Exams in the UK are usually taken in January and April/May. For some degree programmes you might not be required to sit formal exams in both or either of these exam periods – instead you might be asked to complete coursework during this period. If you are required to sit exams, you should be aware that the exam weeks usually come at the end of holiday breaks, which gives you ample time to prepare.
Essay exams: The most common type of examination in UK undergraduate degrees is the essay exam. Exams of this nature typically require students to complete 3-4 short essays on topics that test a student’s knowledge of the course material. Students are given 2-3 hours to complete these exams. Essay answers should contain as much relevant detail from your module as possible, to demonstrate the level of your understanding.
Multiple choice exams: These exams are comprised of a number of questions with a range of answers, or ‘choices’ provided. Students must select the answer that best fits the question. Many students consider these exams easier, because they only need to identify the correct answer among a group of 3-5 possibilities. However, most lecturers will include possible answers that seem correct, as a way of testing the accuracy of students’ knowledge.
Oral exams: Oral exams are most common to language programmes, but can also be found in many Humanities and even some Social Science subjects. Students are expected to answer questions posed to them by the examiner. This type of exam tests a student’s ability to apply the skills and knowledge from modules in an immediate, unplanned fashion. In addition, oral exams form a part of postgraduate assessments when students are asked to defend their dissertation through a presentation and question-and-answer session.
Open Book Exams: these exams are different from most traditional types of exams, because they allow students to bring a course book and/or their course notes with them to the exam.
We will now look at one type of exam in more detail: the Case-Based exam, sometimes called a Problem-Based exam. These are different from most traditional types of exam; They present students with a practical problem that must be solved by applying knowledge from the course material.
The advantage of Case study exams is that they allow students to demonstrate their practical understanding of the course topic rather than requiring them to memorise information. They focus on testing a student’s skill development instead of purely theoretical knowledge. One disadvantage is that they can be particularly challenging for students who experience exam stress, because they require clear thinking and an ability to make well-though-out choices in a short period of time.
Case study exams and Problem-Based Exams in the UK are used mostly in practical skills-based subjects like science, technology, and medicine. They are particularly useful when testing a student’s ability to solve the sort of problems they would encounter if employed in their field. For example, they might test a medical student’s ability to choose an appropriate course of treatment, or a chemistry student’s ability to conduct suitable laboratory procedures.
The Problem-Based and Case Study Exams require students to review the course material very thoroughly and ensure that they understand how theoretical information can be applied in real-life situations. Students in these exams must demonstrate that they not only know the course material, but they also understand its possible applications. This requires a different study approach than simple memorisation of facts and figures. In addition to ordinary study techniques, it can be particularly useful to practise mock questions. Lecturers will often provide students with the exam questions from previous years, and you can use these to hone your ability to apply course material under pressure.
In most case study exams you will not be allowed to bring anything with you other than a pen or pencil and perhaps a bottle of water. However, in some courses students are allowed to bring their course notes.
If students are allowed to bring their course notes to a case study exams, they should make sure that the notes are written clearly and are well-organised. Part of your revision process should include re-writing your exam notes, and organising them in a way that will allow you to find relevant information quickly. This may involve adding sticky notes to pages to identify their thematic content, or creating your own ‘index’ list. Regardless, you should ensure that your notes are written very clearly and concisely, but without leaving out key information.
The assessment criteria for Case-Based and Problem-Based Exams will vary according to the exam subject, so check your module handbook for more details. In general, examiners will be looking for evidence of clear understanding of the course material. In solving the case study or problem, students should try to demonstrate their detailed awareness of all relevant course material. One way to do this is to ensure that you write down all the steps in your problem-solving, referring to particular elements of the course material as you do so.
Case-Based exams are usually either Pass/Fail, or they are marked according to the standard UK grading scale, as follows:
70 and above = First class (A)
60-69 = Second class, first division (B)
49-59 = Second class, second division (C)
40-48 = Third class (D)
39 or below = Fail
In many degree programmes, students will be given a chance to re-sit exams if they fail or receive a very low mark. Check your programme handbooks for specific re-assessment criteria.
Understanding the format of exams is essential in helping you prepare properly. Once you know what will be expected, you will be able to spend your time studying in an appropriate way, and this will help you feel confident and relaxed when walking into the exam room!
ExamTime, 2012. Different Exams – Different Approaches. Available: http://www.examtime.com/exam-types-and-tips/. Last Accessed 10 Apr 2013.
Manchester University, 2013. Different Types of Exam. Available: http://www.humanities.manchester.ac.uk/studyskills/assessment_evaluation/assessment/exam_types.html. Last Accessed 10 Apr 2013.