Running the Gauntlet: Mastering your short answer exam

Not quite multiple choice, not quite an essay, but somewhere in-between. Master the middle ground with these tips…By Charles Hand.

Short answer questions (SAQs) require precise yet informative pieces of information to direct questions. This style of exam distributes marks over many of questions; so it’s not the end of the world if you don’t know an answer. If you do get stuck, do as any student does in a tight spot: give it your best blag!

Revision and preparation:

  • Find out what you need to know. Look at the specific learning objectives for your course. This will ensure you know exactly what to revise and won’t waste precious time.
  • Use flashcards and summary documents. As you revise, build a mental bank of buzzwords and make sure you know your definitions, dates and lists. This will help you learn the key facts, as you will often only need a few words to answer each question.
  • Practice answering in SAQ style. Find some past papers and example questions to get into the right frame of mind. For essay questions you may memorise entire answers, but here the name of the game is precise memory recall.

In the exam:

  • Check the number of marks. If the question awards 2 marks, make sure you have two distinct points down!
  • Never leave a question blank. SAQs can be answered so quickly that it’s always worth putting something down. If you really don’t know, mark the page and come back to it; you may find a clue or something that jogs your memory later in the paper.
  • Make a quick plan. If the question says “Describe how…” rather than “List the 5…” you will need to write a little more than usual. On this longer type of question, making a mini plan will help you get the key points across and save yourself time and space.
  • Don’t write everything you know about the topic. Work out exactly what the question is asking and address that specifically. You won’t have time or space to waffle. Remember: there are no marks for the right answer to the wrong question!

Exams of any kind can be daunting; we all have to go through them and know just how you feel! Good luck running the gauntlet and if you have any tips for your fellow short answer exam-sitters then please, help us all out and post them below.

Image: The U.S. Army/ Timothy L. Hale/CC-BY 2.0

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