Common Exam Errors and How to Avoid Them…

This list of common exam errors (and how to avoid them) was put together for a recent CIE Sociology textbook I wrote – although most of them were actually “lost in the edit”. Be that as it may, the majority of these common exam errors are applicable to both sociology and psychology students.

Exams can be difficult social situations to negotiate precisely because they’re unusual; it’s not every day we willingly place ourselves under 1 1/2 – 3 hours of quite extreme, highly concentrated, levels of pressure and stress. The combination of strangeness and stress can mean you make avoidable errors that stop you gaining the overall mark your level of knowledge and understanding deserves. An awareness, therefore, of some common exam errors and what you can do to avoid them is always useful:

Error: Not answering the question: This problem is not so much that a student lacks the knowledge to answer a question correctly but more a problem of focus; the student writes a great deal of information but they lose sight of what the question is asking.

Avoid by: continually and explicitly referring to the question throughout your answer.

Error: not answering a question according to the examiner’s instructions:

At a lower level students lose marks through avoidable errors like only giving one example when two are required.

At a higher level errors occur in the context of assessment objectives; as we’ve seen, extended answer questions always require you to give different sides of an argument and draw relevant conclusions. Giving only one side, no matter how good, means you effectively lose up to half the available marks.

Avoid by: reading the question carefully, identifying the examiner’s instruction (identify, describe, explain, assess…) and making the mental connection with the assessment objectives.

Error: answering a question that wasn’t set: A less-common manifestation of this error is a self-fulfilling prophecy that manifests itself in a couple of ways when students try to predict exam questions.

Firstly they twist the actual question to what they predicted or hoped would come up; they end-up writing a lot and the answer may be very good – but if it’s an answer to the wrong question it won’t score highly.

Secondly, students prepare and memorise an answer to a question they “know” will come up; if it doesn’t – and in the absence of any real exam preparation – they again mentally twist the question to what they’ve prepared and lose marks accordingly.

Avoid by: not trying to second-guess the examiner. This is a very high-risk revision / exam strategy that’s unlikely to pay- off; even if you correctly second-guess the topic that’s going to appear on the paper it’s even less likely you can exactly predict the content of the question.

Error: not using all the required skills in an answer: The relatively common error here is one of writing too much description, rather than using your knowledge as the basis for analysis and evaluation. For example, instead of simply referring to a study and explaining why it is significant in the context of the question the student describes the study and its findings at great length. The marks for knowledge this may give are very quickly gained and once they have been achieved no more are awarded.

Avoid by: understanding how the examiner’s instructions relate to assessment objectives. Practice writing well-structured answers to exam questions.

Error: running out of time: Students spend too much time on some questions and leave themselves too little time to complete the paper, thereby throwing away potential marks.

Avoid by: understanding the relationship between the time and marks available:

  • at AS this roughly works out at 90 seconds a mark.
  • at A2 it’s roughly 2 minutes per mark.

Look at the number of marks available for each question and time yourself strictly; Stop your answer and move on to the next question once you’ve hit your time-limit (you may find you have enough time to go back and add to the answer once you’ve completed all the questions).

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