Tips on how to tackle examination questions

Tips on how to tackle examination questions:

  • Read carefully and understand the question before you write anything. Always make sure you know exactly what the question is asking. I have seen a lot of students giving "advantages of doing something" when yet the question is asking about the "advantages of not doing something" usually due to the fact of accidentally skipping the "not" in the question.
  • Take careful note of the command phrases used in the question. For example, "explain", "define", "list", "state", "derive" and "describe" all mean different things and are answered differently.
  • Always attempt the maximum number of questions specified even if you cannot answer them fully. If you only answer four questions when you should answer five you reduce your maximum mark to 80%.
  • Do not spend too much time on any one question. However, do not miss out the last parts of an easy question trying to rush on and finish the paper.
  • Present your work neatly and clearly. Examiners are human and they are more likely to follow your work properly if it is well set out and easy to follow.

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Mathematics examination questions involving calculations

Usually, examination boards give instructions on the question paper on how to deal with questions involving calculations. So make sure you read the instructions carefully before answering the questions. For example, Zimsec exams used to have a non-calculator version for each O level Mathematics examination session with instructions as shown below:

Tips on how to tackle examination questions

Show working in your calculations

The instructions I am mostly concerned about there are:

  • All working must be clearly shown.
  • It should be done on the same sheet as the rest of the answer.
  • Omission of essential working with result in loss of marks.

Well, its clear as day, you will not obtain full marks for a calculation unless you clearly show how you got the answer and the working should also be on the same sheet as the rest of the answer. You start by stating the formula or principle involved involved in your working and then show the steps by which you arrive at the answer.


Respect the degree of accuracy in your answers

After calculating what you have been asked to calculate you will arrive at your answer. Now comes the issue of the degree of accuracy of the answers. In mathematics, if an answer is not exact and the degree of accuracy is not stated by the question, the number should be given to three significant figures or 1 decimal place if its an angle. However the instruction on the question overrides the instruction on the cover.

In short, if there is an instruction on the question, use that and if there isn’t, use the instruction on the cover.

Make sure the answer is mathematically reasonable

After every calculation, always check your answer to ensure that it is mathematically reasonable. Mathematically unreasonable answers are answers like:

  • height of a person = 3m
  • probability of an event happening = 1.2
  • volume of a sphere = -1.3 m3

Such answers should give you red flags because the values are mathematically impossible. If you get such an unreasonable answer, go through the question again and try to discover where you have made a mistake.

Multiple choice examination questions

Multiple choice

An example of multiple choice questions

Many subjects provide a multiple choice examination paper. Usually in multiple choice exams all questions have to be answered,so do not waste valuable time reading through the paper before you start. Always start at question 1 which is usually a confidence booster question and work steadily through the paper.

Don’t waste time on questions which you find to be tough

If you come across a tough question which will likely take your valuable time, skip it and attempt it at the end. This is because if you waste a lot of time on questions which you don’t find particularly easy, you may find yourself running of time for potentially easier questions at the end of the paper.


Try to answers the question without looking at the options

Though multiple choice questions have options, it is very helpful to try to answer the question without first looking at the response options. This reduces the chance of "jumping to the wrong conclusions".

Check whether the options you left out are actually wrong

If you find a response you think is correct, check the other responses to see why they are wrong. This is because some responses appear correct until you see another response which is "more correct".

If you are not sure, eliminate

If you are not sure about which response is the correct answer, try to eliminate the wrong answers until you are left with the one that seems correct.

If you have to alter an answer, ensure that the
previous one has been completely rubbed out. Only
one answer for each question must appear on the
answer sheet.

If you run out of time, guess

If you run out of time and you still have not answered all the questions, rush through the rest of the question by guessing, if necessary. Examination boards do not deduct marks for wrong answers so make sure you leave no unanswered questions.


Structured questions

Structured Questions

Examples of structured questions

In structured questions a space is left for the answer to be written on the question paper. The size of the space left, and the number of marks indicated by the question should be a guide as to the length of answer that is required. However, this doesn’t mean that if you don’t fill all the space up you haven’t answered the question correctly. It is just a guideline. For example, if seven lines are
left for the answer but you have answered on one line, then you most probably have left out a lot of things.

Free response questions

Free response questions

Examples of free response questions

Free response questions are usually met in the optional parts of the exam papers. They are answered on a separate answer sheet. If you are asked to describe an experiment or a process, you must draw a diagram of the apparatus or flow diagram to save time, as information shown on the diagram need not be repeated in words. The marks at the end of the question should act as a guide to the length of answer required.


Sydney Chako

Mathematics, Chemistry and Physics teacher at Sytech Learning Academy. From Junior Secondary School to Tertiary Level Engineering Mathematics and Engineering Science.

1 Comment

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