How to effectively use reading time to do well in exams (1 Viewer)

Infntie

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Hi everyone, I wanted to offer some insight into how I used my reading time in exams when I sat the HSC (a long time ago!) :) My advice is geared towards the Sciences and Math but can be extended to other subjects.

When reading time is provided during an assessment, it is generally limited to 5 or 10 minutes. This is not a lot of time but if used correctly, it can substantially increase your chances of achieving a better mark. How? Read on.

Reading time should be used to familiarise yourself with the assessment. In the context of a written examination, reading time gives you the opportunity to perform an initial scan of the paper and in the process of doing so, identify the nature and difficulty of questions posed.

The purpose of identifying questions allows you to come up with a exam plan. As part of this, you should identify which questions you can do and which questions you can’t do based on the question's difficulty. The plan itself is simple.

[During reading time]
1. Skim over all questions during reading time.
2. Identify easy and hard questions.

[During exam time]
1. Skip (but think about) hard questions.
2. Attempt easy questions and secure easy marks.
3. Attempt hard questions.
4. Double-check answers.

Two key considerations form the foundation of this plan.

1. Subconscious (non-conscious) mind

The subconscious mind is a powerful tool. Psychologists generally agree that is does 'a lot of the heavy lifting in the process of thinking' (see 'Your Subconscious is smarter than you might think' (2015), BBC News). Personally, I have found that while I might struggle initially with a difficult question, if I move onto another question and then come back, a solution often presents itself to my conscious mind. That is the power of the subconscious.

While your conscious mind grapples with an easier question, your subconscious works on the harder question. Effective use of reading time allows this to happen because you are exposing difficult questions to your subconscious during reading time. The answer will then come to your conscious mind midway through exam time. If no answer presents itself, it is because your subconscious is not equipped with the knowledge to solve the problem. In other words, your understanding of the theory is incomplete or you are making an incorrect assumption.

2. Flow

Flow was coined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in 1975. It is 'a highly focused mental state conducive to productivity'. In other words, it is a state where you feel completely focused on the task in front of you. Still not sure what it is? Think about how focused you were the last time you crammed for an exam or rushed to submit an assignment due the next day ;)

As a student, you need to remain focused at all times throughout the exam and this is why entering a state of flow is critical to your success. Entering a state of flow is best achieved by completing all the easy questions first. This builds momentum, ensures you have secured the easy marks and have 'warmed up' your brain sufficiently to tackle the hard questions. This increases your chance of getting the hard questions right and maximising your final exam mark.

If you tackle the hard questions first, you will not be able to build momentum because your progress throughout the exam will be stop-start. You might have 5 minutes of clarity as you breeze through easy questions before hitting a brick wall. But with each brick wall, your momentum stops. Confidence takes a hit too. You might spend too long on the difficult question and are potentially giving up easy marks. And what if you start running out of time? Is it more likely your answers contain silly mistakes or insufficient detail? My point is, your mental state becomes muddled and distracted when there is no structure in how you approach an exam and you give hard and easy questions the same priority. This translates to a poorer exam performance.

Summary:

Reading time can be effectively used to improve your exam performance if you use it to identify easy and difficult questions. Identifying the questions allows you to come up with an exam plan that takes advantage of your subconsciousness and the state of flow to secure easy marks first and increase your chance of solving difficult questions.

Other tips:
i) Just because the hardest question of the exam is Q1 does not mean you need to do it first!
ii) When skimming over questions, do not trick yourself into thinking the question is the same just because you have seen something similar in a past paper. Teachers look at past papers too!


If you have any questions about studying in general or University life, please reach out to me! More than happy to answer your questions :)
 
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pikachu975

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Great post! Just wanted to add something on for english. I'm not 100% sure what the structure of the english HSC exam is now but if there are still unseen texts to read, those could be good to read during exam time. If not then read the essay questions and I guess plan how you can adapt your essay or points/themes to the questions!

Great use of scientific points in this post and I think they're true - especially skipping hard questions and coming back later. Your brain often finds out the solution even though it might seem weird as to why. Personally for maths I looked at the hard questions and tried to think of how to solve it. In specific for maths ext 1 I looked at the circle geometry question and got the proof for it. For 2u maths my teacher recommended doing the multiple choice in your head, but looking through the exam is a great technique too. In maths in specific I usually looked at which question looked the most fun and started there, so I could get momentum in the exam and not get stuck early which gives you stress - making the exam harder (in my opinion).
 

Salad Man

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Hi everyone, I wanted to offer some insight into how I used my reading time in exams when I sat the HSC (a long time ago!) :) My advice is geared towards the Sciences and Math but can be extended to other subjects.

When reading time is provided during an assessment, it is generally limited to 5 or 10 minutes. This is not a lot of time but if used correctly, it can substantially increase your chances of achieving a better mark. How? Read on.

Reading time should be used to familiarise yourself with the assessment. In the context of a written examination, reading time gives you the opportunity to perform an initial scan of the paper and in the process of doing so, identify the nature and difficulty of questions posed.

The purpose of identifying questions allows you to come up with a exam plan. As part of this, you should identify which questions you can do and which questions you can’t do based on the question's difficulty. The plan itself is simple.

[During reading time]
1. Skim over all questions during reading time.
2. Identify easy and hard questions.

[During exam time]
1. Skip (but think about) hard questions.
2. Attempt easy questions and secure easy marks.
3. Attempt hard questions.
4. Double-check answers.

Two key considerations form the foundation of this plan.

1. Subconscious (non-conscious) mind

The subconscious mind is a powerful tool. Psychologists generally agree that is does 'a lot of the heavy lifting in the process of thinking' (see 'Your Subconscious is smarter than you might think' (2015), BBC News). Personally, I have found that while I might struggle initially with a difficult question, if I move onto another question and then come back, a solution often presents itself to my conscious mind. That is the power of the subconscious.

While your conscious mind grapples with an easier question, your subconscious works on the harder question. Effective use of reading time allows this to happen because you are exposing difficult questions to your subconscious during reading time. The answer will then come to your conscious mind midway through exam time. If no answer presents itself, it is because your subconscious is not equipped with the knowledge to solve the problem. In other words, your understanding of the theory is incomplete or you are making an incorrect assumption.

2. Flow

Flow was coined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in 1975. It is 'a highly focused mental state conducive to productivity'. In other words, it is a state where you feel completely focused on the task in front of you. Still not sure what it is? Think about how focused you were the last time you crammed for an exam or rushed to submit an assignment due the next day ;)

As a student, you need to remain focused at all times throughout the exam and this is why entering a state of flow is critical to your success. Entering a state of flow is best achieved by completing all the easy questions first. This builds momentum, ensures you have secured the easy marks and have 'warmed up' your brain sufficiently to tackle the hard questions. This increases your chance of getting the hard questions right and maximising your final exam mark.

If you tackle the hard questions first, you will not be able to build momentum because your progress throughout the exam will be stop-start. You might have 5 minutes of clarity as you breeze through easy questions before hitting a brick wall. But with each brick wall, your momentum stops. Confidence takes a hit too. You might spend too long on the difficult question and are potentially giving up easy marks. And what if you start running out of time? Is it more likely your answers contain silly mistakes or insufficient detail? My point is, your mental state becomes muddled and distracted when there is no structure in how you approach an exam and you give hard and easy questions the same priority. This translates to a poorer exam performance.

Summary:

Reading time can be effectively used to improve your exam performance if you use it to identify easy and difficult questions. Identifying the questions allows you to come up with an exam plan that takes advantage of your subconsciousness and the state of flow to secure easy marks first and increase your chance of solving difficult questions.

Other tips:
i) Just because the hardest question of the exam is Q1 does not mean you need to do it first!
ii) When skimming over questions, do not trick yourself into thinking the question is the same just because you have seen something similar in a past paper. Teachers look at past papers too!


If you have any questions about studying in general or University life, please reach out to me! More than happy to answer your questions :)
If you've finished all the questions and have left some unanswered questions, would you use your left over time to double check and mitigate silly mistakes, or would you rather attempt unanswered questions?

Noting, these questions would overall be worth 5% of the overall mark of the test.
 

Potato Sticks

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Check the silly mistakes. If you’ve had a reasonable go at the unanswered questions, chances are you aren’t going to get them with 5 more minutes.
 

Infntie

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If you've finished all the questions and have left some unanswered questions, would you use your left over time to double check and mitigate silly mistakes, or would you rather attempt unanswered questions?

Noting, these questions would overall be worth 5% of the overall mark of the test.
For me personally, it depended on how much time I had left, the likelihood that I made silly mistakes and the difficulty of the unanswered questions. This list is non-exhaustive and I am sure contributors to this forum have their own metrics which I encourage them to share here. I have assumed that the student is familiar enough with the content being tested so that they do not have a disproportionate percentage of unanswered 'difficult' questions in the exam which would otherwise be resolved through proper study and revision.

As a general rule of thumb, I give difficult questions two passes in an exam and a maximum of three if I have more time (for reasons outlined in my previous post regarding the subconscious). The first pass occurs during reading time and the second pass occurs after answering all the easy questions. Whether this second pass precedes or follows double-checking depends on the factors first listed above.

Here are some examples of how you might approach this:

Time
Where you have ample time left ( > 30% exam time), I would first double check (securing easy marks) before using the stress as the end of the exam approaches as a boost to help tackle a difficult problem. If you are low on time, double check first and then answer the difficult question to the best of your ability to at least receive partial marks (which is better than zero for no response). Double checking primarily involves eliminating silly mistakes and secondarily, checking whether you have answered the question (and in enough detail).

Silly mistakes
These tend to be difficult to find/avoid unless you are paying attention while answering the question, consistently challenging your assumptions throughout the exam and/or knowing what to look for.

While rushing through the paper frees up time to double check at the end, it increases the chances of silly mistakes given the decreased time and attention given to each completed question. Therefore, a balance must be struck between speed and accuracy. Is it worth finishing the paper faster to have time to fix silly mistakes or having less silly mistakes to fix? The answer to this comes from your own experience. Some students are fast, others are methodical.

What catches students out more often (as alluded to at the end of my previous post) are the assumptions they make when they see a similar question they have done in a past paper. Just because the question appears the same does not mean it is the same. Read every word/letter carefully. Run your finger over the text. For example, Physics multiple choice questions often include diagrams. Excited at seeing the same chart with the same line and the same gradient appear in the exam, a student can easily fail to realise that the vertical axis of the chart is no longer measuring velocity (denoted by the letter 'v') but acceleration (denoted by the letter 'a'). The implications of this variation on the final answer are not inconsequential.

Furthermore, if you know your content, your answer should intuitively make sense. This comes from practice and more practice. Using a basic math example, if you integrate a quadratic and your answer is linear, without looking at the coefficients or other details of your answer, alarm bells should be ringing. Your experience with integration should immediately inform you that integration of a general quadratic produces a cubic. In addition, proper review of your school homework and assessments should help identify where and why you lose marks. Being cognisant of this will reduce the frequency silly mistakes in the actual exam e.g "I always forget to multiply my answer by -1 at this step so I need to be careful when doing this question".

Difficulty of questions
This one is straightforward. The harder the questions, the stronger the case for double-checking your answers to secure easy marks. Why spend 10 minutes struggling with a 2 marker (commonly found at the end of an exam paper) when you could pick up 4-5 (1 mark) silly mistakes in the same time?

Summary
The answer to your question is, it depends (on a few non-exhaustive factors). For me personally, the key factors were time, silly mistakes and difficulty of unanswered questions.

Hope this helps!

As an aside, I would also agree with the advice given by Potato Sticks under the circumstances they have described.
 

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