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Academic writing: a practical guide

Examination writing

Examination writing

Examination writing is an essential element of most degree programmes. The resources on this page provide advice and guidance to help to ensure examination success. 

Types of examinations

An examination is: 

  • an assessment of academic ability that contributes to the overall grades in a module within a degree.
  • a test of a student's abilities in controlled conditions.
  • a part of most degree programmes.
  • an experience that few enjoy!
  • a type of assessment that has many iterations and question types.

The information on this page will help you think through and make decisions about how you can succeed in university-level examinations.

Let's start by considering the different types of exams you may encounter: 

Examination writing styles

There are many types of examination questions. They differ by subject area, where the exam is completed and according to what exactly is being examined. 

Each question type requires different techniques. You should always check the guidance issued within your module and department. The advice and guidance on this page is generic and does not replace that in your department. 

The main types of exam questions are explored in the resources below: 

Short answer questions [Google Slides]

Essays in examinations [Google Slides]

Using evidence in examinations

Using evidence in examinations is different to using it in reports, essays, dissertations and projects. This is because many exams are completed under controlled conditions there the student must rely on memory and so directly using evidence, with citations, is difficult. The amount and types of evidence required in exams varies considerably, and is obviously greater in an open book exam. 

The resources below offer generic advice and guidance on using evidence in exams. Please find the specific guidance within your modules. 

In a closed book examination, the only information you have available is what you have learned and what you can remember. Therefore, there is a more limited expectation to cite specific sources of evidence. 

Many areas of knowledge, particularly the sciences expect you to remember a large number of facts and the relationship between the facts. For example, in a physics or engineering exam you might be expected to know what the second law of thermodynamics is; the emphasis is on what it is and how you use it, not citing a source you learned it from. 

See the resources below for ideas on how to prepare for using evidence in closed book examinations.

In open book examinations you are allowed to take materials that may be notes, books, articles or other named materials into the examination room. Or, this could be an examination that is completed at a distance where you have all possible information available.

Due to you having the information available, there is often an expectation that you will cite your sources, much as you do in assignments and reports. The guidance for each exam will specify the type of referencing required and exactly which sources are permitted and not allowed.

See the resources below for ideas on how to prepare for using evidence in closed book examinations.

Using evidence in exams that have pre-released materials is arguably the most difficult type of evidence use in exams. It is expected that you will have engaged with the materials, and there is often guidance on what you should do with them in advance. This means that when you answer the questions in the exam itself, you are expected to use the evidence provided and whatever you have gathered independently to support your argument, justify your thinking, and link to key theories/ideas in the questions.

Each exam will have guidance on how you should refer to the materials, be it by formal referencing, or directing the reader to ideas and facts derived from the materials, or other sources. Read the guidance carefully.

See the resources below for ideas on how to prepare for using evidence in exams involving pre-released materials.

In almost all cases that you complete an exam remotely (24 hour examinations for example) there is no limit to the information you have access to. There may however be limits to the sources you are allowed to cite and use in the exam. You must check the guidance for each exam carefully.

Due to you having access to materials, there is often an expectation that you cite sources. The assessment is also often focussed on how you use information, not what you can remember. This means that in essays the quality of your argument is even more important than in closed book exams, whilst in short answer questions/problem questions, your ability to apply methods and concepts is what is being assessed.

See the resources below for ideas on how to prepare for using evidence in exams completed remotely.

Also see our dedicated Criticality page for more information on using evidence to construct arguments:

What does the exam question want me to do?

A crucial part of success in examinations is to understand what the question is asking you to do. Within each question there are instructions and there may be ideas, theories, concepts and details. To succeed you have to unpack the exam question to determine what is and is not required. 

The resources below provide advice and guidance on how to unpack and explore different types of exam questions. As with all sections of this guide, please find the specific guidance within your module and/or programme. This is generic guidance. 

Instruction words in examination questions tell you the sort of answer you need to give. List or explain? Summarise or compare? Define or evaulate? Be descriptive or critical?

The resources below explore what each instruction word is asking you to do. You can practice your ability to follow the instructions by completing past papers, where available. 

It is important to spend time dissecting and decoding examination questions, particularly those that require an essay-style answer. You need to be clear what exactly is being asked of you and what you need to include if you are to achieve high marks. 

The resources below are designed to offer support and guidance that is generic, to establish basic approaches that can be applied in all subject areas. But, it is very important that you check the guidance and advice in your department and in each specific module, to ensure that you are fulfilling what is expected by the particular exam you are sitting. 

A crucial element of success in all examinations is knowing how they are marked. There are a few simple things that you can do to familiarise yourself with the mark schemes and styles for your exams. 

  1. Find past examinations in your subject area, ideally with mark schemes. They may be in your module VLE, the Library exam archive, or in some other departmental repository. If you cannot find them, speak to your academic supervisor, module tutor or programme leader. 
  2. Attend all preparation lectures, workshops, seminars, labs, tutorial sessions and/or problem classes. Often hints and tips are given and you have the chance to learn what is required. 
  3. Ask people in higher years what they know about the exam. But, check that the exam has not changed for this year! A good source can be students that lead peer support classes, GTAs, or your assigned college and course buddies. 
  4. Ask your module tutors how the exams are assessed. Many will tell you anyway, but if not, do ask. The more you know about the marking, the better able you will be to provide what the examiner is looking for. 
  5. Ask for feedback when you have completed an exam or mock exam. It may be available and it can be really useful to see exactly where you gained marks and where you went wrong. 
  6. Talk through past papers with your fellow students. This can cause you to look more closely and ask more questions about what is required that you can then ask your tutors, or check support materials to find answers. 
  7. Don't assume that an new exam is the same as one you have already done. There may be similarities, but it is safer to assume each is unique and that you have to learn what is required. 

Concise writing

All examinations have a time limit. As a result, it is essential that you write concisely. This means writing using the minimum number of words required to convey the meaning required, at the level of detail that will gain maximum marks. This is a skill that requires practice. The resources below are designed to help you develop your ability to be concise. 

Other support for exam writing

The university has lots of guidance available in relation to examinations. The links below point to some web pages. Please also check your departmental handbooks, VLE sites and other information sources for information specific to your degree and modules.