Understanding Examinations

Understanding examinations


Getting inside the examiner’s head : be clear what YOUR examiner might be looking for.

It is essential to believe that examiners are not normally setting out to trick you. Their aim is to design questions to enable you to demonstrate your knowledge of the subject and ability to write about it. They want to see if you have understood the questions you attempt, can include relevant information, and have a grasp of the subject. Ideally their questions should allow able candidates to show their ability whilst those who should earn a bare pass can still answer at their own level.

NB Examiners are human too! Do you picture your examiner groaning over every mistake you make? Is your image of them as a hawk or a judge? Let yourself off the hook. Most examiners mark a lot of scripts, very quickly, looking for ways to give you marks according to the marking scheme. See them as human beings: You probably will know at least some of them. They need all the help you can give them through legible writing , short sentences, and clear layout so they can notice every mark you have earned.



Ways to find out what examiners or supervisors are looking for include:

– Ask a supervisor directly

– Read the syllabus: They are not always clearly written, but it is worth studying them as they should tell you:

a) The aims of your course of study. Usually they also list the objectives which detail what you should be able to do on completion of the course.

b) The structure of the examination:

° How many papers there will be?

° What % of marks does each paper carry?

° Must you pass all papers?

° What sort of questions there will be?

° What is important in each paper: how are marks are allocated?

° How does the content of the papers relate to the syllabus.?

c) The detailed content of the syllabus

– Check assessment criteria if the course produces these

– Look at old exam papers, or papers specially written for a new course to give you a sense of the way the exam will be set out

– Check examiners reports. These summarise the overall pattern of work by candidates doing the exam, and usually identify the most common ways candidates have lost marks.

which are very helpful summaries of common faults and difficulties. They may list which questions were best answered, and common misunderstandings or failures.



Marking schemes constitute the rules examiners apply to determine what marks can be awarded . The syllabus will give you a general idea of the kind of things you can gain marks for, and if there is anything you will lose marks for.

Your supervisor should help you by marking your course work in a way which shows how you could earn more marks. If this is not happening, ask your DoS what you might do about it.


Examinations should encourage you to focus your energy on gaining the maximum marks you can for each question in the time you have available. It is a bit like playing scrabble competitively: You go for the high score, rather than being tempted to put a satisfyingly unusual word down which scores less points!


The following list includes items examiners might ( and have) put in their reports of the ways students can lose marks.

1 Failing to answer the question.

2 Failing to recognise the meaning of terms used with specialist or technical meanings which are seen as ‘key’ to the understanding of the course material, or to demonstrate your understanding of them by defining them.

3 Failing to write your answer in the form required: eg if you are asked to make a case for or against something, the examiner will give you few points if you put down what you know about it but do not say what your position is on it.

4 Failing to use the course material as evidence in your answer.

5 Failing to use the course material discriminatingly by selecting the most relevant ideas for the question you are asked to answer.

6 Failing to put equal time aside for each question, so that later ones are scrappy or non-existent.

7 Failing to follow the exam paper’s instructions about how many or which questions to answer.

8 Illegible handwriting ( Not always penalised, though it usually makes examiners extremely grumpy!)

9 Failing to check for very obvious mistakes , such as very simple mathematical errors or historical dates in completely the wrong century.

a) Which do you think you may have to watch out for? Can you do a mock exam to get feedback from a supervisor under these headings?

b) Can you get hold of an examiner’s report for your course to see which are the most common failings?

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