you problems?

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