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CIPPET Study Support: 9. Preparing for exams and OSCEs

This guide will help you find resources, understand academic and reflective writing and help you prepare for your coursework and exams

Introduction

Few people genuinely enjoy exams. It is always anxiety-provoking when you feel you are being assessed and can be worse if you do not know how to best prepare. Feeling confident about these aspects will make the exam itself a less daunting experience.

The best possible way to feel less anxious about exams and assessments is to be prepared. That means doing your revision, getting used to writing by hand, practising writing timed exam answers, and getting yourself informed about what to expect when you get to the exam room. The less you leave to the last minute, the more relaxed you will feel, freeing yourself up to focus all your energy on getting the results you deserve. So thinking beforehand about the strategies you might use to plan and write your answers will help you to feel calmer and more prepared.

This information applies to professional exams (e.g. OSCEs, extended patient scenarios, vivas) in CIPPET as well as written exam papers.

There is information on preparing for essay exam questions in the link below, on the right-hand columns are boxes with information on multiple-choice and short answer questions.  On the bottom left is information on preparing for professional exams.

Getting organised

Read the module materials - most modules will have information on the assessments in the module handbook and in an exams overview presentation on Blackboard.  Make sure you read these to understand what is expected of you so you can organise what you need to prepare. 

Organise - start to organise your revision by selecting the topics you are going to revise for each exam paper or professional exam. Choose topics that are basic to the understanding of the subject. It is also a good idea to choose topics that you enjoy or already understand well.

Plan your time - be realistic and do not make a schedule that is too inflexible or onerous as you are less likely to stick to it. Some people work better under pressure, but do not leave it all till the last minute. You will probably need to allocate more time to topics you are less confident in, however tempting it is to just work on the ones you like.

Look at practice questions – these are usually provided by the CIPPET team throughout the module to give you the experience of the types of question that might be asked. Use them to practice reading and understanding the question; identifying topics; planning answers; and writing timed answers.

Engage with mock assessments - most modules will provide an opportunity to undertake preparation sessions or mock exams which provide you with a simulation of the assessment and exam conditions.  These are key opportunities to understand what the assessors are looking for and to help you reflect on how you need to prepare.

Find out what the examiner wants - examiners are looking for an understanding of the topic, not just a good memory. They want you to show that you can apply your knowledge to answer the question. So some of the questions you get may look as if they are not something you've been taught - but a bit of thinking will show you how you can apply the things you have been taught. Practise this skill before the exam by setting your revision in context – how does this topic link to others? What are the major debates and issues? Think critically: do you agree or disagree with what has been said? Can you explain why? Is there evidence for or against your view? And keep asking yourself, how would I use this information to answer a question?  For professional exams make sure you look at the mark schemes where they are provided in advance.

Professional exams

Professional examinations

These assessments provoke similar anxieties to giving presentations. In both cases, the more prepared you feel, the less anxious you will be.

Revising for a professional exam

  • Where a mark scheme has been provided read it in advance to understand what the assessors are looking for
  • Look at the learning outcomes mapped to the assessments in the module handbook to identify the topics that might come up
  • Take part in the practise and/or mock exams provided, these may be informal opportunities in workshops such as presentations to your peers or group work on activities (e.g. OSCE stations) - do not forget how valuable these opportunities are to preparing you
  • Practice with another student and/or workplace-based supervisors and peers to build confidence in talking about the topic(s)

Undertaking a professional exam

  • You should appear confident even if you are not, but remember not to appear arrogant or overstate your role/knowledge/skills - be honest
  • Smile when you enter the room and make eye contact during the exam, be polite and thank the examiner and actor when you leave
  • Breathe deeply and regularly to calm nerves, take a bottle of water in case your mouth is dry - slightly warm is better than ice-cold
  • Take your time - do not rush into giving an answer before you have thought about what you want to say, you will get confused and make mistakes
  • If you do not know the answer do not guess, explain how you would use resources in your practice to identify the answer - appear proactive in how you would close the gap in your knowledge/skills
  • Take a breath and think before you speak - the assessor will not penalise you for pausing before you give your answer
  • Listen to the whole question carefully before you start constructing your answer - it is tempting to latch on to one word that you recognise and start thinking of your answer, but you may miss an important part of the question.
  • Some people deal with public speaking best by putting on a 'disguise' - dressing more smartly than usual, or wearing glasses if you usually wear contact lenses, for instance; if you have not been provided with instructions on professional dress do not this gives you free rein to dress any way you want - remember these are professional exams so clean smart jeans and a T-shirt might be acceptable but tracksuit bottoms would not reflect well on your professionalism
  • If you want to wear a uniform or equivalent work dress to feel in the right frame of mind the assessors would encourage you to do so - they would prefer you to be comfortable than feeling awkward

Multiple choice questions

Multiple Choice Questions

These exams should be approached differently to papers that ask for essay-type answers. The answers required are usually more concerned with terms and definitions.  Before the exam make sure you understand, practise and engage with the question types:

  • 'Standard' MCQs: a range of answers are given to answer a question
  • Single best answer: a range of answers are given where more than one answer is correct but only one is the best answer
  • Extended matching: a series of questions are stated related to an extended list of options

Revising for multiple choice questions

  • Concentrate on terms and definitions - to learn things by rote, write information on a card and stick it somewhere you will look often e.g. by the kettle or in the bathroom; look at it for a day or so every time you pass by
  • Test yourself on facts - ty testing yourself about ten minutes after you're read something, if you remember it then, test yourself again after a day
  • Look out for other possible questions and answers while revising - think about the kind of questions that are asked in practice and mock papers

Answering multiple choice questions

  • Read the directions very carefully before you start
  • When looking at the questions, always try to work out what the answer is before you look at the possibilities
  • If you need one, use a ruler to make it easier to see where to enter each answer
  • Answer the questions you know first, mark the ones you are fairly sure of and go back to them - leave the difficult ones till last
  • Think about which answers which you know are incorrect and work out a strategy to identify the remaining options - if you have an open book exam this will save time looking up every answer
  • Remember that with MCQ exams you could get 100%, something that is pretty much impossible in an essay-type exam so do not dwell on a question - move on and come back to it if you have time
  • If you finish before the exam is finished, go back over your questions and answers to check for reading errors

Short answer questions

Short answer questions

These usually require a briefer and more descriptive answer than essay questions, which ask you to discuss and expand on a topic.

Revising for short answer questions

  • Short answer questions typically ask you to "explain", "define" or "list". Make sure you know which are the key terms and theories for your topic that you might be asked to communicate in these ways
  • As you are revising each topic, write a sheet of important points and summaries to get used to identifying and explaining significant ideas
  • Make sure you know the terms frequently used in short answer questions and understand what they are asking you to do
  • Practice writing succinct answers

Answering short answer questions

  • If your questions all ask for short answers with an equal number of marks for each, divide your time up equally for the total number of questions; otherwise, allocate your time according to the proportion of marks each question attract
  • If you have questions which are a mix of short and essay answers, check the details carefully so you do not miss answering part of the question
  • Each part of the question should show the maximum marks you can get for answering it; do not waste a lot of time worrying about a part of the question that only attracts a very few marks
  • Use parts of questions that ask for definitions or explanations to inform the longer, more discursive part of your answer; do not repeat the information you give in one part of the question in the other
  • If a question asks you to "briefly comment", treat it as a mini-essay - have a sentence or two to introduce your topic; select a few points to discuss with a sentence or two about each; add a concluding sentence that sums up your overall view
  • If you have trouble working out how to start answering a question that asks you to "explain", imagine you are telling a friend about the topic
  • Often, short answer questions on CIPPET exam papers can be answered without needing to use full written prose, but always check the exam format and instructions