Different types of exams

Exams can take a variety of forms. Often lecturers use a combination of these forms in a single exam paper. For example, one three hour exam might have a third of its marks devoted to multiple choice type questions, one third to short answer type questions, and one third to essay based questions.

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This means that the answer to the question must be chosen from a range of possible answers, given to you as part of the question. You will be asked to choose the answer that you think best fits the question. Be sure to read your instructions to candidates section carefully.

For example:

Question - Which is the capital of Sweden?

  1. Gdansk
  2. Stockholm
  3. Helsinki
  4. Helsingborg
  5. Volvo

You would usually be required to indicate the correct answer by writing your answer as (a), (b), (c), (d), or (e) in your examination book. Some examiners might require you to write the correct answer in full, rather than just give the appropriate letter. Other examiners might require that you circle an answer (or tick the appropriate answer box as indicated) on the question sheet and then hand that sheet up to be marked.

In a web-based examination format you would be asked to click on the appropriate answer. Or on the button next to the correct answer.

Questions in a true/false examination question require you to indicate whether a particular statement is true of false.

For example: Consider the following statements. Indicate whether they are true or false.

  1. Lobsters have blue blood (True / False)
  2. Isaac Newton discovered gravity (True / False)
  3. A neutrino is an elementary particle (True / False)
  4. Entropy is a tropical disease (True / False)

In an exam you would either ring the correct answer or cross out the incorrect answer if the question sheet had to be handed in. Alternatively, you might be required to write the answer in your examination answer book. In a web-based exam you would be required to click on the answer that you think is correct or on the button next to the correct answer.

Be sure to read your instructions to candidates section carefully.

The length of a short answer is quite flexible. It could range from one word, to a phrase, to a sentence or to a paragraph.

Whatever the required format of the short answer, you will almost certainly be tested on memory (i.e. your ability to recall specific information) rather than interpretation. The examiner will be expecting you to produce discrete pieces of information.

Only in a paragraph length answer might any significant interpretation be required, but even then the limitations of space should guide you as to how much detail is required. If in doubt, re-read your exam instructions.

Short answers, as well as multiple choice and true/false examination questions, usually emphasise central issues within the subject. In revising for an exam that uses one or more of these three forms, it is advisable to focus on identifying the main points, and how they might relate to each other.

Essay answers in exams differ from those done during the semester in two respects:

  • You are not expected to provide much referencing.
  • You do not need to provide a bibliography/reference list.

If you can make some knowledgeable references to key texts for your subject then so much the better. You will be expected to write an essay that:

  • Answers the question
  • Has an introduction, body, and conclusion
  • Is logically and thematically structured.


Usually, exam essays will require you to explore the major themes of your subject. The lecture topics and (especially) the tutorial topics will give you a reasonable, but not foolproof, guide to the main issues. In particular, the tutorial questions offer some idea of how exam questions might be structured. You can also look at past exam papers to get some idea of both the structure and content of questions asked in the past.

Identify likely topics and questions

Practise writing up plans for each question. This plan should set out major headings and a basic outline of the main ideas that you would include under each.


You could also practise writing an essay answer in a set time limit for at least one or two of these. To determine how long your practice time limit should be, you will need to know some background details of the exam.

  • Length of the exam (i.e. one, two, or three hours)
  • Number of essay answers required
  • Value of essay answers as a proportion of the total exam mark
  • Value of each essay as a proportion of the total marks for the essay section.


Example 1

• Suppose the exam:

  • is a three-hour exam
  • requires four essay answers
  • that the essays are 100 per cent of the total exam mark
  • and that each essay answer carries an equal marks value

Therefore, each essay will take up 25 per cent of the total marks and total exam time. If you have to do four questions in 180 minutes (i.e. three hours), you will have approximately forty-five minutes per question. For practice purposes, work on a time span of forty minutes. In an exam situation this will allow you some extra time for planning and re-reading your answer.

Example 2

• Suppose the exam:

  • is three hours long
  • is divided into two parts
    • Part I consists of multiple choice questions worth 40 per cent of the total
    • Part II consists of essay questions worth 60 percent
      • Part II requires you to do three essays
      • One essay is worth 40 per cent and the other two are worth 30 percent of the marks for Part II

Again, 60 per cent of the exam time (i.e. 108 minutes) will need to be used for the essays. However, one essay needs 40 per cent of the total essay time of 108 minutes. Thus this essay will need about 43 minutes. The other two each need 30 per cent of the remaining essay time of 65 minutes. This means that they each need about 32 minutes. Again, for practice purposes, you should reduce the time for each essay by five minutes so that in the exam situation you will have an extra five minutes per question available for planning, re-reading and so on.

Practical exams in science disciplines aim to examine your ability to perform specific tasks in which you apply your knowledge of the subject to solving specific practical problems or performing specific tasks.

The best way to prepare is to practice what you will be required to do in the exam.

Work through the various laboratory exercises that you did during the semester

  • Think about what each laboratory exercise was trying to achieve.
  • Link the aims of the experiments up with the appropriate topic for your subject.
  • Try to reconstruct in your mind your physical movements when doing the experiment.
  • Re-familiarise yourself with the various pieces of equipment that you used, especially their technical names.

Remember, in a practical exam, the examiners are trying to find out what you know by examining how you apply your understanding of the subject matter to the problems posed in the exam.

An open book exam means that you can take your notes, specified books and other references into the exam room. This will probably vary with the subject and the lecturer concerned.

Open book exams can be a trap because you might think that you do not need to concentrate on revising the subject to the same extent as a closed book exam. WRONG!

There are three main areas that your preparation must encompass:

  • Prepare properly
    You must prepare as if you were sitting a closed book exam.
  • Know your subject
    If you do not know your subject matter when you are actually doing the exam, the notes and books that you take in with you will be of little help.
  • Making revision notes
    • Make sure that the notes you prepare for your exams are:
      • concise
      • easily understood, and
      • easily accessed in the exam.
    • Know your books
      Know your way around the relevant textbooks:
      • identify the appropriate sections so that you can access them during the exam without having to search the text.
      • identify key arguments. Provided the text books belong to you, this can be done using coloured highlighter pens, sticky paper notes, or, if necessary, brief annotations.

Examinations in mathematics, physics, accounting, economics, and similar sorts of subjects commonly use this format of question.

The key to success here is to have a thorough understanding of the theories and concepts that give rise to the various formulae that you need to use. The best way to do this is to work through lots of problems similar to the sorts of ones that you are likely to get in the exam.

Work through each problem step by step. If you end up with a wrong final answer, go back over the steps that it took to solve the problem. Work your way forward until you isolate the wrong move.

One of the hardest aspects of problem solving is to determine what the question is asking you to do. Practice with as many questions as you can find so that you can improve your ability to decode the questions.

In an oral examination, the questions are delivered and answered on a face to face basis. In most undergraduate areas, except for languages and medicine, oral examinations are fairly rare.

Revising for an oral examination will require you to do much the same sort of preparation as for objective, short answer, and essay modes of examination.

Give some thought to the likely aims of an oral exam within the context of your subject. Your lecturer or tutor will be able to give you some subject specific advice about how to proceed.

In most cases, the exam will be looking to assess your understanding of the subject matter, especially vocabulary (if a language), key ideas, your ability to verbalise and explain your thought processes, and so on.

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