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Learning strategies and exam skills

Approaches to exams vary. Not all the advice you receive is necessarily good advice for you. Listen to what people say, then make up your own mind about what you are going to do.

Dates and venues

Exam dates will be published at the start of Easter Term. Not all the exams are held at the same venue, so be sure to make a note of where each exam will take place.

Get your notes in order

You must practise doing questions at the right speed so that you will be used to it when you sit the exam.

  • Get into the habit of looking at past examination questions relating to the topics being covered by current lectures, so that you relate what you are being told with what you may be asked about in examinations. Bear in mind that the Part II papers were reorganised for the year 2011–2012.
  • If necessary, produce short summaries of important facts and concepts compiled from a range of sources (e.g. textbooks, monographs [i.e. books confined to a single subject, and often dealing with a subject better than a multi-topic textbook], lecture notes and supervision notes). Avoid merely rewriting your notes!
  • Always revise actively. 'All revision involves self-expression' (Sir William Osler). Make sure you are actually doing something with the notes as you revise from them. Don't just sit and read through them hoping that the information will sink in.
  • Start work at the beginning of the vacation rather than the end. You will be much more productive while the material is fresh in your mind.


  • Remember that exams are a race against the clock. You must practise doing questions at the right speed so that you will be used to it when you sit the exam.
  • Practise past questions without your notes available. Don't consult your notes immediately before starting a question.
  • Revise a topic, then try an exam question on it. (You may like to try a question on a topic before revising the appropriate notes, and then try another one afterwards to see how effective your revision has been.)
  • Practise doing exam questions to time.
  • Practise writing legibly for three hours by hand!
  • In each major subject, do as much as possible (and that should be nearly all) of a complete paper to time not later than the start of the Easter Term.

If you become anxious or feel ill or stressed

  • Don't 'sit' on the problem. Talk about it. Don't allow a modest setback to develop into a full-blown crisis.
  • If you are unwell at any point during revision or the exam period, see your tutor, your College nurse and/or your doctor.
  • If something happens to you during Easter Term which you think will have a negative impact on your exam results, you should tell your tutor or director of studies as soon as possible as they may be able to put in an 'exam warning' for you. If you don't think your tutor would understand, talk to a supervisor, or another tutor in your College.
  • Talk to friends.
  • If you think you are entitled to any special arrangements for your exams (such as extra time, paper in an alternative format, taking exams in College), remember to see your tutor as soon as possible so that the arrangements can be made.
  • Try to set up a programme of steady work interspersed with appropriate social and recreational activities. If you keep up steady progress with your work then you are unlikely to fail.

The week before the exams

  • Sleep, eat and drink sensibly.
  • Keep doing exam questions to time to break up your revision schedule and show which areas need most work.
  • Don't worry. Remember it's all comparative: if you find it difficult then lots of people will find it much worse.
  • Keep plodding on. Try not to succumb to anxiety.
  • Make a strict division between work and relaxation. Work hard when you work, completely relax when you relax.
  • Make sure that your alarm clock is in good working order.

The exam itself

  • Arrive 15 to 20 minutes before the start of the exam.
  • Read the rubric very carefully.
  • Read the question carefully. Answer the question. Don't massacre the meaning of a carefully worded question by treating it as 'Write everything you know about...'
  • Use the first paragraph of an essay to indicate how you intend to tackle the question.
  • Write clearly.
  • Do first the questions that you think you'll find easiest.
  • Attempt the number of questions required. Half the questions means a maximum of half the marks!
  • Plan your time and don't spend too long on any one question.
  • Always start a new question on a new sheet of paper because (a) that is what you are instructed to do, and (b) if you have an afterthought about an answer to a question, you can easily add it.
  • Take time after the end of the exam to put together your script.
  • Follow the instructions at the top of the exam paper very carefully, e.g. make sure that the right pages are included (and excluded), tie up questions in numerical order, tie up sections (or questions) individually (according to instructions).
  • Generally aim to make life pleasant for the people marking your paper; they may reward your efforts!