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The Geography Sited
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The Exams: Preparing for them, and surviving them


I'm assuming that you will have revised well and by the day of your geography exam(s) you know as much as you are going to know. Of course, whether or not you know the answers to the questions is important to your success, but there is more to exam success than knowing the subject.

It's unfortunate, but true, that a person who knows enough to get an A grade can easily fail an exam. Likewise, a person with a poor and patchy knowledge of geography, but who is lucky enough to get the right questions, can get a good grade.

In short, passing an exam requires more than just a good knowledge of geography. Exam success comes from exam preparation and technique, as well as thorough revision. Unless you can effectively convey your knowledge and understanding to the examiners they have no way to discover how well you know the topic.

To help you get the best grades, we are going to break down the process and look at the key areas where planning and practice can greatly increase your chances of doing well.

We will look first at what an exam actually is (not as obvious as you may think)

Next we suggest ways to prepare before the exam, and explain how doing a few simple things will improve your performance on the day.

Then we will cover the exam itself - how to begin it, work through the questions, survive sudden and unexpected disasters, check your answers and finish off with confidence.

Finally, we will cover that horrible period after the exam, where everyone else seems to have given a different answer and you start to panic!


So, here we go ...


What is an exam?

Most exams consist of a written paper from which you select a number of questions, and then write an answer for each question. There are other types too, such as multiple choice (or multiple guess if you didn't revise), oral exams such as the speaking exams for modern languages, and course work, but most geography students will be facing the first type - the written paper.

You will have seen a written paper when you sat your mocks, or if you've not yet sat them, you can ask your teachers for copies of past papers or sample questions. It's a good idea to be familiar with the layout of the exam before you have to do it for real.

The exam is more than a few questions: it's also a test of your common sense, your ability to read and interpret accurately, to communicate well, to spell, to use correct grammar, to plan ahead, allocate time to different activities, and to stay alert for perhaps two hours or more.

Only when all the different skills work together do you stand the best chance of getting a good grade.

So, remember (because it's very important!) that any exam is much more than a 'repeat what I've learnt' exercise. Don't worry though, because just as you revise to increase your knowledge of the facts, so all the other required exam skills can also be practiced, improved and perfected before you even enter the exam hall.


Prepare before the exam

I'm assuming you've done your revision already, and I'm going to concentrate on the other things you need to do during the few days before the exam.

1. Know the date and exact time of every exam. Only one thing feels worse than totally forgetting/ missing an exam, and that is discovering you are about to go into an exam for which you've neither revised nor prepared! Create a good big exam timetable and stick it on a wall at home. Put a smaller copy in your school folder / planner / diary or whatever you use. Check the times and dates with a teacher or several friends. Sort out any doubts or confusions EARLY ON, not the day before the exam!

2. Know the location of each exam.Be sure you know the route you will use to get to it. Often the exams will be held in the school hall, or a gym, large classroom or sports hall. Know which room you need, and if you aren't sure how to get to the right room, check out the route before hand. Some halls have more than one entrance - do you know which door you have to use on the day?

Occasionally an exam may be held in a building away from your school, for example two schools may work together to run an exam at an especially busy time, or when there are only a few students from each school being examined in that subject. If this applies to you, find out how you get to the other site. Do you make your own way there or does school provide transport? Do you need to sign out from school, or sign in at the other place, etc? You don't want the hassle and panic of working this out an hour before the exam starts!

3. Know what you need for the exam. There are obvious things like pens, pencils, an eraser and a rule, but you may need additional things too. Is a calculator allowed / needed, will you need coloured pencils, spare pens, a protractor, text books or spare ink cartridges and blotting paper? What sort of pencil case are you allowed to take into the exam? Most exam boards allow pencil cases, but they often only allow transparent ones. Make sure you get one well in advance, or use a clear plastic bag instead. As a general rule, if you need a pen and a pencil, take two of each in case of accidents. A good tip, unless you suck/chew pencils, is to sharpen both ends. That way you double the available writing ends! For map work you can even pre-blunt one end for shading and keep the other end sharp for drawing lines.

4. Decide what else you need in the exam. Think about medication, such as asthma inhalers, throat lozenges, and other prescribed tablets you may need to take at set times of the day. Can you swallow tablets on their own or will you need a bottle of water as well? Even if you don't have a cold, there is a weird medical condition known to teachers as examination dribble. It's amazing how many people get the sneezes or a dribbling and runny nose during an exam.

Have some tissues (loo paper makes a good last minute substitute) in a pocket just in case. Some exams will allow sweets - some won't, so it's best to check first. Any exam involving chemicals will almost certainly ban food.

Choose sweets that you can suck on quietly and always avoid noisy wrappers, gum, very smelly sweets and things that make a mess. You may also be allowed the healthier alternative of taking some fruit into the exam, but ask first. It's very unlikely that you will be allowed to take oranges - because of the smell - and remember that crunching your way through a crisp apple may distract other students and get you into trouble too! Bananas are good - quiet, not smelly, easily unwrapped and very good for you too.

5. Know what to wear. Schools vary on this. Some expect full school uniform, some allow you to wear your own clothing, and others make little concessions such as allowing more comfortable footwear like slippers, but still expect you to wear your uniform with them. It's a strange sight seeing a hall full of people in uniform wearing big fluffy slippers! The only way to know what your school will allow is to ask a teacher beforehand.

If you get any choice in what to wear, you should consider two things; temperature and comfort. Halls with lots of glass will get hot on a sunny day, so thin layers that you can remove without embarrassing yourself are a good idea. Likewise, if it's going to be cold, dress to keep warm, but avoid long floppy sleeves that will get in the way when you write.

There is plenty of research to show that wearing a tie, apart from being rather pointless, can also reduce your mental performance. If you are forced to wear a tie, make it as loose as you can during the exam, and undo a top button. You want to avoid tight and restricting things round your neck if you can because they can be uncomfortable and distracting, as well as restricting blood flow to the brain. If school has a strict tie policy, remember to put it back on / do it up when you leave the exam hall.

Comfort is important too, because you will spend a long time sitting down in the same place. Loose fitting clothing is best because you sweat less, it doesn't rub or stick to you, and it keeps you cool.

6. Relax before it starts Don't go into an exam feeling stressed, worried or distracted. I know that's easier for me to write than it is for you to achieve it, but it really will help your performance if you are cool, calm and collected.

Whether or not to revise the night before an exam is a popular question. Generally it's best not to revise the night before the exam, but to spend the time relaxing and getting a good night's sleep. That does assume, of course, that you've finished your revision and you want to take the night off. If you honestly want to revise the night before an exam, and you know you will just worry and worry if you don't, then it's OK to revise. Otherwise, try to take it easy. The theory is that you are unlikely to learn much more just before the exam if you've already been revising for months, so you should just relax, get your things ready, and have an early night.

Get everything ready the night before the exam so you don't get flustered at breakfast time when you realise your little sister has broken your pencils and pinched the batteries out of your calculator to power her mp3 player!

Get your clothing ready too - if you can wear your own stuff and you have something in mind, make sure it's washed and ready - you don't want to waste time changing your fashion plans first thing in the morning.

Have a good breakfast, and be up early enough to enjoy it. Exam day is not the day for a slice of toast eaten on your way to the bus stop. Days that involve thinking require good nutrition. Your brain will be active all day, and active brains need food. Don't kid yourself that you don't need food - even if you are nervous, force something down. Have a warm drink too - but remember that anything you drink will eventually need to come back out again. Drinking loads of coffee to make you alert may just make you wide awake in the toilets a few hours later!

Arrive at school early or on time - don't get there late. If you get there late you may miss important announcements such as room changes. Also, you will have to fight your way through loads of other people to get to the exam room, and face that terrible experience of everyone else looking up as you burst into the room and try to find your seat! Arriving early also allows you time for a trip to the loo, a chat with friends, another trip to the loo and a chance to make sure you have everything you need.

With the knowledge that you are on time, in the right place, well prepared and full of energy, you can go into the exam with confidence and, dare I say it, even a little enthusiasm. At least you will know that you have done everything you can to make it a painless experience.


The Exam

This is what it's all been leading to, the exam that marks the end of your studies. In a period of two hours or so, you need to convince the examiners that you have a good understanding of the topic and can explain your knowledge using the appropriate terminology and theories.

To achieve this you need more than just geographical knowledge. You must know the exam rules, understand the questions and give answers that show that you know what you are talking about - and do all that within the specified time limits.

1. Know the rules. Every exam comes with rules, or instructions. It's up to you to know what they are. A teacher will explain many of them to you before the exam begins, so listen to what is said. Some of the rules will also be printed at the start of the exam paper. These will include the time allowed for completing the exam, the number of questions you must answer overall, and how many questions to answer from each section of the paper. If you listen to the instructions, and read them again at the start of the exam you will be off to a good start.

Other rules to listen out for are the local ones such as what to do if you need the loo, a drink, more paper or other help, and what to do if you are feeling ill and so on. Usually this means nothing more complicated than putting your hand up and waiting for a teacher to notice you.

Rules covering what you can and cannot have in the exam room are vital to check and follow. If you've been revising and still have notes in your pocket you might be disqualified from the exam even if you never looked at them. Avoid disasters like that by knowing and following the rules.

2. Get off to a good start. There will be a short period of time between arriving at your seat and the start of the exam. Use this time productively to lay out your pens and pencils, and make sure you have everything you need, ready to use. Get comfortable too. If your chair has one short leg, or your tale wobbles, ask a teacher for help NOW. Don't wait for the exam to start before to trying to fix things.

If you don't have a watch, and you can't see the clock at the front of the room, tell a teacher. You will need to see some sort of clock so you can devote the right amount of time to each question and not run out of time at the end of the exam.

Break the seal on bottles of water, open tubes of mints or sweets, loosen your tie if you are wearing one, and add / remove layers of clothing so you feel comfortable and not too warm.

3. Read the Paper. A teacher will tell you when you can begin the exam. Usually you are forbidden from reading the paper before the exam starts, and trying to do so will get you thrown out, so don't do it!

As soon as the exam begins there is a temptation to turn over the paper and start writing. Resist! The first thing to do is to read the front page. Check it's the right paper- its rare to get the wrong one, but it does sometimes happen. Read the instructions and make sure you understand what to do. If you're not sure how many questions you must answer, or how many to answer from each section, put up a hand and ask for clarification. Teachers can't give you answers to the questions, but they can explain things you don't understand.

4. Read all the questions. Each section will have questions covering a particular part of the curriculum, but the actual questions will cover different topics. For example, one question may ask how glaciers erode their valleys, whilst another may concentrate on how rivers erode their valleys. It's up to you to decide which one you can best answer. Even if the first question looks like an easy one, read the others too. It's possible that an even better one is lurking on page two! Don't be worried that you are wasting time by reading through the paper. Choosing wisely at the start will allow you to show off your best knowledge and write with confidence. You will spend less time staring into space and looking into the murky corners of your brain if you pick a question where you know the answer well. That means that picking the best question works on two levels; you know more about it and you waste less time trying to think of something to write.

5.Understand the questions. Reading them and understanding them is not always the same. Make sure that you carefully read the question and discover what is being asked of you. Look for words like how, why, where, what and when. If the question asks 'how' it doesn't mean 'why'. Check also for details like features and locations. If you're asked for a UK case study, you will lose marks if you write about a French one. Likewise, if the theme of the question is rivers, resist the temptation to write about lakes or swamps unless they are directly relevant to the rivers. Look for command words such as describe, contrast, compare and explain, then make sure that your answer does what has been asked.

6. Allocate time. You have a fixed time in which to complete all the questions. If you have to answer 4 questions in 2 hours, that's about 10 minutes to read the questions and make some notes, 25 minutes for each answer, and 10 minutes to read through and check your answers at the end. Don't fall into the trap of starting with a nice question and writing and writing and writing until you run out of time.

7.Answer the right number of questions. An exam with four questions means that each question will probably carry a quarter of the marks. A fantastic and really amazing answer to just one question can't get you more than twenty five percent of the marks for that exam, where as four average answers could get you sixty percent or more.

If you know more about some topics than about others you may choose to give more time to the ones you know well, but don't forget that every question carries marks.

Exam papers usually show the number of marks available for each question. It's relatively easy to get the first few marks for each question and it becomes harder and harder to get the additional marks as you approach the perfect answer. So, again, it makes sense to attempt answers to all the questions rather than use the time trying for perfect answers to just one or two.

8.Think, then write. Don't just plough in and write without a little planning first. Even if you know the answer, spend a few minutes jotting down the key things you want to say. List the key points, things you want to add if you have the time, case studies you can mention, and diagrams you may want to use. This serves two purposes. Firstly it helps you to sort out your thoughts. Secondly, if you run out of time you may still get marks for the things mentioned in the notes.

9.Write clearly and Logically. Don't waffle and try to fill space for the sake of it. With the aid of your notes, write clear sentences in a well structured answer. Follow a logical sequence of events, but don't panic if you forget something. You can always find a way to add it in later on. If you can't think of anything else to say, STOP. Go on to another question and come back to the tricky one later on if you have some more ideas. Writing about the wrong topic won't get you marks and wastes time.

10. Talk the talk. The examiner will be looking for geographical words in your answers. There are marks available for using the right words, and for mentioning the right theories. Rather than writing 'the bend in the river', refer to it as a meander. Don't refer to a place as being 'left and up a bit from here, but say that it is to the North West of here. Using good geographical terminology shows that you know what you are talking about, that you understand what the specialist terms mean, and will impress the examiners. In short, it will help you to get more marks.

11.End well. The exam ends when either you've answered all the questions or you've run out of time. Obviously, the best way to end is by finishing the questions with a little time to spare, so you can read through and check your answers. If time beats you, try to scribble down a few things you were about to mention. You will have perhaps a few seconds to do this and anything more may be considered as cheating. Don't risk the cheating allegation - it's not worth it.

Assuming that you finish with a little time to spare, put it to good use. Go back to any questions where you've thought of something else you could mention, read through your answers to check spelling, diagrams and grammar. Remember that in every exam there are a few marks that may be deducted for poor spelling and grammar. Even if you think you've written everything you can remember, still read through what you've written. Something might suddenly come to mind. You can always add diagrams to clarify what you've written if there is nothing else to do. Don't be afraid to make corrections, but beware of changing things on a hunch. When it comes to gut feelings, the first guess is often the right one.

Check that you've used the right terms and units of measurement. If you've answered map work questions, have you got metres and kilometres after the distances and altitudes, scales on graphs, and titles to diagrams?

Make sure you've put your name and examination number on every sheet of paper you've used, including sheets used just for notes.

If you find yourself finished and you've checked your answers, you will just have to wait until everyone else finishes and the exam is over. Try to resist looking around too much if you've finished early, in case somebody thinks you are trying to look at other students and their answers. The alternatives are limited only by your imagination - how many ceiling tiles are there, how many bricks in that wall, and can I remember the French verb endings I'll need in the exam tomorrow..

Finally, make sure you collect up everything you came with, and leave the exam hall quietly.


After the Exam

There are highs and lows after an exam. You may be feeling great 'cos it wasn't as bad as you feared, or feeling terrible because it all seemed to go wrong. You can be certain that as you leave the exam everyone will start talking about it, asking about which questions you answered, discussing what the answers were, and generally analysing the experience. Unless you are super-confident and KNOW you had the right answers, it's usually best to avoid going into too much detail about who wrote what and which questions were the best ones to answer.

Why do I say this? Well, whatever you wrote in the exam can't be changed once the exam is over, so whether or not you got the answers right, there is nothing you can do to make it any better. If you want to know, just to satisfy your own curiosity, ask a teacher. Most will be happy to explain the question to you and suggest things you could have written, but they too won't want you worrying for ages about your own answers.

Most people who think they did well won't worry too much, but people who think that they failed or made silly mistakes can tear themselves apart worrying about it. Its a natural thing to do, but it won't achieve anything, so it's best to avoid the pain and misery if you can.

Chat about the exam if you must, but don't worry about it.

Take the worse case scenario in which you got all the wrong answers. Firstly, you can't do anything about it until you get the results and, secondly, you can always re-sit the exam at a later date if you want to try again. On the other hand, if you did well in the exam you have no need to worry about your performance anyway.

During the exam season you may be going from one exam to the next - possibly sitting two or more exams on the same day so it can be hard to enjoy the 'thank God that's over' feeling. It's worth rewarding yourself though when you've finished an exam. After all, you've just done your best under stressful circumstances and you've been working hard. If your exam timetable allows it, have a break, go out in the evening, take time out with friends or whatever you feel like doing, but save the big celebrations until all the exams are over. Tempting as it may be to go out partying after a particularly difficult exam, don't let the celebrations mess up the next exam! Arriving for an exam after too little sleep and perhaps too much alcohol is NOT a good plan. OK- got that - no boozing or partying until it's all over, not that you should be boozing anyway of course!

Unless you are 100 percent certain that you will never need your notes and books again, resist the temptation to throw them away / burn them or sell them to a younger student. If you pass the exam you may find your notes useful when you go on to the next level of study, and if you decide to re sit the exam you will need them for your revision. Store them away, out of sight, in a box, but keep them all for a while, then get rid of them only when you are sure you don't need them.

Oh, and don't forget that in some schools you may have paid a deposit on your text books. Return the books, help school, and get your money back!

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May 13, 2006