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Exam Questions: Understanding the Different Types

Most exams are generally made up of different question types. Before starting to study for an exam, try to establish what genre of questions you can expect. Check all course and exam materials. Consult your tutor or lecturer if anything is not clear.   

This article provides some useful tips on studying for an exam and how to approach the most common question types.


Answering Computational or Problem-Type Questions

Questions in these categories involve solving problems with the use of calculations.

If you are studying or preparing to answer computational or problem-style questions, you should:

  • Familiarize yourself with the terminology, theories, vocabulary and any applicable formulas. Additionally you should know when and how to apply the latter.
  • Try and get some previous exam papers to use for practice or you may find something in your course notes, texts, materials, and so on.
  • Try answering questions of this type in their entirety and in the same manner as you would in an exam situation.  

Answering Essay Questions

The answers to essay questions should be structured in a similar manner to any essay or scholarly report. These answers can range in length from a few short paragraphs to several pages. Reference lists will not be needed, but all sources should be acknowledged. The allocation of marks is often an indication of how long the essay should be.

If you are studying or preparing to answer essay-type questions, you should:

  • Look at previous exam papers, revision-style questions, or already-graded assignments to try to work out what questions you might get. However, you should make sure there have been no changes to the format or content of a particular style of exam.
  • Try to write some model or ‘practice’ answers.
  • Try practicing. For instance, you could try writing different answers as though you were in an exam situation. This involves developing an answer plan and getting your thoughts onto paper at exam speed.  

Things to remember when you are answering essay-type questions in an actual exam:

  • Firstly, read and analyze every question in a meticulous manner until you are certain you understand the requirements.
  • Do a little brainstorming to generate ideas and create an answer plan. You may find mind mapping or similar techniques helpful for this step.
  • Write down a few keywords/phrases. Say, for instance, there are four or five key points to your answer. Make a note of these with a few keywords for every point.
  • Your answer should begin with a brief rephrasing (in your own words) of the question.
  • Every main point, topic or idea should be given a new paragraph. Every point should be supported with reasoning, examples and/or tangible results.
  • Leave some space (a couple of lines) between paragraphs because you may wish to add more or new information later.   

With essay questions/answers, it is essential to remain within the time allocated to you. An excessive amount of time on one question can leave you short of time for subsequent questions. If you find yourself short of time, write down some key ideas and words to let the examiner know the direction you were going in. This may earn you a few extra marks.

Additionally, leave plenty margin space for the exam marker. Try to make your writing as neat as possible and do your best to do some proofreading as you proceed.

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Answering Multiple-Choice Type Questions

A multiple-choice question is made up of the first part of a sentence – known as the stem – or a full question and several (generally three to five) answer options. Those taking the test or exam are then required to select the answer they know or believe to be correct from the list of options. The allocation of marks indicates the amount of time you should devote to individual questions. 

If you are studying or preparing to answer multiple-choice questions, you should focus on:

  • Names
  • Factual details
  • Terminology
  • Theories and concepts, and any examples that underpin them
  • Likenesses and differences.

Things to remember when you are answering multiple-choice questions in an actual exam:

  • Before answering any questions, read quickly through all of them and the answer options.
  • Mark out any questions you are unsure of so that you can return to them if time permits.
  • Answer those questions you are confident about first.
  • After that try the other questions. Begin by marking off those answers you know to be incorrect.
  • It is a good idea to look out for negative options in questions e.g. “which of the following are not …?”
  • Do not change first answers unless you are sure. First instincts are usually correct.
  • Stay within the time allowed to you. If time runs out and you have not answered some questions, leave them or take a guess at them.

If possible, all questions should be answered even if some answers are guesswork. You just might be correct if you select an option. In some cases, however, you can lose marks for incorrect answers so be sure you understand the instructions before beginning.

Answering with Short Answer Type Questions

As the name suggests, these types of questions require relatively short answers, ranging from a few well-chosen words to one or two paragraphs. The allocation of marks is often an indication of how long the answer should be.

If you are studying or preparing to answer short answer exam questions, you should focus on:

  • Names
  • Factual details
  • Terminology
  • Theories and concepts, and any examples that underpin them
  • Likenesses and differences.

Things to remember when you are dealing with short answer questions in an actual exam:

  • Answers should be planned before writing commences.
  • Answers should be brief. Questions should not be rewritten and there is no need to provide more details than the requested amount. Time may run out and you will not earn any additional marks.
  • Do your best to answer all questions.
  • Highlight those questions you are not sure about and return to them if time allows at the end.

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You may find it useful:

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